The Heroic Story of America's Original 'Top Gun'

The Heroic Story of America's Original 'Top Gun'

(Hint: It's not Tom Cruise)

Key Point: More than seven decades after Butch O’Hare’s exploits, many people—even those from Chicago—don’t know much, if anything, about the man for whom Chicago's airport is named.

Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare rocketed to fame in February 1942 by singlehandedly taking on eight Japanese torpedo bombers bent on destroying the aircraft carrier USS Lexington and shooting down several of them. For this deed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decorated him with the Medal of Honor. Just 21 months later, he was dead, killed off the Gilbert Islands in the Central Pacific while engaged in night-fighting combat.

To honor his sacrifice, one of the world’s busiest airports, Chicago’s O’Hare International, was named after him. It’s a constant reminder of who Butch O’Hare was and the sacrifice he made.

Butch, however, was not the first in his family to create headlines. His father, Edward “E.J.” O’Hare, first the owner of a trucking company and later an attorney, was gunned down in 1939 on orders from infamous Chicago mobster Al Capone.

As president of Sportsman’s Park, a now vanished Cicero racetrack just outside Chicago’s western limits, E.J. was privy to many of Capone’s illegal activities because Capone and his associates were also entwined in the operation of the racetrack. From 1930 to the time of his death, E.J. was an active undercover participant in the Treasury Department’s investigation and conviction of Capone on charges of tax evasion. Capone eventually learned of E.J’s role, which cost him his life.

Although E.J. lived in Chicagoland for many years, St. Louis was home for Butch while growing up. With him were two sisters, Patsy and Marilyn, and mother Selma.

When he was 13, Butch was whisked across the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois, and Western Military Academy, a private military school about 25 miles from St. Louis. Interestingly, among his best friends there was Paul Tibbets, who later became the U.S. Army Air Forces colonel who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Holidays and summers Butch spent back home in Missouri, where he continued practicing hunting and shooting—skills that would one day serve him well. By the age of 15 he had had his first experience with flying, as E.J. arranged to get him into a plane and even spend some time handling the controls.

The five years he spent at Western Military Academy were, by all accounts, good ones. His grades were solid, he played some football, and he was an excellent swimmer. He also began to shed some of the shyness and lack of self-confidence that had worried his parents when they first chose to send him to the academy.

In September 1932, E.J. and Butch’s mother Selma divorced. By that time E.J. had become part of the horse racing business in Chicago. Much of his time had to be spent there, and Selma wasn’t well suited to that life.

Speculation has centered on exactly what caused E.J. to put his life at risk to help the Treasury Department go after Capone. E.J.’s connection to the Feds was through Frank Wilson, a Treasury Department official loaned in 1928 to the Criminal Investigation Division of the IRS for the purpose of investigating Capone. By 1930, E.J. was providing Wilson with information that led to Capone’s conviction. In fact, once Capone died in prison in 1947, Wilson stated openly, “On the inside of the gang I had one of the best undercover men I have ever known: Eddie O’Hare.”

Some have also speculated that E.J. worked with the government to avoid having his own less than squeaky clean income tax situation investigated. Another theory is that by helping put Capone in jail, E.J. would be removing from his own racetrack business a man known not only for illegal activities but also behavior as heinously violent as Chicago’s 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

One other thing about E.J. should be stressed. He did not want his son to follow in his footsteps in the gaming business. Noting that by the time Butch was graduating from the Western Military Academy the boy had begun to show a keen interest in flying, E.J. did everything to leverage this passion in any way he could.

E.J. was no doubt pleased when, in 1932, Butch applied to the U.S. Naval Academy and passed his entrance tests on his second try. On June 3, 1937, he graduated, ranking 255th out of 323. Few knew that World War II was around the corner, and who could have guessed that 41 members of the Class of 1937 would lose their lives in that conflict?

In Butch’s first assignment, he spent two years aboard the battleship USS New Mexico (BB-40) before heading off for preliminary flight training. He was stunned when he was informed that his father had been shot to death while driving his car in Chicago on November 8, 1939, most likely by Capone’s gunmen.

By 1940, when he was assigned to the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Florida, to train in Naval Aircraft Factory N3N-1 “Yellow Peril” planes and Stearman NS-1 biplane trainers, one thing was becoming abundantly clear: Butch O’Hare excelled at aerial gunnery.

When he was assigned to the fighting squadron VF-3, his commander was Lt. Cmdr. John (Jimmy) Thach, one of the Navy’s top airmen. Thach had come up with something called the “Bitching Team,” which consisted of a group of VF-3’s most highly skilled and experienced pilots.

One of these aces would take a newcomer into the air for a mock dogfight. Thach’s experience had taught him that the best approach was to gain altitude and then swoop down on an opponent’s tail, where he could home in for the kill. Few rookies mastered this skill quickly, but when Butch was so tested, by Thach himself no less, the rookie won the day. Thach was so impressed that he made Butch part of the Bitching Team.

Under Thach’s tutelage, Butch’s skills grew rapidly. Thach was greatly impressed by what Butch was able to get a plane to do. “He didn’t try to horse it around,” said Thach many years later in an oral history recording. “He learned a thing that a lot of youngsters don’t learn[:] that when you’re in a dogfight with somebody, it isn’t how hard you pull back on the stick to make a tight turn to get inside of him, it’s how smoothly you fly the plane.”

Thach attributed it to Butch’s acute and innate sense of timing and relative motion. Thach also admired Butch’s eagerness to read anything he could lay his hands on that might help him in aerial gunnery and his quick understanding of what he read. As Thach put it, “Butch just picked it up faster than anyone else I’ve seen.”

Apparently that wasn’t the only thing he did with remarkable celerity. On July 21, 1941,while at the hospital to visit a friend whose wife had just given birth, Butch met Rita Wooster, a nurse attending the new mother. When Rita’s shift ended, Butch drove her home. Upon arrival, he asked her to marry him. She pointed out that they’d only met that day, that she was several years younger, and that he wasn’t a Catholic as she was. None of it mattered, he replied, adding that he’d take instructions to convert. Six weeks later, they were married.

Three months after the nuptials, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. On the morning of December 8, 1941, Butch and the rest of VF-3 were on their way to Hawaii to learn how and where they’d be deployed now that war had begun.

By mid-December they were onboard the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) headed west for Wake Island as part of Task Force 14. VF-3’s first loss occurred on December 22, when a plane piloted by Lieutenant Victor M. Gadrow had engine trouble that led to his crashing and sinking in rough seas.

A few days later, TF-14 was recalled to Pearl, so Butch and company saw no action at Wake Island. By December 31, the Saratoga was back at sea and heading west. That trip was cut short the evening of Sunday, January 11, 1942, when a Japanese torpedo struck the Saratoga. She was able to limp back to Pearl, but she was no longer part of the Butch O’Hare story. VF-3, with a full complement of 18 Grumman F4F Wildcats, was now attached to the “Lady Lex”—the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2).

On January 31, 1942, the Lexington was sent south as part of Task Force 11 under Vice Admiral Wilson Brown, Jr. VF-3 suffered its second fatality onboard the Lexington on February 8. Edward Frank Ambrose was crushed due to a malfunction in a block-and-tackle arrangement used to start the fighter planes’ engines.

February 13 saw the Lexington in the Solomon Islands in the Southwest Pacific, and Butch expected to be on combat air patrol shortly. But while some members of VF-3 were indeed sent airborne, including Thach, Butch’s orders were to stay in reserve. Thach downed a Japanese reconnaissance plane, as did Burt Stanley, another member of VF-3. Back onboard the Lexington, they described to their squadron comrades what VF-3’s first two kills had been like. According to Thach, Butch, having been kept in reserve so far, was pretty much fit to be tied.