Edward "Butch" O'Hare

Each year more than 65 million people pass through Chicago’s O'Hare Airport, but few stop in at Terminal 2, just behind security check in, where a small World War II fighter plane is on display. The plane, a Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat, stands as a testament to one of Chicago's favorite sons: U.S. Navy fighter pilot Lt. Cmdr. Edward "Butch" O'Hare.

A Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat on Display in Terminal 2 at O'hare Airport.
It is identical to the one flown by Edward O'Hare (Wikimedia Commons)

O'Hare moved to Chicago as a teenager, where he showed interest in the armed forces. His father was a lawyer for Chicago mobster Al Capone, and he turned state's evidence in what some historians suspect was part of a deal to get his son into the prestigious Western Military Academy. Whether or not his father's testimony helped in, Butch was admitted to the Academy and graduated in 1932. He then went on to study at the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating with the rank of ensign in 1937. He was called up to active combat duty after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

O'Hare served in combat operations in the Pacific and on Feb. 20, 1942, was called upon to defend the aircraft carrier USS Lexington from an attack by nine Japanese "Betty" bombers. With the rest of the carrier's fighters engaged elsewhere and his wingman's gun jammed, O'Hare had to face down the bombers alone. According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, O'Hare succeeded in shooting down five bombers; the rest were brought down by the Lexington's anti-aircraft guns. After landing back aboard the Lexington, O'Hare discovered that through the entire dogfight, his plane had only been struck by one bullet.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt congratulates Lt. "Butch" O'Hare
upon receipt of America's highest award,The Medal of Honor. (US Navy)

His performance that night earned him the designation "ace," as well as the Congressional Medal of Honor, making him the first naval pilot in history to receive that honor. In a letter to employees at the Grumman factory, O'Hare gave much of the credit for his success to the plane he piloted, saying, "You build them, we'll fly them, and between us, we can't be beaten." O'Hare became something of a celebrity, but to the pilots under his command, he was always just "Butch.”

His service came to an end on the night of Nov. 26, 1943 when he was just 29, during a mission to shoot down Japanese torpedo planes threatening the carrier group. O'Hare's plane took heavy fire and fell out of formation to the ocean below. No trace of him or his plane was ever found. O’Hare was declared missing in action and officially declared dead one year later.

In 1949 Col. Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, began a campaign to rename Chicago's airport, then known as Orchard Field, in honor of O'Hare and his service to the country. As long as people continue to fly through the airport that bears his name, O’Hare won’t be forgotten.

Written by Seth Joseph