Honor the Past – Inspire the Future – LCDR O’Hare Remembered

Editor’s note:

On Friday, February 17th, Vice Admiral Cullom, along with Chicago’s Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, honored the toughness of LCDR Edward O’Hare.

Biographical Vignette by Mario Demarco for "NAVY TIMES," giving details of Lieutenant O'Hare's Air Combat exploits that won him the Medal of Honor in 1942.

Biographical Vignette by Mario Demarco for “NAVY TIMES,” giving details of Lieutenant O’Hare’s Air Combat exploits that won him the Medal of Honor in 1942.

75 years ago, on February 20th, 1942, during the early days of World War II, without supporting aircraft and without hesitation, O’Hare challenged nine enemy bombers headed for the carrier Lexington. For his daring and skill in shooting down five of the enemy planes and thus saving the carrier from serious damage, he was awarded the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony.

O’Hare is one example that more than battles and bullets, our Sailors’ toughness, initiative, accountability, and integrity made us victorious. Today, inspired by the same attributes as “The Greatest Generation,” Sailors and civilians carry on a two-century tradition of warfighting excellence, adaptation and resilience.

Promotion, command responsibility, and additional examples of heroism followed in subsequent actions.  Sadly, LCDR O’Hare was reported missing when his plane was lost during enemy action in the vicinity of Tarawa Atoll on November 26, 1943. He was declared dead November 27, 1944. Today, we remember his WWII heroism throughout the nation. In 1945, a year after his death, the Navy named destroyer DD 889 in his honor, and the crew of USS O’Hare carried his legacy forward. Today, millions walk through the Chicago O’Hare International Airport named in his honor. Below are VADM Cullom’s remarks given during the commemoration at O’Hare’s most notable place of remembrance.


Vice Admiral Philip Cullom:

Mayor Emanuel, Alderman Burke, Alderman Balcer, family members of the late Lt. Cmdr. O’Hare, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen—and I want to give a special shout out to the Junior ROTC cadets from Rickover Naval Academy and Taft High School—thank you all for joining us here this morning.

When most people in the traveling public and most Chicagoans hear the name “O’Hare” they typically think of one of the world’s busiest airports.  Little thought is given to the namesake of O’Hare International Airport.  Questions of who the namesake was and what he did to have an airport named after him rarely enter the public’s mind.

This problem was something the famous editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Col. Robert McCormick, lamented back in 1947.  Back then, McCormick was concerned with the public’s forgetfulness associated with our war heroes:

“I have been thinking about our heroes—and about what happens to them during war and after . . . how fleeting is the expression of that gratitude to men who have served beyond the call of duty.  We were unconscionably forgetful of our heroes after World War I.  We are on the way to being equally forgetful of the heroes of World War II.” – Col. Robert McCormick

So as not to forget, this year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Lt. Cmdr. Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare’s heroic actions as a naval aviator in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

170217-N-SI684-04 (Feb. 17, 2017) CHICAGO – 14th Ward Alderman Edward Burke, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, and Vice Adm. Philip H. Cullom, deputy chief of naval operations for Fleet Readiness and Logistics, present Dr. Butch O’Hare Palmer (nephew of Lt. Cmdr. O’Hare) with City Council resolution that recognizes Monday, Feb. 20, 2017 as Lt. Cmdr. Edward “Butch” O’Hare Day in the city of Chicago.  (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey S. Gray/Released)

170217-N-SI684-04 (Feb. 17, 2017) CHICAGO – 14th Ward Alderman Edward Burke, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, and Vice Adm. Philip H. Cullom, deputy chief of naval operations for Fleet Readiness and Logistics, present Dr. Butch O’Hare Palmer (nephew of Lt. Cmdr. O’Hare) with City Council resolution that recognizes Monday, Feb. 20, 2017 as Lt. Cmdr. Edward “Butch” O’Hare Day in the city of Chicago. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey S. Gray/Released)

That is why we are here today.  To remember and never forget a man who demonstrated the qualities of courage and selflessness when his shipmates and nation needed him most.  It was those collective qualities that made Butch O’Hare a hero—these are the qualities that made Butch O’Hare a legend.

Our Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson strongly encourages the men and women of the Navy to study the Navy’s history and learn from its hero’s of the past.  He wants our sailors to find inspiration from the hero’s of the past because “they will provide the wind that will fill your sails and carry you forward.”

Butch O’Hare’s remarkable story is one that our sailors, as well as the youth in our nation’s schools, need to learn and appreciate.

As the story goes, it was the afternoon of February 20, 1942, Lt. O’Hare and his wingman Lt. j.g. Marion “Duff” Dufilho took off from the aircraft carrier Lexington to intercept a group of nine Imperial Japanese attack bombers.  While on their way to intercept the bombers, Duff discovered his guns were jammed.  

Immediately, Butch ordered Duff back to the Lexington.  Quickly assessing the situation, Butch understood that he was the only thing standing between the “Lady Lex” and the advancing Imperial Japanese bombers.  With the element of surprise, Butch descended from above and single-handedly shot down five enemy aircraft and saved the Lexington and his shipmates.

For his courage and selflessness, Butch received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, after which he spent approximately a year as a poster child for the war effort, making appearances to help encourage enlistments and sell war bonds by talking about the combat mission that almost took his life.

Photo #: 80-G-K-892-A () Lieutenant Edward H. Butch O'Hare, USN Stands by the tail of an F4F Wildcat fighter, circa April-May 1942. Note his parachute pack. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Photo #: 80-G-K-892-A () Lieutenant Edward H. Butch O’Hare, USN Stands by the tail of an F4F Wildcat fighter, circa April-May 1942. Note his parachute pack. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Itching to get back into the fight and knowing full well that men he flew with still risked their lives Butch asked to be released from his public affairs duties and sent back to the war.  Butch was sent back to the Pacific and took command of Carrier Air Group Six aboard the USS Enterprise.  On the evening of November 26, 1943, Butch led one of the first night missions launched from an aircraft carrier.  It is not clear what happened, but one plausible theory has it that a Japanese bomber shot Butch down from behind and his aircraft crashed into the ocean in the pitch dark night.  Despite search and rescue efforts, Butch and his aircraft were never recovered.

Butch’s courageous action not only provided a spark of hope during the grim and arduous period of time in the Pacific Theater—it also aided in initiating some needful innovative techniques of nighttime aerial warfare.

In honor of his gallant and dedicated service the Navy named a destroyer, the USS O’Hare in honor of Butch, and in September of 1949 Orchard Field was renamed Chicago-O’Hare International Airport as a tribute to Butch’s heroism.

One final note on this story, in March 1963 President John F. Kennedy and Mayor Richard J. Daley formally dedicated O’Hare International Airport.

In his remarks, President Kennedy, a former naval officer, spoke of O’Hare’s courage and selflessness:

“I remember as a young naval officer myself how the extraordinary feat of “Butch” O’Hare captured the imagination not only of our Armed Forces but also of the country.  His extraordinary act in protecting his ship, shooting down, while he was alone, shooting down five of the enemy, during difficult days in the Second War, gave this country hope and confidence not only in the quality and caliber of our fighting men, but also in the certainty of victory.” – President Kennedy 

In closing, apart from his gallantry and intrepidity in aerial combat Lt. Cmdr. Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare was known as a humble man who never sought recognition for his contributions.  He most likely considered himself an ordinary person.  But isn’t that the definition of a hero, an ordinary person accomplishing extra-ordinary things.  For many military historians, Butch is considered to be one of the greatest heroes in military aviation history.  I can back that claim up by quoting directly from Butch’s Congressional Medal of Honor citation, “Without hesitation, alone and unaided, he repeatedly attacked this enemy formation, at close range in the face of intense combined machine gun and cannon fire … one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation.”

The example and legacy of Butch O’Hare is something worth preserving and handing down to future generations.  On behalf of a grateful Navy, I commend the leadership of this great city for the continued commemoration and not forgetting the service and sacrifice of a national hero.

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