John Blades, Tribune Staff Writer
February 19, 1997
O'Hare's father did have a legitimate (and apparently fatal) alliance with Al Capone, one that's haunted his family to this day. But Butch O'Hare earned his immortality through World War II valor, not clout, politics or philanthropy. According to military historians, he was the prototypical top gun, a Navy pilot who shot down five Japanese bombers and crippled a sixth during his first dogfight, two months after Pearl Harbor."In 1942, he was the most famous of all naval officers," says John B. Lundstrom, the co-author of "Fateful Rendezvous," a new biography of O'Hare. "But outside aviation circles, very few people today know what he actually did."
O'Hare's aerial dynamics, which brought him a Medal of Honor and three other combat citations, are thoroughly documented in Lundstrom's book, written with Steve Ewing and published by the Naval Institute Press (the publisher that launched Tom Clancy). Not only will "Fateful Rendezvous" resurrect a forgotten hero but it should help correct some lingering historical misconceptions about him--that he was accidentally shot down by a U.S. plane and that his father was a mobster, who informed on Capone so he could get Butch into the Naval Academy.
At the moment, O'Hare's accomplishments are recognized only by an inconspicuous plaque near the Delta security gates at the Chicago airport. But he'll be a far more visible presence this summer with the installation in Terminal 2 of a restored Grumman Wildcat--the type of plane he flew when he wiped out the enemy planes on Feb. 20, 1942--and a partial replica of the wooden deck of the aircraft carrier Lexington.
"He was a legitimate American hero at a really desperate time for the United States," says Richard C. Long, director of operations at the Air Classics Museum of Aviation in West Chicago, where the Wildcat is being rehabbed to its World War II condition and colors. "He kept the Lexington from being bombed or torpedoed, and his action may have altered the course of the war in the Pacific. The damaged carrier wouldn't have been able to take part in the Battle of the Coral Sea, two months later."
For all his daredeviltry, O'Hare was an "uncomfortable hero," according to Lundstrom and Ewing's composite portrait. Rather than a " Mickey Mouse" squadron leader, a ballistic hot warrior, they report in their biography, he was shy, relaxed, casual, overweight . . . "almost a slob."
After being awarded the Medal of Honor, O'Hare was brought home by the Navy to barnstorm on a Lindbergh-style celebrity tour. "Despite all this hoopla," says Lundstrom, "it never went to his head. He was a superb pilot, marksman, and an inspiration to the men in his command. What's remarkable about Butch is that after the tour was over, he went back into combat."
Death at night
Lt. Cmdr. O'Hare was 29 when he died in combat on Nov. 26, 1943, during one of the earliest nightfighter missions flown from an aircraft carrier, "an experiment in extremis," as the co-authors call it. Operating in darkness without radar, he and the other pilots in his Black Panther squadron briefly flicked on their cockpit lights while stalking enemy planes near Tarawa. For Butch, that turned into a "fateful rendezvous": His Hellcat (a fighter Grumman developed after the Wildcat), the authors speculate, was picked off by a "Betty," a Japanese land-based bomber.
Lundstrom and Ewing are convinced their reconstruction of O'Hare's last flight is militarily accurate, even though it's been generally assumed that he was brought down by "friendly fire" from a turret gunner in a U.S. Navy torpedo bomber, also involved in the skirmish.
"It was always believed that the turret gunner in the torpedo plane didn't know who he was firing at and had shot at Butch by mistake," says Lundstrom, curator of American and military history at the Milwaukee Public Museum. "But I've talked to all the living eyewitnesses, including the gunner, and found that he knew exactly which aircraft were the (U.S.) fighters and which was the (Japanese) bomber."
"I tried to locate the surviving Japanese fliers, but it turned out the group commander was killed during the war," adds Lundstrom, who's also the author of two "First Team" aerial combat histories. "His second in command lived until 1993, so I just missed him. They hadn't claimed any kills in the records, but that's understandable because the encounter was so fleeting--and Butch's plane wasn't smoking or burning when it went down--that they didn't bother to mention it."
Whatever happened in the night skies of the South Pacific, it was a wartime tragedy that not only cost O'Hare his life but a second Medal of Honor, Lundstrom believes. Though cited for "extraordinary heroism" and posthumously recommended for the medal, O'Hare was given the second highest award instead, the Navy Cross. "The controversy tainted the process," Lundstrom insists. "He should have gotten it."
In their efforts to set the record straight, Lundstrom and Ewing have provided a measure of consolation for O'Hare's survivors, among them his widow, Rita, who married an Annapolis classmate of Butch's in 1945, and his daughter, Kathi Nye, who was only 9 months old when her father was killed. "I had always heard that his plane had been shot down by somebody in his own squadron," Nye says, a "hazard of war" she'd accepted philosophically.
Besides the circumstances of his death, Nye says she learned much about her father's life from reading the manuscript of "Fateful Rendezvous," which follows him from his birth in St. Louis through Western Military Academy and Annapolis, in the years before Pearl Harbor. "I just never knew anything about his childhood at all, about how he met and courted my mother."
The Capone connection
O'Hare's early years, his impulsive courtship and marriage, his courage under fire were ready-made ingredients for Hollywood, which was turning out assembly-line movies about combat heroes, like "God Is My Co-Pilot," "Pride of the Marines," and "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," while the war was still in progress. But Butch's image was tarnished, the authors of "Fateful Rendezvous" are convinced, partly because his father, known as E.J., had operated dog tracks for Capone in Chicago, Miami and Boston, beginning in 1925.
It was apparently a legal arrangement, according to Lundstrom and Ewing, in which Capone recruited the senior O'Hare for his talents as a "counselor and business manager," not for his criminal expertise. The authors also found persuasive evidence that O'Hare had played an undercover role in helping the government convict Capone of income tax evasion in 1931. Though Capone was in prison (and Butch was stationed in Pensacola with the Navy) in November 1939, when E.J. O'Hare was shotgunned to death on a Chicago street, there was little doubt that Capone had him killed for informing.
Among the most persistent rumors to emerge from E.J.'s assassination was that he had betrayed Capone in a deal to get Butch admitted to Annapolis. "(Broadcaster) Paul Harvey started that," says Ewing, "and it's gone on and on. But there's no truth to it. Legend may be more interesting than fact, but that's not the way it worked. E.J. went to the Treasury Department simply to get Capone out of his business."
But the myth remained so durable, says Ewing, senior curator of Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Charleston, S.C., that "the O'Hare family was bound and determined there was never going to be a book or a movie about Butch. They turned down over 50 requests. They didn't know themselves whether their father was an innocent businessman who got caught up in the web or whether he was indeed in cahoots with Capone. They dearly loved him but if he was a criminal, they just didn't want to know."
The author of six other military histories, Ewing said he and Lundstrom were able to persuade the O'Hares that an "honest appraisal" was in their best interests, just to stop the rumors and speculation. After poring through government and family archives, they were almost as relieved as O'Hare's survivors to conclude that E.J.'s involvement with Capone was a case of poor judgment, and not a criminal conspiracy.
Other than through his father, Butch O'Hare had only loose ties to Chicago. When his parents were divorced, he stayed in St. Louis with his mother, moving his family to Phoenix during the war. That was no deterrent to Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick in his campaign to have Chicago's Orchard Place Airport rechristened to honor Butch O'Hare, and in 1949 Ald. John Hoellen's proposal passed the City Council, creating O'Hare Field.
A restored treasure
The publication of "Fateful Rendezvous" was meant to coincide with the dedication of the restored Wildcat at O'Hare, but red tape delayed the transfer of the aircraft from a Marine museum at El Toro, Calif. Once it arrives at the Air Classics Museum of Aviation here, it will be restored to its combat colors, a paint job that will include five "rising suns" below the canopy, symbolizing the Japanese kills that made Butch O'Hare the Navy's first World War II ace.
On loan from the Navy, the Wildcat was originally retrieved not from some aviation dry dock but from the waters of Lake Michigan, according to Richard Long of the Air Classics Museum. Used to train carrier pilots off converted lake steamers, the Wildcats were dumped overboard when they were no longer airworthy.
Of the approximately 100 aircraft junked in the lake, only five Wildcats have been recovered, Long says, making the one displayed at O'Hare a "national treasure." The $150,000 project, underwritten by the McDonald's Corp., could open as early as June, Long says, and will be supported by four model planes and information kiosks prominently stationed in other terminals, making travelers aware of Butch's war record and calling attention to the main display.
The O'Hare exhibit will avoid the controversial question of how Butch died (as well as his father's link to Capone). For a complete, and presumably accurate, version, the curious will have to consult "Fateful Rendezvous."
"Nobody can say with absolute certainty," says co-author Lundstrom, "but the evidence is much, much stronger that he was shot down by the Japanese and not by his own side. We've laid out our case, and I think the book will make a strong impact."
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