80 Years Ago Today, Catholic WWII Hero Edward O’Hare Flew His Final Mission

We find comfort in knowing what Jesus Christ the King has promised to those who believe in him and follow him.

Lt. Edward “Butch” O’Hare sits in the cockpit of his Grumman F4F “Wildcat” fighter, circa spring 1942. The plane is marked with five Japanese flags, representing the five enemy bombers he shot down.
Lt. Edward “Butch” O’Hare sits in the cockpit of his Grumman F4F “Wildcat” fighter, circa spring 1942. The plane is marked with five Japanese flags, representing the five enemy bombers he shot down. (photo: U.S. Navy / Office of War Information / National Archives)

The World War II fighter plane displayed in Terminal 2 at busy O’Hare Airport in Chicago reminds travelers of the airport’s namesake: Edward Henry O’Hare, one of the first heroes of the war. He shot down five Japanese bombers in minutes in February 1942, staving off a catastrophic attack on a massive aircraft carrier. Nearly two years later, 80 years ago this month, his plane was shot down. His remains were never found.

But there is more to the story. O’Hare’s family encapsulates the deepest and most profound truths about life: sin, sacrifice and redemption. As we celebrate the Month of All Souls, his family’s startling history is a testament to Jesus’ teachings about who we are, what we are meant to be, and God’s abiding mercy, even for those enmeshed in mortal sin.

O’Hare was the son of a notorious Chicago lawyer, Edgar “Easy Eddie” O’Hare. In the 1920s, in Chicago, he became a business partner of gangster Al Capone. The two became rich running dog tracks in multiple cities. But his conscience gnawed at him, especially after the brutal St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago of rival gang members in 1929.

O’Hare met with an IRS agent and turned over Capone’s financial records. Capone was convicted of tax evasion. O’Hare paid a price for testifying against the mob boss and sending him to prison. In 1939, one week before Capone was scheduled to be released, O’Hare was gunned down while driving from work to his home.

In his pocket, police found a rosary, a crucifix and a religious medallion. His faith had come to the forefront after years of doing wrong. Jesus did preach that God’s love and mercy is for all, even the worst sinners. The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) explains that God welcomes all into his Kingdom, even those who become faithful “late in the day.”

Despite his faults, Easy Eddie had always tried to steer his son, known as “Butch,” toward virtue and honest work as a boy in St. Louis. He enrolled him in a military academy to teach him discipline, introduced him to flying as a teenager and encouraged him to become a Navy pilot.

In 1941, shortly before the war began, Butch met Rita Wooster, a nurse, and he fell in love and quickly asked her to marry him. She said she would marry only a Catholic, and Butch’s divorced mother, who was not Catholic, had largely neglected his religious training. “I’ll convert,” he told Rita, and six weeks after meeting, they were married at St. Mary’s Church in Phoenix.

By all accounts, Butch embraced his faith and incorporated it into his daily actions. That was never more clear than on the February day in 1942 when he confronted a squadron of Japanese aircraft in the South Pacific. The rest of the fighter planes protecting the USS Lexington were on a sortie. The only protection the ship had against the wave of bombers was Butch’s fighter plane. The predicament went from bad to worse when the machine guns of his wingman, Duff Dufilho, jammed. Thanks to his skills and courage, Butch rapidly shot down five planes and succeeded in driving off the attackers.

The war had been going poorly until then, and Butch’s heroism brought him a Medal of Honor, a trip to the White House to meet President Franklin Roosevelt, and a huge parade in St. Louis.

His final mission came when he was protecting the USS Enterprise. Twenty enemy planes were fought off. Butch’s plane was the sole U.S. plane that was lost. A solemn Requiem Mass was held at the Cathedral of St. Louis in December 1943. He died bravely fighting godless fascism. Like his father, what Jesus taught rang true: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:21).

The replica of his plane, as well as his statue and Medal of Honor, grace the O’Hare Airport terminal and keep his memory alive. For those we love whose earthly lives are gone, we have gravesites to visit, photos to ponder, and memories to cherish this month. We find comfort in knowing God’s kingdom is promised to those who believe in him and follow him.

Jay Copp is the author of 150 People, Places and Things You Never Knew Were Catholic (OSV).

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