Edward O'Hare - the Name Behind Chicago's Famous Airport

O'Hare Airport is One of the Busiest Airports in the Nation

Most travelers in the U.S. if they haven't visited Chicago have probably at least spent some time in Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Until recently O'Hare Airport held the title for being the busiest airport in the United States and one of the busiest in the world.

According to Wikipedia, O'Hare International Airport held the record for the handling the most passenger traffic annually from 1962 - 1998 and for the most airline arrivals and departures per year from 1962 - 1998 and again from 2001 - 2004 when it temporarily regained the title.

Ironically, its older, but much smaller sibling, Chicago's Midway Airport held the title as the busiest airport from 1932 to 1962 and, prior to World War II Midway had the distinction of being the origin or destination of one quarter of all airline flights each year.

Of course, a major reason for all this air traffic was due in large part to the fact that, until the 1980s, Chicago was not only the second largest city, in terms of population, in the nation after New York City, but also the commercial and financial capital of the American Midwest. Much of the air traffic in and out Midway and later O'Hare airport carried business travelers to and from Chicago.

Some Airports are Named After Famous Aviators

But the real story here is not the airport itself but the man after whom the airport was named.

Just as San Diego International Airport is known as Lindbergh Field in honor of the famous aviator Charles A. Lindbergh (who took off from that airport in his newly completed airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, on his flight to New York City from where he went on to make history with the first non-stop New York to Paris flight in 1927), and the Milwaukee's General Mitchell Field named in honor of local son, General Billy Mitchell, (who, in the 1930s proved that an airplane could sink a naval ship and later faced court martial partly as a result of the enemies he had made in the War and Navy Departments for embarrassing them with reality), so too is O'Hare International Airport named after a famous Chicago aviator, Naval Lieutenant Commander Edward "Butch" O'Hare.

If you have ever killed time between flights at O'Hare International Airport by walking around that airport you may have noticed the memorial, consisting of a model of his World War II Navy fighter plane, a bust and a plaque, to Lt. Cdr. O'Hare in the main section of Terminal 2.

Edward "Butch" O'Hare is a genuine aviation hero, having become the Navy's first ace in World War II as well as the first Naval aviator to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War II.

He earned both of these distinctions for single handily attacking and shooting down five Japanese bombers intent on attacking the aircraft carrier the USS Lexington which was on a mission to attack Japanese shipping in the Japanese held waters off the coast of New Guinea.

The Man for Whom the Airport Was Named was Even More Impressive

However, the story of Butch O'Hare is even more interesting and colorful.

Edward "Butch" O'Hare was born in St. Louis on March 13, 1914. Following his parents divorce, Butch and his sisters moved with their father, Edward Joseph O'Hare, also known as "Easy Eddie", to Chicago. "Easy Eddie" was a lawyer who can be best described is ethically challenged but very successful financially. "Easy Eddie" was involved in a business relationship with the inventor of the mechanical rabbit which was used to get the dogs running in dog races.

Following the death of his partner, "Easy Eddie" not only assumed control of the business but, as executor of the gentleman's estate, managed to pocket most of the estate himself leaving the deceased's widow to fend for herself.

With the mechanical rabbit he became deeply involved in managing dog racing and with the mob bosses intent on fixing the races. This connection with the mob brought him into contact with Al Capone with whom he became a friend and business associate. As a result of these connections "Easy Eddie" became very wealthy.

However, despite "Easy Eddie's" lack of ethics in his professional life he did seem to be a good father who expected his children to adhere to a much higher ethical standard than the one he lived by.

"Easy Eddie" became intrigued with flying early on and, upon making an acquaintance with Charles Lindbergh, who was working as a pilot out of St. Louis, managed to ride with Lindbergh on a number of occasions as Lindbergh made his mail runs or other commercial flights. "Easy Eddie" even took his teenage son Butch on some of these flights where Lindbergh often let the youth take the controls while in flight. He also purchased a .22 caliber rifle for Butch who soon became a very good marksman. The flying and marksmanship would later come in handy when Butch was a naval aviator in the South Pacific theater of the war.

In 1927 when Butch was 13, his father became concerned that his son was becoming lazy and unfocused. Not wanting to see Butch grow up and join the ranks of the idle rich, the elder Edward enrolled his son in Western Military Academy, a military boarding school, from where young Edward graduated in 1932.

Once out of WMA, young Edward decided that he wanted to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Entry into the nation's military academies at Annapolis, West Point (and now Colorado Springs for the much younger Air Force Academy which didn't exist in 1932) is by mainly by Congressional appointment. Each Congressman and U.S. Senator gets to appoint one young man or woman (in O'Hare's day it was just men who were appointed).

At the same time that young Edward was expressing interest in the Naval Academy, Federal prosecutors were zeroing in on "Easy Eddie's" buddy in crime, Al Capone. Capone, of course had a notorious reputation for being a master criminal with a long list of crimes, including murder, connected with his name.

However, the government had never been able to produce enough evidence to convict him of any of these crimes. Giving up on the real crimes, the Government, instead, decided to go after Capone for income tax evasion which, unlike most nations of the world, is a crime in the United States. Better still, the tax laws are so complicated that even the IRS, which is charged with collecting the taxes and enforcing the tax laws, doesn't understand them, making it easy for a taxpayer to unknowingly violate the law.

But even here, the Government needed help and help came in the form of "Easy Eddie" O'Hare who turned on Capone and provided the government with critical information that led to the conviction of Al Capone.

There have been some who have claimed that young Edward O'Hare received his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in exchange for his father helping to convict Capone. Others have claimed that the senior O'Hare suddenly saw the light and decided to go straight. More than likely, the senior O'Hare decided it was smarter, in the short run at least, to work with the government in order to avoid being dragged down with Capone.

There has never been any evidence to prove that young Edward O'Hare got into the Naval Academy in exchange for his father's helping to convict Capone. Other sources have claimed that it was unlikely that there was an exchange of favors as the senior O'Hare had already lined up as many as three Congressmen willing to make the appointment. Since this was Chicago, whose politicians have a reputation for being brought and sold as easy as soybeans and pork bellies are exchanged on the Chicago Commodity Exchange, this is more likely what happened.

Regardless, young Edward O'Hare, in addition to being innocent of his father's shady dealings, was well qualified to enter the Academy and probably could have made it on his own if admission had been based on merit alone. He certainly proved his worth in the war that followed his graduation from the Academy.

As for Edward "Easy Eddie" O'Hare he was killed by a hail of machine gun bullets while driving his car in Chicago on November 18, 1939 shortly after Al Capone was released from Alcatraz. His killing was more than likely ordered by Capone, but neither Capone nor "Easy Eddie's" assassins were ever brought to justice for this crime.

Young Edward graduated from Annapolis in 1937 and, after some duty at sea, entered Naval flight training at the Navy's Pensacola Naval Air Station in 1939 where he earned his aviator's wings. While stationed with the aircraft carrier the USS Enterprise in San Diego in 1941 he met Rita, his future wife. Future, in this case, being six weeks later as he supposedly proposed marriage on the first date and managed to marry her before the Enterprise sailed for Hawaii. In fact they honeymooned in Hawaii with Edward traveling there on the Enterprise and Rita on a passenger liner.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Edward, already a serving naval officer and aviator began to see action immediately.

February 20, 1942, a little more than two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, found Lieutenant Commander Edward "Butch" O'Hare on an aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington, operating in Japanese controlled seas off the coast of New Guinea. Radar was just being developed in those days and the main way of spotting enemy planes and ships was through the use of spotter planes. The Lexington had been spotted by a Japanese spotter plane which its fighters had shot down but not before the Japanese plane had radioed their position. Japanese bombers were then dispatched to attack the Lexington while it dispatched its fighters to find and intercept them.

One version of the story has O'Hare taking off with his group but, upon discovering that his fuel tanks had not been topped off, was ordered to return to the ship. Another has the other fighters separating and heading toward a group of bombers in the distance when Edward suddenly saw five other bombers rapidly approaching the Lexington. In either case, he and his wing man were the only defenders standing between five approaching Japanese bombers and the Lexington. He and his wing man immediately went after the bombers. However, the wing man's machine gun jammed forcing him to go back to the Lexington, leaving O'Hare to fight the Japanese alone. While the bombers were not accompanied by a fighter escort, they were well armed. Nevertheless, O'Hare charged them and, while taking some hits to his plane, succeeded in downing all five bombers. His teenage marksmanship came into play here because when his plane was examined after the battle it was discovered that he had averaged a mere 60 rounds of ammunition per bomber destroyed. For this he not only became the Navy's first Ace of the war but also became the Navy's first aviator to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War II.

Unfortunately, a little over a year later, on the night of November 27, 1943 O'Hare lost his life when his plane was shot down during an operation near the island of Tarawa in the Gilbert chain.

O'Hare was only twenty-nine years old and left behind his wife Rita and their young child. O'Hare's skill and bravery undoubtedly saved the Lexington and its crew on that day in February 1942 which meant that many Marines and Naval personnel survived the war thanks to O'Hare's skill in attacking and destroying enemy firepower before it did more damage to our other soldiers and sailors.

Today, O'Hare International Airport stands as a living aviation memorial to this brave young aviator.

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Comments 2 comments

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Babblelot 5 years ago from Chicago

Outstanding! I've been in Chicago for 20 years and the only backstory I've ever heard about O'Hare is that it got its airport code, ORD, from being laid on top of an orchard. More Capone conections, I love it. I live in Uptown near the Green Mill, Capone's favorite speakeasy.


KellyEngaldo 7 years ago

I love biographies and the meaning behind the name. What an extensive research project. Kudos for your effort and excellence! I have read the story before but needed a reminder of the heroic efforts.

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