Out of the underworld, into the skies

An Irishman’s Diary on the fall and rise of an American family

US medal of honor recipient Edward “Butch” O’Hare:  rumours would persist for decades – and maybe still do – that his admission to the US Naval Academy was part of his father’s pay-off for taking down Al Capone.

US medal of honor recipient Edward “Butch” O’Hare: rumours would persist for decades – and maybe still do – that his admission to the US Naval Academy was part of his father’s pay-off for taking down Al Capone.

Thu, Mar 20, 2014, 15:08

The electric hare on which the sport of greyhound racing depends was invented in 1912 by a man with the prosaic name of Smith. It’s an amusing irony, however, that when Smith died in 1927, the patent for the device passed into the ownership of his business partner, one Edgar O’Hare, better known as Eddie.

The latter’s surname is now immortalised, for reasons that have nothing to do with greyhounds, by one of the world’s busiest airports, in Chicago – a remarkable turnaround in his family’s fortunes, to which we’ll return shortly. First I need to explain what happened to to the unfortunate Eddie, and the part the mechanical hare played in leading him astray.

Born in St Louis, O’Hare was a first generation Irish-American who studied law and had a flair for business. Most of what he did was legitimate, probably. But it so happened that his main speciality, the operation of dog-racing tracks, was still emerging from one of those legally grey areas of the kind that attract mobsters.

These mobsters were in turn attracted to Eddie. Among them was a certain Al Capone, who for a time owned a track that was close to and in competition with O’Hare’s. So when the mob boss suggested a merger, it made business sense. And soon O’Hare was running a whole portfolio of Capone’s dog tracks, in Chicago, Boston, and Miami.

He rationalised the arrangement on the grounds that, so long as he conducted the businesses properly, he had nothing to fear from gangsters or those chasing them. But it may also have been a kind of morality that persuaded him to cooperate with the US justice department when, despairing of criminal conviction, it finally targeted Capone’s tax affairs.

O’Hare’s testimony helped put “Scarface” in jail. After that, he had plenty to fear. He took precautions, varying travel arrangements and watching his back. It wasn’t enough. In November 1939, O’Hare was driving along a Chicago street when a car drew alongside and he was blasted to death by a shotgun.

By then, his much-loved son, Edward O’Hare, known as “Butch”, was a 25-year-old trainee fighter pilot. Rumours would persist for decades – and maybe still do – that his admission to the US Naval Academy was part of his father’s pay-off for taking down Capone.

In any case, when his country belatedly joined the second World War, the now fatherless O’Hare jnr was fated to become one of its first and greatest heroes. His hour of glory came early on, in February 1942, just two months after Pearl Harbor. And in an irony his ancestors would have enjoyed, it happened at a place in the south Pacific called New Ireland. O’Hare was travelling with the aircraft carrier USS Lexington when it was attacked by Japanese bombers. Thanks to a combination of mischances, he found himself temporarily alone in an aerial dogfight against nine Japanese aircraft, but shot down or seriously damaged five of them and in the process saved the ship.

For his valour, he won the navy’s first medal of honour of the war, and a country in need of heroes welcomed him home as a celebrity. He was by all accounts an unlikely candidate – easy-going, “almost a slob”. Still, he did his round of promotional duties, and while home, also became a father, to a daughter named Kathleen.

Then he returned to the war in the Pacific and this time he wasn’t so lucky. Flying at night, without radar, he was shot down at sea in November 1943. His body was never found.

A popular theory about O’Hare’s courage was that it was to atone for the supposed sins of the father and purge the resultant stigma on the family. Those close to him rejected this notion, partly because his wartime behaviour was in keeping with a character formed long beforehand, and partly because they preferred to believe in O’Hare snr’s essential innocence.

Even so, it was only the family’s reluctance to have the question probed too deeply that prevented a film ever being made about O’Hare’s eminently cinematic life, despite many offers. After the war, it was left to Chicago’s Orchard Field Airport, renamed O’Hare International in 1949, to complete a “story arc” – as scriptwriters call it – that stretched from the city’s underworld to the skies.

Or maybe that was just part of a bigger story, one that started decades earlier, in Famine-era Ireland. Either way, as Chicago prepares to dye its river green again this weekend, now is a good time to remember Edward “Butch” O’Hare, American war hero, who was born in St Louis, 100 years ago today.
@FrankmcnallyIT
fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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