O’Hare restoration – Frank McNally on the complicated backstory of an American war hero

An Irishman’s Diary

Eighty years ago this weekend, in the skies of the South Pacific, a man named Edward O’Hare became one of the great American war heroes.

Ironically, for someone now commemorated by an international airport (the one in Chicago), he did it by shooting down planes. During a lone fight with nine Japanese bombers, he put five out of action, in the process saving his aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington.

In a detail that might have amused his paternal ancestors, this all happened near a place called New Ireland, an Australian possession until Japan invaded and now part of Papua New Guinea.

"Butch" O'Hare, as he was known, was young, good-looking, and a man of easy-going charm: perfect material for the hero his country needed at the time, two months after Pearl Harbor.


Back on the ground, he was showered with honours, ranging from the Medal of Honor – America’s highest military award – to a vast consignment of cigarettes (230,000), bought for him by workers at the factory that built his plane.

But after 18 months of non-combat duties and much fêting, he returned to the war in late 1943. And as with so many fighter pilots, he didn't survive long. Back in the Pacific on November 26th, 1943, flying a night mission without radar, he was shot down near the Mariana Islands. His body has never been found.

The story would be remarkable in its own right, but when combined with that of his father, it forms a two-generation saga worthy of Hollywood. For O’Hare snr, also Edward, had gone down in history too, and may also have been a sort-of hero, albeit in very different circumstances.

His violent end was the result of another kind of war, the one between US federal authorities and Al Capone, with whom he had enjoyed a business partnership for a time. He helped put Capone in jail finally, on tax evasion. But as part of the price, he did not live to see his son's glory days.

In November 1939, four years to the month before O’Hare jnr’s death, O’Hare snr was driving through Chicago one day when a car pulled alongside and two occupants opened fire with shotguns, loaded with heavy ammunition of a kind used in big-game hunting. He died instantly, aged 46. The killers were never found.

Tragic as it was, there may have been an element of farce to his story, given the surname he inherited from a first-generation Irish immigrant, in that the course of O’Hare’s life was influenced by another sort of hare: the electric kind, used in greyhound racing.

As a lawyer in St Louis, O’Hare represented the man who had invented that device – called a “mechanical running rabbit” in the US, where hare-coursing has less of a history – and later inherited the patent.

He also operated dog tracks in several cities, including Chicago. And when another track owner there – Capone – suggested a merger, he agreed. Rich already, he made a second fortune from their subsequent dealings.

O’Hare had divorced his wife, Butch’s mother, by then, but not before introducing the teenage boy to one of his own, spare-time interests, flying. In another formative move, to counteract what he feared was his son’s growing laziness, he also enrolled him in a military school.

It is suspected that, as part of whatever arrangement O’Hare snr eventually agreed with authorities to bring down Capone, the pay-off included getting the young man into the US Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1933. More generally, the deal may have been designed to atone for a wrong turn taken.

Whatever the reasons, he cooperated with federal plans to bring the mobster down. And although Eliot Ness continues to get most of the credit for ending Capone's criminal career, some historians of the period believe it was the work of another federal agent and O'Hare. Without the latter's help, one has argued, "there never would have been a case".

O’Hare snr’s rehabilitation may challenge F Scott Fitzgerald’s much misquoted line about there being “no second acts in American lives”, even if he needed his son the complete the family’s spectacular return to grace.

In fact, lots of Americans reinvent themselves successfully, as Fitzgerald knew. What he actually wrote, in a 1932 short story, was: “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but . . .”

On the other hand, Al Capone fits the misquoted version well. After eight years in jail, he was released in November 1939, a week after O’Hare’s murder. But he had lost control of his criminal empire, and of his health, by then. Despite living until 1947, he never made a comeback.