4 red stars over O’Hare International Airport text

Written by Todd DePastino

If you travel through Terminal 2, Concourse B of one of the busiest airports in the world, you can learn in impressive 3-dimensions how O’Hare in Chicago got its name.

If asked, I probably would have guessed that Chicago O’Hare International Airport was named for a colorful but now forgotten politician who built an empire on wads of cash and immigrant votes.

I would have been wrong.

Thanks to a terrific exhibit in Terminal 2, which includes an actual Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat salvaged from bottom of Lake Michigan, you can get the real story: O’Hare Airport was, in fact, named for Lieutenant Commander Edward “Butch” O’Hare, the first Navy Medal of Honor recipient.

O’Hare belonged to that special breed of early aviators whose obsession with flight drove them to pilot aircraft still literally made with bicycle parts. The crash rates of these winged washing machines was astronomical.

Neck braces, crutches, and arm slings were mere tools of the trade for pilots in the 1920s and 1930s.

Butch O’Hare grew up in Chicago with his father, “Easy Eddie” O’Hare, a crooked attorney in league with Al Capone.

In 1930, Easy Eddie turned government informant and helped get his boss convicted and sent to Alcatraz for tax evasion.

A year later, Butch entered the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

Did his father’s turnaround have something to do with Butch’s acceptance to Annapolis? Possibly.

A 1939 photo of Lieutenant Commander Edward “Butch” O’Hare, the first Navy Medal of Honor recipient

Ensign Edward Henry O’Hare, US Navy (1940)

After graduating the Academy, O’Hare took flight lessons in one of the last combat biplanes ever used, the Grumman F3F.

He practiced combat formations and maneuvers extensively and was well-prepared for action he would see after Pearl Harbor.

On February 20, 1942, Butch was aboard the carrier USS Lexington (CV-16) with his Fighter Squadron Three when the ship came under attack from the air.

A wave of Japanese fighters and bombers descended on the Lexington, and the Fighter Squadron Three fought them off.

But an unexpected second wave of Japanese Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers appeared from the east, and Butch and his wingman were the only fighters standing between this deadly new wave and the Lexington.

The two men raced their stubby F4F Wildcats into position 1,500 feet above the Japanese bombers’ V-formation. Butch’s wingman’s guns were jammed, so the only two .50-caliber machine guns were on Butch’s F-4. He had enough ammunition for 34 seconds of shooting.

O’Hare’s expert maneuvering allowed him to fire only 60 rounds at each plane, directing each round precisely where it could do the most damage, the bombers’ engines.

Diving in, around, under, and back over the bomber formation, O’Hare downed three enemy planes. O’Hare’s actions gave the Lexington time to get the bombers into its anti-aircraft artillery range. The Lex’s guns shot down more enemy planes. The remaining Japanese bombers discharged their bombs harmlessly into the ocean.

O’Hare’s aeronautical heroics made big news in February 1942. Up to that point, Americans had had little to cheer about.

The Japanese Imperial Fleet had taken over a vast swath of Pacific territories with nominal American resistance. O’Hare’s valor gave Americans a glimmer of hope, and the public turned O’Hare into a national hero.

Lt. Butch O'Hare seated in the cockpit of his Grumman F4F

Lt. Butch O’Hare seated 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 was credited with shooting down (USN)

Reporters flocked to him, starlets telegraphed their congratulations, and–this being the 1940s–Lucky Strike sent him 1,150 cartons of cigarettes in an effort to tempt him away from Camels.

President Roosevelt saw to it that O’Hare became the first Naval aviator to receive the Medal of Honor.

Edward O'Hare shaking the hand of President Roosevelt during the Medal of Honor presentation on April 21, 1942

Medal of Honor presentation on April 21, 1942: President Roosevelt, Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy (behind FDR), Admiral Ernest King, Edward O’Hare and his wife Rita (NARA)

He spent the next year or so on a publicity tour to promote the war effort and boost homefront morale.

As an aviator, of course, O’Hare could not stay grounded.

He returned to action in August 1943 and immediately saw combat in the skies above Wake Island. He now flew an updated (but still stubby) airplane, the F6F Hellcat. This new and improved aircraft, along with bigger and more carriers, gave the US air superiority over the Japanese.

In response, the Japanese began launching dangerous low-altitude nighttime raids on American ships. Butch O’Hare volunteered to fly in the first carrier-launched night counter-raid to intercept these Japanese torpedo bombers.

On the night of November 26, 1943 aboard the USS Enterprise (CV-6), the call came to scramble the fighters. The Japanese were on their way.

Butch grabbed his supper, jumped up from his seat in the mess hall, and ran to the ready room to put on his flight suit.

He took off in formation with other planes but, surrounded by darkness, had a tough time keeping contact with his squadron.

A Japanese bomber appeared above and behind Butch’s Hellcat. Another F-6 fired at the bomber, and the bomber returned fire.

Butch’s plane was caught in the middle. It took a hit, and veered off toward the ocean.

Someone reported seeing a parachute open and then a gray puff of a splash below

A search was conducted, but neither O’Hare or the Hellcat were found. A year later, Butch was declared dead.

Chicago Tribune owner and World War I veteran Robert McCormick proposed that Chicago’s Orchard Field Airport’s name be changed as a tribute to O’Hare.

On September 19, 1949, officials rechristened the facility the O’Hare International Airport.

Terminal 2’s Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat was recovered virtually intact from the bottom of Lake Michigan, where it sank after a training accident in 1943. The plane was remodeled to replicate the F4F-3 Wildcat that O’Hare flew on February 20, 1942.

It’s curious that if you fly into O’Hare today, you will still receive on your bags and in your flight information O’Hare’s odd IATA code: ORD, a faint vestige of the airport’s older, quainter “Orchard” name.