Heroism, sacrifice, bravery and commitment — these are pillars on which our country rests.
Pillars upheld by people like Butch O’Hare, a flying ace whose story deserves to be remembered.
Butch was born on March 13, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri. As the story goes, Butch’s father came home one day to find Butch lounging on the couch, eating cake and doughnuts. Fearing his son was getting lazy, he decided to enroll Butch in the Western Military Academy.
Upon graduating in 1932, Butch entered the United States Naval Academy, where he discovered he had a talent for flying. There, he studied aerobatics, combat tactics, and gunnery. O’Hare was so skilled at the latter, he earned an “E” for excellence.
Having completed his training, Butch was soon assigned to the famous USS Enterprise. While stateside, he met his wife, Rita, a hospital nurse, and proposed to her the very same day. They married on September 6, 1941, and honeymooned in Hawaii.
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor three months later.
Butch served with distinction throughout the war, but his most famous flight occurred on February 20, 1942. His actions would win him the Medal of Honor, but more importantly, they would save the lives of every man aboard the USS Lexington.
It all started when the Lexington spotted enemy aircraft on their radar. Six fighters were launched to intercept. But while the planes were out, another signal appeared—eight Japanese bombers, heading toward the Lexington and closing fast.
The only two pilots—the only protection—left aboard were Butch and his wingman, Duff Dufilho. They quickly took to the air to defend the Lexington. The odds, already stacked against them, took a serious turn for the worse when Dufilho’s guns jammed.
That left Butch O’Hare.
Armed with only 34-seconds worth of ammunition, Butch had one option—to attack head-on. Diving directly into the enemy formation, Butch made use of his natural gunnery talent. Firing quickly and accurately, he destroyed three bombers and damaged two more.
By the time his ammunition was spent, the remaining bombers were close enough to drop their payloads. One bomber even tried to ram the ship directly. Fortunately, every bomb missed. The Lexington was saved. Such was Butch’s skill. His own plane came through virtually untouched, pierced by only a single bullet.
Heroism, sacrifice, bravery and commitment. Butch displayed all four over the course of a few minutes.
Heroism by saving his ship. Sacrifice by being perfectly willing to fight alone, regardless of the consequences. Bravery to attempt so risky a maneuver as attacking head on. Commitment to his country by putting duty above his own life.
Heroism, sacrifice, bravery and commitment. They’re far more than just words.
For his actions, Butch received the Medal of Honor. He was feted with awards and parades. The O’Hare International Airport in Chicago was even named after him. But characteristic of so many heroes, Butch took it all in stride.
“Modest and inarticulate,” one person described him. “Humorous, terribly nice, and more than a little embarrassed by the whole thing.”
Like most of the men and women we commemorate, Butch was a hero not because he carried himself like one. He was a hero because he acted like one.
Not content to be a celebrity, Butch returned to combat. He trained many other flyers who remembered him for the advice he gave and the example he set. Another flying ace, Alex Vraclu, said, “O’Hare taught many of the squadron members little things that would later save their lives.”
In November of 1943, only a few months after seeing his infant daughter for the first time, Butch made the final, greatest sacrifice. Shot down during another mission, Butch’s plane was never found, and he was declared missing in action.
In a greater sense, though, Butch lived on. He lived on through the men he saved. Sailors on the Lexington, fellow pilots he instructed—all were able to live and carry on thanks to Butch O’Hare.
This Memorial Day, I invite you to reflect for a moment on heroism, sacrifice, bravery, and commitment because they’re more than just words.
They’re the pillars that uphold our country. The pillars that prop up the rights and privileges we too often take for granted.
And remember, too, why those pillars still stand—because of men and women like Butch O’Hare.