THE STRANGE STORY OF EDWARD J. O'HARE, THE CAPONE MOB AND THE NAMING OF O'HARE AIRPORT
In the early evening of November 8, 1939, a colorful character from Chicago's South Side, the Capone mob lawyer Edward J. "Easy Eddie" O'Hare Sr. was gunned down in his Lincoln coupe in traffic on Ogden Avenue. That was hardly an unique event in Chicago which has had over 1000 gangland killings since the 1920's. In this case, however, his son, Edward J. "Butch" O'Hare Jr., a young Navy pilot, got an opportunity 2 years later in World War II to redeem the family name, and in the process place it on what was to become the World's Busiest Airport.
The senior O'Hare was born in St. Louis in 1893 to first generation Irish parents. He passed the Missouri bar exam in 1923 and joined a St. Louis law firm representing inventor Owen P. Smith who had patented a mechanical rabbit used in dog racing. O'Hare helped patent and market the device and placed it in dog tracks in the 3 states where they operated--Florida, Massachusetts and Illinois. Smith died in 1927, and O'Hare. representing Smith's widow, was able to obtain the rights to the rabbit for himself.
Most dog tracks were owned by gangsters, and the Hawthorne Kennel Club (dog track) in Cicero, Illinois, was no excaption. It was owned by the infamous Al Capone. In Illinois, although dog racing was illegal, Capone continued to operate the track while O'Hare was able to drag out the matter in court for several years. O'Hare also helped the Capone mob acquire control of dog tracks in Boston, Tampa and Miami. The attraction for a mobster was that dog races, which weren't regulated at the time, were fairly easy to fix--feed all the dogs before the race except the one you're betting on. The well fed dogs obviously don't run very fast after a rabbit.
When the authorities finally closed the Cicero, IL. dog track, Capone and O'Hare converted it to a horse track which they named Sportsmen's Park, with O'Hare as president. It happened to be next door to another race track, Hawthorne Race Course, which had operated for many years. Hey, if one race track is good for the town, two should be twice as good!
Easy Eddie, the lawyer, solved many legal problems for the Capone mob in the areas of murder, prostitution and gambling, as well as setting up real estate, stock transactions and money laundering. He befriended judges such as Chicago Rackets Court Judge Eugene J. Holland who, in a 15 month period, dismissed gambling charges against more than 12,000 defendants, while finding only 28 guilty. "I'm shocked, shocked that there's gambling going on!"
In his personal life, O'Hare was intensely loyal to his children, sending them to the best schools and doting on them as a good father should. He taught his son Butch how to target shoot, a skill which he honed at military school. O'Hare was fascinated with flying and often took commercial flights, where, unlike today, he found chances for young Butch to briefly take the controls of the planes. He had many connections, even hitching a ride with Charles Lindbergh on his mail plane out of St. Louis. Upon graduation from high school, Butch expressed a desire to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Certainly O'Hare Sr. had the funds to send Butch to any school he wanted, but for the young man to attend the Naval Academy, he must be appointed by a Congressman.
While O'Hare had several Congressmen who were prepared to appoint Butch, the Feds were at that time becoming intensely interested in the workings of the Capone gang. O'Hare knew the inner workings of the gang, and if he chose to cooperate with the government, was uniquely able to decipher Capone's secret codes that could obtain for the prosecutors a conviction for tax evasion. The accounts of what happened then are in dispute.
One story is that O'Hare's friend, St. Louis newspaper reporter John Rogers, also a friend of I.R.S. Investigator Frank J. Wilson, brokered a deal whereby if O'Hare would cooperate with the Feds, his son Butch would be admitted to the Naval Academy. The other story is that O'Hare simply got an agreement from the government that his involvment with Capone would not be used against Butch's appointment. In any event, O'Hare decided that family was more important, and he talked to the Feds. Just before the start of the 1933 Capone trial, O'Hare learned and advised the prosecutors that Capone had fixed the jury that was to hear the case before Judge James Wilkerson. Forewarned, Judge Wilkerson switched juries with another judge. As a result of O'Hare's information and assistance, Capone was convicted and sentenced to 11 years at Alcatraz.
Capone had contacted syphilis and his mental health deteriorated while in prison. Because of his health, Capone was due to be released from prison in 1939. O'Hare Sr. was killed a week before Capone's release. The murder, like most gangland murders, was never solved.
Two years later, when the U.S. entered World War II, Lt. Butch O'Hare was sent to the Pacific to fly his single engine Grumman F4F fighter plane. In early 1942, O'Hare, flying from the aircraft carrier Lexington with one other plane on his wing, encountered a squadron of 9 Japanese twin-engine bombers heading toward the Anerican carrier. The other plane, O'Hare's wingman found his machine guns jammed, leaving only O'Hare between the enemy and the Lexington. His mission was to hold off the enemy, and hold the line he did--singlehandedly.
Butch O'Hare grew up on the South Side of Chicago and was not a man to back down from adversity. He flew directly at the heavily armed enemy bombers and shot down 5 of the 9 (and damaged a sixth) with close range machine gun fire while avoiding enemy anti-aircraft fire. Three other enemy planes were destroyed when reinforcements from the Lexington were able to take off and come to O'Hare's assistance. The aerial dogfight was witnessed by Lexington crew members. O'Hare became the Navy's first "ace" of World War II and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. He was also promoted two grades to Lieutenant Commander.
He continued to fly and encounter enemy aircraft, particularly at night, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his exploits. His luck ran out and he was shot down on November 16, 1943 while on night patrol near Tarawa and lost at sea. A Navy investigation determined it wasn't "friendly fire" as originally thought, but rather a "lucky" hit by a Japanese gunner. Butch O'Hare was 29 years old and left behind a wife and infant daughter.
President Roosevelt described O'Hare's bravery in combat as "one of the most daring, if not the most daring single action in the history of combat aviation." Those words were engraved on a plaque which stands today at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
The airport in 1949 was a tiny regional airport called Orchard Depot (ORD), formerly used as a military airfield. After a suggestion by Col Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune the airport changed its name to honor Butch O'Hare. It subsequently embarked on an ambitious expansion which eventually made it the World's Busiest Airport for many years (an honor now held by Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport). It is also one of the most confusing airports, and because of Chicago's bad weather, a leader in frequent flight delays and cancellations. Because of limits on flights imposed by the federal government to reduce flight delays, O'Hare Airport relinquished its title as World's Busiest. But the airport designation "ORD" remains as a vestige of the long history of the airport.
This major airport is a fitting memorial to Navy aviator Butch O'Hare, a truly American hero who became who he was through a strange sequence of events unique to Chicago.
Labels: Chicago History