Airport honors original O'Hare Memorial to downed pilot will house rebuilt World War II fighter

August 24, 1997|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WEST CHICAGO, Ill. -- Even though the world's busiest airport is named for him, the legend of Navy pilot Edward "Butch" O'Hare has remained clouded in mystery.

The announcement earlier this year that a memorial to O'Hare would be placed at O'Hare International Airport promised to take away some of the mystery surrounding his life and death. Now, Air Classics Museum in West Chicago has the job of making sure the nuts and bolts of the project come together.

They are restoring a Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat similar to the one that O'Hare flew in his Medal of Honor-winning flight in February 1942. Air Classics will combine the aircraft with an informational display detailing the history of O'Hare's life.

According to Richard Long, director of operations at the museum, the Wildcat is one of only five of its kind remaining. In 1990, it was pulled from Lake Michigan, where an estimated 100 Wildcats have rested since their loss from accidents in Navy training exercises during World War II.

Twelve volunteers are working on restoring the plane, which is on loan from the U.S. Navy and will ultimately be displayed in Terminal 2 at O'Hare.

The museum has hired Boyce Industries of Melrose Park, Ill., to build a replica of the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington as a base for the Wildcat. McDonald's Corp. is sponsoring the $100,000 project. Completion is scheduled for October.

For being more than 50 years old, the plane is in remarkably good shape.

Well preserved plane

The cold water of Lake Michigan helped preserve the plane, Long said. The tires were still inflated, gas was still in the tank and the body of the plane was relatively unharmed.

After retrieval, the plane went to the National Museum of Aviation in Pensacola, Fla. Then it was transferred to a Marine museum in El Toro, Calif., before coming to Air Classics Museum this year.

One of the most difficult aspects of the restoration of the Wildcat is the painstaking task of repainting. The Marine museum painted the plane with Marine markings, so when the plane came to Air Classics, the body of the aircraft had to be repainted to match the original Navy finishing.

In addition to the informational displays, the exhibit at O'Hare will also contain two of the three known color pictures taken of O'Hare, who became a nationwide hero three months after the United States was stunned by Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

O'Hare, a fighter pilot assigned to the Lexington, took on eight Japanese aircraft single-handedly as they tried to bomb his ship near the Gilbert Islands.

He shot down five of the bombers, becoming an ace in a single flight, and severely damaged a sixth. For this, he received the Medal of Honor.

In November 1943, he was shot down over the South Pacific. Although it was first believed that he had been hit by bullets from an American aircraft, historians now believe O'Hare was shot down by a Japanese plane. He posthumously received a Navy Cross, the Navy's second-highest decoration.

Renamed Orchard Field

In 1949, the City of Chicago renamed a small airport known as Orchard Field after him. It subsequently evolved into the world's busiest airport, the present-day O'Hare International.

Long and the Air Classics hope their work will help revive interest in O'Hare.

To Long and other military historians, Butch O'Hare was the essence of a hero. He was unselfish, he was courageous and he was authentic.

But Long says that O'Hare wasn't after all the attention.

"He didn't even want to be nominated for the Medal of Honor because chances were that they would make a big thing out of it and that would mean that he would have to leave the squadron.

"He didn't want that, but that's the kind of guy he was. He wasn't a glory seeker. He was a legitimate American hero at a really desperate time for our country."

Pub Date: 8/24/97

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