Profiles in Courage

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There are different kinds of courage.

That was on display within the same Chicago family in the 1930s and 40s. 

Less than three months after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II, the U.S. fleet was maneuvering near the Solomon Islands in the south Pacific.

On February 20, 1942, the aircraft carrier Lexington successfully fought off an aerial raid by five Japanese bombers.  Then lookouts on the “Lady Lex” spotted a second wave of enemy aircraft.  This time there were nine bombers.  Only two U.S. fighters were airborne. 

One was an F4F Wildcat piloted by Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare.  O’Hare, an exceptional marksman, flew straight toward the V-shaped formation two miles above the sea.

On his first pass he brought down three bombers.  The second time around he destroyed two more.  The remaining Japanese planes scattered.  The entire engagement had taken about four minutes, and O’Hare, incredibly, had fired only 60 rounds of ammunition.  He was singlehandedly credited with saving the Lexington and hundreds of lives. 

The young pilot shrugged.  It was what he was trained to do. 

But America was badly in need of heroes in the early days of the war.  President Franklin Roosevelt awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor, declaring his action to be “one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation.”

Just a year later O’Hare died in aerial combat over the Pacific.  Chicago honored him in 1949 by attaching his name to one of the busiest airports in the world.

But it’s conceivable that something else in Chicago could have been named for another O’Hare – Butch’s father Eddie.

Throughout the 1920s, “Artful Eddie” was a key player in Chicago’s crime syndicate.  As Al Capone’s lawyer and the proprietor of numerous racetracks (he helped popularize the mechanical rabbit that paced the greyhounds), he made millions for the mob. 

Artful Eddie was no saint.  But his conscience was burdened concerning his teenage son Butch, who had his heart set on attending the U.S. Naval Academy.  Eddie knew that Butch would never be granted admission unless he made a clear break from Capone.

So he did. 

He volunteered to risk his life by turning state’s evidence against America’s most notorious crime boss.

Remember that wild scene in the 1987 film The Untouchables, where Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness and his partner bravely commandeer the mob’s bookkeeper in the train station?  Pure Hollywood.  It was Eddie O’Hare who turned in the bookkeeper to IRS agents, which led to Capone’s arrest for tax fraud.

Remember the dramatic moment in the movie where Ness learns that Capone’s jury has been bribed, and the judge switches juries to assure a fair trial?  In the real world that was O’Hare yet again.  Costner might play a hero on the screen, but Eddie was the one who took the risk of revealing to prosecutors that the fix was in.  Capone was ultimately convicted and sent to Alcatraz in 1933.

A few months later, Butch O’Hare was granted admission to the Naval Academy.  Artful Eddie’s actions had helped fulfill his son’s dream.

They also cost him his life. 

In 1939, traveling home from the racetrack, he was gunned down behind the wheel of his car.  The crime was never solved.  But few doubted that the mob had ordered the hit. 

Eddie O’Hare’s story is proof that it’s never too late to leave a different legacy.

Do you yearn to repurpose your life?  It doesn’t just happen.  It requires intention.  And resolve. 

And courage

That might mean the courage to fly against insurmountable odds over the Pacific, or the courage to execute an ethical U-turn.  

No matter what the consequences, I will walk this new path.

Sometime in the future, something resembling normal air travel will resume.

During one of those inevitable winter weather delays in O’Hare Airport, may the Spirit gently prompt us to ponder our own paths.