Text: Miro Barič
A shot down Betty bomber photographed from Lexington’s deck on February 20, 1942. (Photo: U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)
Previously our story about the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2) ended at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. She avoided it because on December 5, 1941, set sail for Midway Island to deliver 18 Vought SB2U Vindicator dive bombers belonging to the US Marines unit VMSB-231. Thanks to it she could enter the WWII battles intact from the beginning.
Let’s travel back in time though, to Chicago in 1920s and 30s when the city was ruled by the notorious gangster Al Capone. His close associate was a lawyer, Edward Joseph O’Hare nicknamed Easy Eddie. In 1930 he decided to defect to the side of law and became a federal agents’ informer. He led them to Capone’s bookkeeping records and help cracked their code. He also reminded them that in the beginning of his trial Capone bribed the jury. Consequently, a judge replaced the jury and in 1931 Capone was sentenced to jail. In November 1939, a week before Capone was released from prison, Easy Eddie was assassinated. While he was driving his Lincoln Zephyr two men fired their shotguns at him from the passing car. O’Hare died on the spot and his uncontrolled car hit a pole. The killers disappeared in the traffic and were never tracked down. They were supposedly Capone’s hitmen. O’Hare senior paid for gangster’s jail time with his own life then. It is said he wanted to avoid prison, that he did not want to stand in the way of his son to enter the Naval Academy or that he wanted to restore his tarnished reputation and set a good example to his son. Allegedly he brought his son up to recognize good and evil and wanted him to become a better man that he was.
Medal of Honor
That son was “Butch” O’Hare who was awarded Medal of Honor for his action on February 20, 1942, as a very first US Navy fighter pilot during WWII. On that day he took off USS Lexington deck as a part of a larger group of Wildcats. The fate however put him alone against a group of Japanese bombers. His father taught him to face the evil regardless the odds. Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare was born on March 13, 1914. After his parents divorced in 1927, he lived with his mother Selma and sisters Patricia and Marilyn in St. Louis while his father relocated to Chicago. In 1933 he started his studies at the Naval Academy in Annapolis from which he graduated in 1937. Next two years he served on the battleship USS New Mexico. Then he was sent to Pensacola for a pilot training which he completed on May 2, 1940. He was assigned to VF-3 fighter unit aboard Lexington’s sister ship, USS Saratoga (CV-3). First, he flew Grumman F3F and after that Brewster F2A Buffalo. VF-3 executive officer, Lt. John “Jimmy” Thach heavily focused on the air gunnery training. Under Thach’s leadership most VF-3 pilots, including Butch, became excellent marksmen.
O’Hare’s first flight in the new Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter took place on July 21, 1941. Flying it off Saratoga he entered the WWII battles. In the beginning of 1942, the ship patrolled between Midway Island and Pearl Harbor where she was hit by a torpedo fired from the Japanese submarine I-6. She had to return for repairs and VF-3 transferred to Lexington. And that is where Butch’s star rose. Lexington was a core unit of the Task Force 11 under the command of Rear Admiral Wilson Brown. On January 31, 1942, she set sail together with two heavy cruisers and seven destroyers. Her own fighter unit, VF-2 was left behind to convert to Wildcats. Besides 18 fighters from VF-3 there were 37 Douglass SBD Dauntless dive bombers and 13 Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers aboard Lexington.
Later two more heavy cruisers and four destroyers joined TF 11. This formation was getting ready to attack Rabaul. The American ships were located 450 miles north-east of the target when on February 20, 1942, they were spotted by Japanese Kawanishi H6K Mavis flying boat. It was promptly shot down by Jimmy Thach and his wingman Ens. Edward Sellstrom. Later the Lexington fighter pilots added another H6K to their score. The formation’s position however was discovered and all available 17 Mitsubishi G4M1 Betty bombers from 4. Kōkūtai were dispatched against it from Rabaul. Each aircraft was armed with two 250 kg bombs since the air torpedoes were not available in Rabaul at that time.
The Japanese split into two formations to increase the chance of finding the Americans. At 16:25 Lexington’s radar detected the first group of nine G4M1 47 miles away. 16 out of 18 Wildcats were sent to combat. O’Hare and his wingman Lt.(jg) Marion Dufilho were also airborne. This pair however was ordered to circle around the ship. Fist nine Bettys were annihilated. Only four made it to Lexington but failed to score any bomb hit on the wildly maneuvering ship and were shot down on their return flight – two of them even by Dauntlesses. Not a single crew member from this G4M1 group survived. The American losses were two Wildcats and a pilot. They were shot down by Bettys’ rear gunners with their 20 mm cannons when they approached straight from behind without any maneuvering.
Butch O’Hare in the cockpit of a Wildcat captured in one of the propaganda photograph series taken in April 1942 on Hawaii. Note the censored unit insignia. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
Butch wears non-standard cowboy leather belt in this color photograph. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
During the photo shoot in Hawaii in April 1942 kill markings were painted on both sides of the fuselage. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
Butch O’Hare at the Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat’s tail. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
Alone against eight
While most VF-3 fighters battled the first group of the enemy bombers, at 16:49 another one appeared on Lexington’s radar. This time eight G4M1 approached from the opposite side, 30 miles away but coming in fast. Butch and Dufilho were sent against them-no one else was available at that moment. Soon it turned out that O’Hare would remain alone. Dufilho’s guns jammed, and he could not fire a single shot. O’Hare did not attack fast flying bombers from rear but from above and astern. His four 12.7 mm caliber machine guns had 450 rounds each. He performed deflection shooting and took full advantage of his thorough air gunnery training. His bursts hit the Japanese bombers with such accuracy that he shot off the engine out of one of them! He attacked the Japanese formation four times until he ran out of the ammunition. Thanks to his actions only four bombers made it to Lexington. One of them, heavily damaged, attempted a suicidal attack. It did not hit the ship however, neither did the bombs from the other Bettys.
O’Hare was convinced that he had hit seven bombers, six of them shot down. Officially he was credited with five kills which corresponds to the actual records. Four aircraft were destroyed immediately, fifth one made emergency landing on the water on its return flight. Butch damaged another two - there were the only two out of 17 dispatched that made it home. The Japanese reported one cruiser or destroyer sunk and setting the aircraft carrier on fire. They claimed eight Wildcats shot down. Gunners of the second group of bombers for example reported several kills during the repeated Butch’s attacks-even though he attacked alone. His Wildcat was hit by a single Japanese bullet in the fuselage-another one, into the port wing came from his own AA defense. O’Hare piloted F4F-3 BuNo. 4031 marked F-15. After the return to the port this aircraft was transferred to VF-2 and remained on board of Lexington. During the Battle of the Coral Sea, it landed on USS Yorktown (CV-5) deck, so it survived that battle as well. Then it flew with VF-42 and later in US Marines MAG-23. It was struck of charge in July 1944.
Butch O’Hare and Jimmy Thach at Kaneohe base, April 10, 1942. Note details of the propeller in the background. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
A pair of VF-3 fighters in flight on April 10, 1942. Wildcat F-1 (BuNo 3976) in the front is flown by Jimmy Thach. The second aircraft F-13 (BuNo 3986) is flown by Butch O’Hare. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
The airport bears his name
The successful aircraft survived its pilot. Butch O’Hare became a fighter ace in a day and on April 21, 1942, he was awarded Medal of Honor. Later he assumed command of VF-3 which after an extended time spent on training new pilots was renamed VF-6 and equipped with new Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters. Flying Hellcat O’Hare added another two kills to his score. On November 26, 1943, he perished during the first ever night interception mission off an American aircraft carrier. The circumstances of his death have not been clarified up until these days. Probably he became a victim of a Japanese Betty’s gunner during this night mission. Neither his Hellcat nor his body were ever found. Gearing class destroyer USS O’Hare (DD-889) which entered service in November 1945 was named after him. Butch’s mother Selma was at the ceremony. This ship took part in the Vietnam War and in 1978 was sold to Spain where it served under the name Mendez Nunez. It was decommissioned and sent to the scrap yards in 1992. In September 1949 the Chicago airport was named after him, O’Hare International Airport, ORD. Wildcat marked F-15 is exhibited in Terminal 2 at this airport. It is an aircraft which had been recovered in good condition from Lake Michigan where it crashed in 1943 off the training aircraft carrier USS Wolverine. In 2001 it was restored to represent Butch’s F4F-3.
Raid on Lae and Salamaua
Lexington was not to survive for too long neither. After the battle with the Japanese bombers TF 11 retreated from Rabaul but after joining forces with TF 17 gathered around Yorktown aircraft carrier the formation wanted to return and attack again. On March 8 the plans changed having found out that Rabaul port is empty. The Japanese invaded New Guinea and all ships sailed to the ports of Lae and Salamaua on the north-east coast of this island. In the morning of March 10, Lexington launched the first attack-eight Wildcats, 31 Dauntlesses and 13 Devastators armed with torpedoes. 15 minutes later Yorktown launched another 10 Wildcats, 30 SBDs and 12 TBDs, armed with bombs this time.
Sixteen Japanese ships were near the coast in the vicinity of Lae and Salamaua-light cruiser Yubari, 6 destroyers, 5 large cargo ships, a minelayer, two small minelayers and a float plane carrier. The American pilots claimed ten ships sunk including three cruisers and another five ships damaged. Three cargo ships were sunk and fourth one was seriously damaged. Most of the ships were claimed by Lexington aviators. One of the VF-3 Wildcats shot down a Nakajima E8N Dave biplane floatplane which aggressively tried to attack the American carrier-borne bombers. The Japanese AA defense shot down a Dauntless from Lexington, the only American loss.
On March 26, after this raid, Lexington returned to Pearl Harbor where she underwent a quick rebuild. Four turrets with eight useless 203 mm caliber anti-ship cannons were removed and replaced with 28 mm caliber AA quad cannons. 22 single barrel 20 mm caliber cannons were added as well. The ship armament then consisted of 12 single barrel 127 mm caliber cannons, 12 28 mm caliber quad cannons and 22 Oerlikon 20 mm caliber cannons. So equipped Lexington set sail for her last battle. Initially nothing indicated a fatal encounter. Ship set sail from Pearl Harbor on April 15, 1942, to deliver 14 Buffalo fighters from VMF-211 to Palmyra atoll located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaiian Islands and American Samoa. After this task, in relatively peaceful waters, the ship was to conduct the exercises together with a battleship formation. On April 18 however the training was cancelled. The American and British code breakers concluded that the Japanese were preparing the landing at Port Moresby on the south-eastern side of New Guinea. Therefore, on May 1, 1942, Lexington again joined forces with Yorktown and her formation TF 17. Together they set sail for the Coral Sea with the intention to halt the Japanese plans. For this mission Lexington carried 21 Wildcats, 37 Dauntlesses and 12 Devastators.
Lexington in San Diego on October 14, 1941. Buffalo fighters can be seen in the front, Dauntless bombers in the background. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
Lexington in the original outfit featuring 203 mm caliber cannons in the gun turrets. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
First battle of aircraft carriers
Simultaneously with dispatching the invasion fleet to Port Moresby, the Japanese hit Tulagi in Solomon Islands. This mission was supported by the light aircraft carrier Shōhō. The main forces were supported the veterans of the Pearl Harbor attack-aircraft carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku. The stage was being set up for the very first historic battle of the aircraft carriers. It was a first naval battle ever in which the opposing ships did not see each other and attacked each other with carrier-borne aircraft only. It is necessary to add though that many mistakes were made on both sides resulting in chaos and the outcome was more-less hap-hazard. Both sides were aware of the opponent ships presence and tried hard to find them. Both incorrectly identified the support force as the main one and launched against them attack groups of their aircraft. On May 7, 1942, in the morning, the Japanese scout discovered a lone tanker Neosho escorted by destroyer Sims. It reported though, incorrectly, an aircraft carrier and a cruiser. The Japanese launched 78 aircraft from Shōkaku and Zuikaku against them: 18 Mitsubishi A6M Zero, 36 Aichi D3A Val dive bombers and 24 Nakajima B5N Kate torpedo bombers.
Right after an American scout discovered the invasion fleet of the cargo ships but reported two aircraft carriers and four cruisers. The Americans too launched 93 aircraft from Lexington and Yorktown-18 Wildcats, 53 Dauntlesses and 22 Devastators. Both sides almost instantly realized their error. Japanese aircraft for some time fruitlessly searched for some more valuable targets and in the end decided to attack Neosho and Sims at least. The ships had no chance. After three bomb hits the destroyer broke in halves and sank immediately. Out of 192 crew members only 14 sailors survived. Neosho was hit by seven bombs and a Val which, hit by a defense AA fire, crashed on her as well. Seriously damaged tanker drifted for several days until she finally sank.
The Americans at last discovered the light aircraft carrier Shōhō attached to the invasion fleet and dived on her. Only two Mitsubishi A5M Claude and a Zero provided the air cover for her and another three Zeros took off at the beginning of the attack. They could not however stop the American onslaught. The Lexington aircraft hit the Japanese ship with two 450 kg bombs and five torpedoes. Shortly afterwards the Yorktown aircraft showed up and finished the burning wreck with 11 more bombs and 2 torpedoes. Shōhō sank 45 minutes after the attack was launched on her. All 18 aircraft she carried were lost as well. The Americans lost a Dauntless from Lexington. In the evening the Japanese attempted to find the American main force again but to no avail. Therefore, the aviators released their bombs and torpedoes and turned on their return flight. After the sunset they did find the American carriers-but they were without ordnance and misidentified the ships as their own. They started to circle and prepare for landing. After a while when the American destroyers started to fire at them the Japanese realized their mistake and flew away.
Lexington under attack of the Japanese aircraft, May 8, 1942. Picture was taken from the deck of one of the attackers. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
After the Japanese attacks Lexington was damaged however received her aircraft back on the deck. Picture was taken from the cruiser USS Portland shortly before the fatal explosions. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
Ship’s demise was caused by the explosions of the fumes leaking from the damaged aviation fuel tanks. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
The aircraft on Lexington’s stern, May 8, 1942, around 15:00. There are Wildcats in the front, Dauntlesses and Devastators behind them. Fire is raging in the hangar and the smoke is rising around the rear lift. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
Burning, abandoned and listing Lexington, May 8, 1942 evening. There are still aircraft on the rear deck. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
Decisive second day
The first day ended with serious aircraft losses on the Japanese side and resulted in a small American victory in the form of Japanese decision to postpone the invasion of Port Moresby for several days. On May 8, 1942, morning the decisive battle was staged. The Japanese launched an attack with concentrated force of 18 fighters, 33 Val bombers and 18 Kate bombers. The Americans sent out two separate groups. Yorktown launched 6 Wildcats, 24 Dauntlesses and 9 Devastators. A while later Lexington launched 9 fighters, 15 dive bombers and 12 torpedo bombers. Yorktown aviators hit Shōkaku with two bombs, a bit later Lexington pilots scored another hit and the damaged Japanese carrier had to withdraw. The Lexington attack formation lost three Wildcats.
By a coordinated attack from both sides the Japanese managed to hit Lexington’s port side with two torpedoes. Val dive bombers contributed with two bomb hits. Besides Wildcats Dauntlesses were also deployed to the ships’ defenses. 15 took off from Lexington on a fighter mission. They managed to destroy three Kate torpedo bombers, another was destroyed by Wildcat fighter and four by AA defense. Two Vals were shot down during the attack on Yorktown but regardless, she suffered a bomb hit. On the return flight the American and Japanese formations engaged resulting in further air combat and losses. Both sides lost many aircraft, their ships were damaged and were running out of fuel therefore they withdrew from the battle. The American scored a victory because the Japanese had to postpone the landing at Port Moresby for two months worried about the Allied cruisers’ presence in the area and in the end the invasion never materialized.
The Japanese were convinced that they had sunk two American aircraft carriers, those however were sailing under their own power and receiving the returning aircraft. Nothing indicated that the damages Lexington sustained could not be handled. No one realized though that the first torpedo hit had damaged the aviation fuel tanks on the port side. The fumes were escaping and concentrating in other areas of the ship. At 12:47 the sparks from the electrical motors caused the explosion and fierce fire. The flight operations were still not impaired and by 14:14 the last aircraft returned to the carrier. In addition to three Wildcats shot down, three Dauntlesses, one Devastator and one Wildcat, which had to make emergency landing on the water, were lost. At 14:42 another explosion followed and a fierce fire in the hangar interrupted the electric power supply to the ship’s front section. Any hopes for saving the vessel were marred by the third explosion at 15:25 which demanded the full evacuation of the quarters bellow the waterline. At 16:00 Lexington came to full stop and at 17:07 captain Frederick Sherman gave the order to abandon ship. 2735 crew members were saved, 216 people perished. Captain Sherman remained on board until 18:30 to make sure nobody was left behind and left the ship as the last. Between 19:15 and 19:52 destroyer Phelps fired five torpedoes at Lexington and sank the ship.
Japanese light aircraft carrier Shoho under the attack of the American planes, May 7, 1942. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
Smoke is rising from the aircraft carrier Shokaku after she was hit by American bombs, May 8, 1942. Flames on the bow can be recognized. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
3,000 meters deep
On March 4, 2018, Paul Allen and his research ship RV Petrel discovered the wreck of USS Lexington more than 800 km east off the coast of the Australian Queensland. The ship is broken into several sections. The largest part of the hull is upright at the bottom 3,000 meters deep. The bow and the stern are detached and found almost 2 km west from the main hull part. The bridge was also torn away and is located approximately in the middle of the wreckage debris. The underwater robot RV Petrel also located a Japanese torpedo which sank to the bottom after it had missed its target. An interesting discovery was made west of the shipwreck. There is a group of 11 aircraft which slipped off Lexington’s deck when she was sinking-seven Devastators, three Dauntlesses and a Wildcat. The planes are in very good condition with well-preserved paint work. Besides the national markings the kill markings and unit insignia are still visible under a Wildcat canopy.
The flight deck edge of the sunken Lexington. (Photo: PaulAllen.com)
One of twelve 127 mm caliber cannons after 80 years on the sea bottom. (Photo: PaulAllen.com)
Besides the unit insignia four kills and one bombing mission markings are still visible under a Wildcat canopy. (Photo: PaulAllen.com)
A group of Devastator torpedo bombers rests at the bottom of the ocean. (Photo: PaulAllen.com)