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O'Hare's most famous flight occurred during the Pacific War on February 20, 1942. LT O'Hare and his wingman were the only U.S. Navy fighters available in the air when a second wave of Japanese bombers were attacking his aircraft carrier Lexington.
Butch O'Hare was on board the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, which had been assigned the task of penetrating enemy-held waters north of New Ireland. While still 450 miles from the harbor at Rabaul, at 10:15, the Lexington picked up an unknown aircraft on radar 35 miles from the ship. A six-plane combat patrol was launched, two fighters being directed to investigate the contact. These two planes, under command of Lieutenant Commander John Thach shot down a four-engined Kawanishi H6K4 Type 97 ("Mavis") flying boat about 43 miles out at 11:12. Later two other planes of the combat patrol were sent to another radar contact 35 miles ahead, shooting down a second Mavis at 12:02. A third contact was made 80 miles out, but reversed course and disappeared. At 15:42 a jagged vee signal drew the attention of the Lexington's radar operator. The contact then was lost, but reappeared at 16:25 forty-seven miles west and closing fast. Butch O'Hare, flying F4F Wildcat BuNo 4031 "White F-15", was one of several pilots launched to intercept the incoming 9 Japanese Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" bombers from the 4th Kōkūtai's 2nd Chutai; at this time five had already been shot down, and the remainder would be downed in short order.
At 16:49, the Lexington's radar picked up a second formation of Bettys from the 4th Kōkūtai's 1st Chutai, only 12 miles out, on the disengaged side of the task force. With the majority of fighters chasing the 2nd Chutai, the new arrivals were virtually unopposed. The carrier had only two Wildcats left to confront the intruders: Butch and his wingman, Marion "Duff" Dufilho. As the Lexington's only protection, they raced eastward and arrived 1,500 feet above eight attacking Bettys nine miles out at 17:00. Dufilho's guns jammed and wouldn't fire, leaving only O'Hare to protect the carrier. The enemy was in a V-of-Vs formation, flying very close together and using their rear-facing guns for mutual protection. O'Hare's Wildcat, armed with four 50-caliber guns, with 450 rounds per gun, had enough ammunition for about 34 seconds of firing.
O'Hare's initial maneuver was a high-side diving attack employing accurate deflection shooting. He accurately placed bursts of gunfire into a Betty's right engine and wing fuel tanks; when the stricken craft of Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryosuke Kogiku (3rd Shotai) on the right side of the formation abruptly lurched to starboard, he switched to the next plane up the line, that of Petty Officer 1st Class Koji Maeda (3rd Shotai leader). Maeda's plane caught fire, but his crew managed to put out the flames with "one single spurt of liquid...from the fire-extinguisher" Both Maeda and Kogiku would catch up with the group before bomb release.
With two "Bettys" knocked out of formation (albeit temporarily), O'Hare began his second firing pass. His first target was the outside plane, flown by Petty Officer 1st Class Bin Mori (2nd Shotai). O'Hare's bullets damaged the right engine and left fuel tank, forcing Mori to dump his bombs and abort his mission. With Mori out of combat, O'Hare next targeted the plane of Petty Officer 1st Class Susumu Uchiyama (1st Shotai), which blazed up and fell towards the sea.
As O'Hare began his third firing pass, the remaining "Bettys" were nearing the bomb release point, which left very little time to take action. First, he knocked down Lieutenant (junior grade) Akira Mitani (2nd Shotai leader). Mitani's departure left the lead plane, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Takuzo Ito, exposed. O'Hare's concentrated fire caused the plane's port engine nacelle to literally jump out of its mountings and fall from the plane. Indeed, the explosion was so violent that the 1st Chutai pilots were convinced an AA burst had struck their commander's plane. With a gaping hole in its left wing, Ito's plane dropped towards the sea.
Shortly afterwards, O'Hare made another firing pass against Maeda (who had now caught up), but ran out of ammunition before he could finish him. Frustrated, he pulled away to allow the ships to fire their anti-aircraft guns. Without his interference, the four survivors managed to drop their ordnance, but all their 250kg bombs missed. O'Hare believed he had shot down six bombers and damaged a seventh. Captain Sherman would later reduce this to five, as four of the reported nine bombers were still overhead when he pulled out. Lieutenant Commander John Thach, hurrying towards the scene with reinforcements after mopping up the 2nd Chûtai, saw three enemy bombers falling in flames at the same time.
In fact, O'Hare destroyed only three Bettys: Uchiyama's, Mitani's, and Ito's. The last plane, however, was not yet finished. Ito's command pilot, Warrant Officer Chuzo Watanabe,[n 1] tried to hit Lexington with his damaged plane. He missed, and flew into the water near Lexington at 1712. Another three Bettys were damaged by O'Hare's attacks. Of these, Maeda and Kogiku safely landed at Vunakanau airdrome at 1950, while Mori became lost in a storm and eventually ditched at Simpson Harbor at 2010.
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