Roy Exum: ‘Easy Eddie’ & Butch

Tuesday, November 13, 2018 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Not an hour’s drive from where I now sit is one of the best restaurants in all of Tennessee. Its been some years since I last ate supper at High Point, a legendary mansion restored to elegance by the current owners but, back in the ‘60s, I got a wide-eyed teenager’s peek at the place one Sunday afternoon. What’s this? 14-inch walls filled with sand to stop a G-man’s bullet? Escape traps in the roof and the basement? Underground rooms to store prohibition whiskey? Tunnels to disappear?

Not many know this but before General Eisenhower built our magnificent freeway system, it was State Highway 41 that would take you through Chattanooga en route to Atlanta and Miami. Local legend has it that the mansion in Monteagle – halfway to Nashville-- was so named by a silent partner who quite adroitly financed its construction so he, his pal “Public Enemy No. 1,” his manager (for lack of a better word) “Easy Eddie and “da boys” could have their drinks, play cards and visit over certain matters on its flagstone veranda.

 The ‘silent partner’ was Capone, that’s him, “Scarface,” and the mountain folk knew to turn both mute and blind when they would spy the biggest gangster in the world shuffling canasta cards with John Dillinger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd and those types at ‘High Point,’ a code name of sorts Capone came up with because, after all, it is the highest point of terra between Miami and Chicago.

On this very day 79 years ago, the brains behind Capone’s criminal – as scattered as they most assuredly were after shotguns had done the dirty at a Chicago street corner five days before-- was buried in St. Louis. “Easy Eddie” was Al’s partner in many enterprises. He had a steel trap of a legal mind that could bend laws, fix juries, and even slow the mechanical rabbit at the dog track. Capone thought so much of him – get this -- the king of the gangsters actually married Easy Eddie’s fiancée a couple of months after ordering the hit! (Sidenote: Capone had horrible venereal disease.)

Before Easy Eddie’s “Achilles” started acting up, he had it all. Enough cash to set a wet mule on fire, a walled city-block of an empire in downtown Chicago, a covey of “broads,” and a son who was his True North. One day Eddie came home to find the boy lolling around on the sofa, eating cake and bonbons at age 13, and immediately shipped the kid off to a military academy to keep his boy from “going soft.”

Yet while the only lawyer in history to admit he was a crook, it pained him that his son would never have a good name but a notoriously sullied reputation. There is a story that has been going around for years that “Easy Eddie” went canary for the Feds to make things right with his son but the better angle was that J. Edgar and his “FBI-iees” were closing like lightning on the mob and Eddie was working for solid positioning.

There is also the take that “Easy Eddie” sang so forcefully you’d have thought he had a silver-coated throat. The theory was part of the deal was to get the G-men to arrange some other favors and Eddie had the street smarts to know that ratting out Capone would carry some stiff consequences. More on that in a sec.

In 1931 Capone and his gang went to trial. By the time the docket was called, Capone had the jury rigged better than the U.S.S. Constitution. “Easy Eddie” tipped the IRS, the judge swapped the tainted jury for one that was clean just minutes before opening motions, and Big Al became much smaller in Cell 181 at Alcatraz.

On the cold November day Eddie was laid the rest, the nation faced troubling times. With Germany to our east and Japan to our west, war was a certainty and not volunteering for duty was worse than ratting out Scarface himself.

Instead of producing mobsters, “The Greatest Generation” fueled the war effort. One of the greatest heroes was Butch O’Hare – yes, for whom the airport is named. One day in 1942 he was flying a sortie when he noticed somebody on the USS Lexington had failed to top his fuel tanks. He had no choice but to turn back towards the fleet.

As he approached, he confronted nine Japanese “Betty” bombers and, realizing the fleet was defenseless with its pilots and planes on missions, he threw the throttle “balls to the wall” and put on the most dazzling show of aeronautical skills ever seen in U.S. military history. His wingman’s guns instantly jammed, Butch knocked five of the enemy planes into the sea near Papua New Guinea.

When his ammo was spent, he then flew into the Japanese formation, trying to hit the enemy planes with his Hellcat. O’Hare finally ran the enemy away without a single Japanese bomb touching a Navy ship. And only when he landed his airplane was it found his plane was virtually unscathed, the lone bullet hole coming from friendly fire.

When he landed to the cheers from the crew, he sprinted towards the embarrassed gunner and said in a loud voice coming from his grin, “Son, if you don't stop shooting at me when I've got my wheels down, I'm going to have to report you to the gunnery officer!"

The sailors adored it. That single day Butch O’Hare became the first Navy “ace” (five planes shot down,) was awarded the first Navy Medal of Honor on World War II, and placed in charge of several squadrons. To fly for O’Hare a pilot had to solemnly swear he would never call his commanding officer by any other name than “Butch.” 

In the months that followed O’Hare would be awarded the Navy Cross and receive dozens of accolades for merit, bravery, and courage, but on November 23, 1943, flying in a series of night attacks from a carrier against the Japanese, Butch was caught in a crossfire and he and his Hellcat disappeared forever near the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific. Butch was 29 years old.

Where would you most imagine his love for flying would come from? Back when Butch was a kid, his dad had a passion for this new phenomena called airplanes, and he would take Butch with him and often “Easy Eddie” would let his delighted son take over the stick.

“Easy Eddie” O’Hare was Butch O’Hare’s daddy.

* * *

BUTCH O’HARE TO HIS PILOTS: “If you ever jump one of these Zeros and you surprise him, remember, the first thing he's going to do is a loop. Don't follow him into it! By the time you go into it a second time, he'll be behind you. The first thing you should do when he starts up the loop is make a hard right turn and keep turning. You'll come right around, and when he bottoms out of the loop, you'll be right on his tail!"

O'Hare also related "First of all, remember, in today's world, whenever you take off and engage the enemy, you're going to be outnumbered. If you want to survive this War, you have to look behind you every chance you get. Even when you pull the trigger, be sure to look behind because there's gonna be someone back there.”

* * *

When “Easy Eddie” and Butch’s mom divorced in 1927, Butch and his two sisters stayed with their mom in St. Louis. Aside from visiting his father, the man whose name today graces O’Hare International Airport never lived in Chicago.

* * *

At age 13, when Butch was shipped away to the Western Military Academy in 1932, he excelled and was accepted into the United States Naval Academy. There have been strong rumors for years that a Naval Academy appointment was part of Easy Eddie’s deal with the IRS for blowing the whistle but Butch earned the Medal of Honor on his own.

* * *

In April of 1942, O’Hare was greeted to a hero’s welcome in St. Louis and 60,000 were there to cheer. A sentence in the St. Louis Dispatch read, “With President Franklin D. Roosevelt looking on, O'Hare's wife Rita placed the Medal around his neck. After receiving the Medal of Honor, then-Lieutenant O'Hare was described as "modest, inarticulate, humorous, terribly nice and more than a little embarrassed by the whole thing".

* * *

At Western Military Academy, in Alton, Ill., before it went belly up in 1971, Butch was a classmate of another soon-to-be-a-pilot, Paul Tibbetts. Paul remembered Butch as “one helluva good man and a dear friend.” You will recall that Tibbetts, who would become a Brigadier General in the Air Force, was best known as the pilot who flew the B-29 Superfortress known as the Enola Gay (named after his mother) when it dropped Little Boy, the first of two atomic bombs used in warfare, on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

* * *

It has been 79 years – to this day – when “Easy Eddie” was laid to rest. Ten days from now will mark the 75th anniversary of the day Butch was reported missing. That’s a difference of four short years. When ‘Easy Eddie” was pulled lifeless from his gun-riddled car, this poem was found in his pants pocket:

"The clock of life is wound but once, and no man has the power

to tell just when the hands will stop,  late or early hour.

Now is the only time you own.  Live, love, toil with a will

 Place no faith in time.  For the clock may soon be still."

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