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Memorial Day: “Gangsters and Heroes” — A Chicago Story Retold in Blowing Rock

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Theses students from Blowing Rock School were among several dozen who attended Monday’s Memorial Day ceremony in Blowing Rock

By David Rogers. May 25, 2015. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Almost everyone is probably guilty of passing by a monument or a statue and thinking, “That’s nice” — but without really getting to know the backstory prompting the historic marker’s erection.

COVER IMAGE: A woman hold up her hand in memory of a loved one or family member who served in the military. Photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News.

 

For example, this reporter lived in Chicago for almost seven years and his work frequently caused him to fly in and out of O’Hare International Airport. Never did he stop and investigate the history behind the man being honored. Nearly three decades later he learned — in Blowing Rock.

With nearly 200 onlookers circling the new Rotary Gazebo in Memorial Park on Monday, former Lt. Col. (Retired) Bill Parker of the U.S. Marines had them all scratching their heads — at least until that one moment when it all became crystal clear.

I like to tell stories.

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Cullie Tarleton, center, is flanked by Vernon Dunn, right and Albert Yount in remembering either their own military service, the service of those close to them, and in appreciation for those they did not know, but served at great sacrifice.

Everyone had gathered in Memorial Park for the annual Memorial Day remembrance of military veterans who, through the years, had paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to the nation, giving their lives so that America might remain free. After everyone in attendance, including many passers-by on the sidewalks of Main Street, turned to face the flag and sing “The Star Spangled Banner” and every branch of service was recognized with the singing of their respective songs, Colonel Parker took the microphone saying, “I have been accused of giving eclectic talks — and I don’t know where that came from — but I like to tell stories and I hope you will bear with me because today’s story is called, ‘Gangsters and Heroes’.”

And so he did tell a story — a marvelous one at that — starting out by talking about Al Capone and Chicago gangsters, but ending up by tying it all together with World War II heroism, with an ending punchline that was a surprise to all.

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Lt. Col. Bill Parker, right, tells his story, “Gangsters and Heroes”

For the benefit of Blowing Rock News readers, here is the full text of Col. Parker’s remarks, “Gangsters and Heroes”:

Many years ago, Al Capone virtually owned Chicago.   Capone wasn’t famous for anything heroic.   He was notorious for enmeshing the windy city in everything from bootlegged booze and prostitution to murder.  

Capone had a lawyer nicknamed “Easy Eddie.”   He was Capone’s lawyer for a good reason. Eddie was very good!   In fact, Eddie’s skill at legal maneuvering kept Big Al out of jail for a long time.   To show his appreciation, Capone paid him very well.   Not only was the money big, but Eddie got special dividends as well.   For instance, he and his family occupied a fenced-in mansion with live-in help and all the conveniences of the day.   The estate was so large that it filled an entire Chicago City block.   

Eddie lived the high life of the Chicago mob and gave little consideration to the atrocity that went on around him.   Eddie did have one soft spot, however.    He had a son that he loved dearly.   Eddie saw to it that his young son had clothes, cars, and a good education.    Nothing was withheld.   Price was no object.    And, despite his involvement with organized crime, Eddie even tried to teach him right from wrong.    Eddie wanted his son to be a better man than he was. 

Eddie gave little consideration to the atrocity that went on around him.

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The students were an important part of Monday’s ceremony.

Yet, with all his wealth and influence, there were two things he couldn’t give his son; he couldn’t pass on a good name or a good example.   One day, Easy Eddie reached a difficult decision.    Easy Eddie wanted to rectify wrongs he had done.   He decided he would go to the authorities and tell the truth about Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, clean up his tarnished name, and offer his son some semblance of integrity. To do this, he would have to testify against The Mob, and he knew that the cost would be great.

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“Butch” O’Hare. Photo courtesy of Office of War Information National Archives via Naval Historical Center website

So, he testified.   Within the year, Easy Eddie’s life ended in a blaze of gunfire on a lonely Chicago street.   But in his eyes, he had given his son the greatest gift he had to offer, at the greatest price he could ever pay.  

Police removed from his pockets a rosary, a crucifix, a religious medallion, and a poem clipped from a magazine. The poem read:  

“The clock of life is wound but once, and no man has the power to tell just when the hands will stop, at 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.”

 World War II produced many heroes.   One such man was Lieutenant Commander Butch O’Hare.    He was a fighter pilot assigned to the aircraft carrier Lexington in the South Pacific.   

In February of 1942 a squadron of Japanese bombers was reported inbound toward the fleet.   Six Wildcats, one of them piloted by Butch O’Hare, roared off the Lexington’s deck to stop them.  O’Hare and his wingman spotted the V formation of bombers first and dived to try to head them off.  The other F4F pilots were too far away to reach most of the enemy planes before they released their bombs.  As if this weren’t bad enough, O’Hare’s wingman discovered his guns were jammed.  He was forced to turn away.  Butch O’Hare stood alone between the Lexington and the bombers.

Place no faith in time, for the clock may soon be still.

Grumman “Wildcat” replica. Photo courtesy of www.myarchtypes.com

Laying aside all thoughts of personal safety, he dived into the formation of Japanese planes. Wing-mounted 50 calibers blazed as he charged in, attacking one surprised enemy plane and then another. Butch weaved in and out of the now broken formation and fired at as many planes as possible until all his ammunition was finally spent.   

Undaunted, he continued the assault. He dived at the planes, trying to clip a wing or tail in hope of damaging as many enemy planes as possible, rendering them unfit to fly.   Finally, the exasperated Japanese squadron took off in another direction.   Deeply relieved, Butch O’Hare and his tattered fighter limped back to the carrier.   Upon arrival, he reported in and related the event surrounding his return.   The film from the gun-camera mounted on his plane told the tale.    It showed the extent of Butch’s daring attempt to protect his fleet.   He had, in fact, destroyed five enemy aircraft.   For this action Butch became the Navy’s first Ace of W.W.II, and the first Naval Aviator to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.

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With thoughts of those who gave their all, everyone at the ceremony turned to face the flag during the playing of “Taps” at the end.

A year later Butch was killed in aerial combat at the age of 29.   His home town would not allow the memory of this WW II hero to fade, and today, O’Hare Airport in Chicago is named in tribute to the courage of this great man.   So, the next time you find yourself at O’Hare International, give some thought to visiting Butch’s memorial displaying his statue, a F4f Wildcat Fighter with his squadron markings, and his Medal of Honor.    It’s located between Terminal 1 and 2.   And remember that Butch O’Hare was Easy Eddie’s son.

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