February 20

This Day in History

World War II

Feb 20, 1942:

Pilot O'Hare becomes first American WWII flying ace

On this day, Lt. Edward O'Hare takes off from the aircraft carrier Lexington in a raid against the Japanese position at Rabaul-and minutes later becomes America's first flying ace.

In mid-February 1942, the Lexington sailed into the Coral Sea. Rabaul, a town at the very tip of New Britain, one of the islands that comprised the Bismarck Archipelago, had been invaded in January by the Japanese and transformed into a stronghold--in fact, one huge airbase. The Japanese were now in prime striking position for the Solomon Islands, next on the agenda for expanding their ever-growing Pacific empire. The Lexington's mission was to destabilize the Japanese position on Rabaul with a bombing raid.

Aboard the Lexington was U.S. Navy fighter pilot Lt. Edward O'Hare, attached to Fighting Squadron 3 when the United States entered the war. As the Lexington left Bougainville, the largest of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific (and still free from Japanese control), for Rabaul, ship radar picked up Japanese bombers headed straight for the carrier. O'Hare and his team went into action, piloting F4F Wildcats. In a mere four minutes, O'Hare shot down five Japanese G4M1 Betty bombers--bringing a swift end to the Japanese attack and earning O'Hare the designation "ace" (given to any pilot who had five or more downed enemy planes to his credit).

Although the Lexington blew back the Japanese bombers, the element of surprise was gone, and the attempt to raid Rabaul was aborted for the time being. O'Hare was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery--and excellent aim.

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