Butch's Wingman

By David Sears

Jimmie and Butch

The lineage could be traced to July 1940, when 26-year-old O’Hare reported to the Naval Air Station San Diego hangar housing VF-3. “Fighting Three” took its number from the carrier Saratoga (CV-3), the squadron’s seagoing home. Its iconic “Felix the Cat” insignia featured a malicious black cartoon feline toting a bomb with a lit fuse. The year before, Fighting Three had earned the fleet gunnery trophy, a tribute to its then-squadron gunnery officer, now flight officer, Lieutenant Jimmie Thach.

Arkansas-born Thach was a U.S. Naval Academy product, as was his older brother James (because James had been called “Jimmie,” John became “little Jimmie”). 4 Following his 1927 graduation and two years’ obligatory fleet service, the younger Thach earned his Wings of Gold in January 1930.

He next served an apprenticeship with the VF-1B “High Hats,” renowned for their stunt flying (High Hat biplane formations, tethered wing-to-wing by lengths of manila line, performed precision maneuvers at air shows and demonstrations) and dive-bombing prowess (they were featured in Hell Divers , a 1931 Clark Gable film). 5 There followed tours as a test, patrol, and scout pilot before joining VF-3 in June 1939. 6

Jimmie Thach valued two attributes in novice flyers: flying ability and competitive spirit. 7 Butch had learned from some of the best, including Lieutenant James H. Flatley Jr. (Naval Academy class of ’28). Thach and Flatley (another Jimmy) shared career trajectories and a friendly rivalry in gunnery expertise. What Thach may not have known was the shady side of O’Hare’s family tree.

During the Roaring Twenties, Butch’s father, Edgar Joseph “E. J.” O’Hare, was a dog-racing track entrepreneur in partnership with the infamous Al “Scarface” Capone. E. J. had eventually gone undercover for the Treasury Department, helping the feds engineer Capone’s 1931 conviction and imprisonment for tax evasion. In November 1939, with an ailing but vengeful Scarface out of prison, E. J. was gunned down on the streets of Chicago. Butch interrupted advanced flight training to attend his father’s funeral.

Jimmie Thach had devised a foolproof method for showing new aviation hotshots they still had a lot to learn: an introductory hop with the “Bitching Team,” a cadre of VF-3’s best pilots. The team’s routine was simple. Jimmie, or another team member, would take each newcomer aloft and give him all the altitude advantage he wanted. Then the rookie would try to get on the veteran’s tail and stay there long enough to get in a good shot. The Bitching Team flier invariably reversed the advantage.

But this latest nugget simply didn’t make rookie mistakes. Instead, he came right in on Thach’s tail and stuck. It seemed as if O’Hare had been born to fly smoothly and efficiently. Each of his moves was just enough. Butch inevitably joined the Bitching Team and, a little more than a year later, helped validate a crucial new aerial combat tactic.

In the countdown to the Pacific war, Thach (now promoted to VF-3 CO after the untimely death of his predecessor) devised what he hoped would be a means to counter the much-touted firepower, climb, and maneuverability advantages of Japan’s remarkable new fighter aircraft, the A6M Zero, or “Zeke.” 8

Jimmie’s “beam defense position” (later the eponymous “Thach Weave”) depended on pilot marksmanship, lookout vigilance, and proper spacing. The concept was elegant—at least as designed using matchsticks on Thach’s kitchen table. Capitalizing on spacing to detect incoming attacks, the pilots of two-plane sections flying abreast in two-section divisions (separated by the fighters’ turning radius) simply turned toward attackers seen coming in astern—initiating a scissoring “weave” that cycled between defense and offense.

That fall, with VF-3 equipped with early-model Grumman F4F Wildcats, Thach tested beam defense by having an O’Hare-led “Japanese” division “bounce” a Jimmie-led division. 9 Purported Zeke-Wildcat performance disparities were handicapped (Thach’s division flew their F4F-3s at no more than half-throttle), no shots were fired, and Jimmie’s pilots were always expecting to be jumped. Still, Thach had chosen O’Hare—VF-3’s best pilot—to lead the assault. Afterward, O’Hare was effusive: “Skipper, it really works!” 10

O’Hare’s Historic Day

The Thach-O’Hare lineage got its first combat test when VF-3 was cross-decked to the carrier Lexington (CV-2), part of Task Force 11, for what was supposed to be a preemptive 21 February 1942 aerial assault on Rabaul, Japan’s Southwest Pacific bastion. Detected on 20 February while still 400 miles short of strike range, TF 11, and not Rabaul, became the target.

Thach struck first that day. Aloft and leading a CAP division, he and his wingman, Edward “Doc” Sellstrom Jr., were vectored to the troublesome snooper, a big four-engine H6K “Mavis” flying boat. 11 Jimmie splashed the craft with a high-side run, VF-3’s—and Thach’s—first aerial kill. O’Hare, then heading a CAP section, stayed behind, as he would for a subsequent morning kill (another Mavis).

That same afternoon, as the first substantial aerial melee between Japanese and American carrier-based planes unfolded, both O’Hare and Thach were in VF-3’s ready room. Once they and their respective wingmen joined the 12 Hi-Hat aviators already airborne, all 16 of VF-3’s operable Wildcats were committed to a confrontation with nine twin-engine G4M horizontal bombers, later known as “Bettys.” 12

As Thach and O’Hare joined the action, six Bettys had already been splashed by aerial and shipboard gunnery. Jimmie had yet to join up with his wingman, but he set off alone after the three remaining bombers (the pursuit earned him a second kill and shared credit for a third), once more leaving Butch and his wingman, Marion “Duff” Dufilho, on the sidelines. 13

This time, however, O’Hare’s fortunes changed. When the Lex’s Air Plot got a fix on new bogeys, Butch and Duff were dispatched to investigate. Spotting a formation of eight Bettys, the Americans clung to their high-side advantage, waited for the lead Japanese planes to pass below, and then bounced the formation’s right flank. 14

O’Hare promptly splashed the outermost bomber with a short burst to the wing root and starboard engine. His next burst hit the adjacent Betty’s starboard engine, rupturing its wing tank and sending it plummeting. Finding himself positioned ahead and on the left side of the bomber formation’s remnants, Butch nimbly wheeled to port, regained altitude, and got behind the rearmost plane. Once again, shots to the starboard engine did the trick.

This third kill cleared O’Hare’s sights for a run at the new trailer—quickly splashed with bursts to the left wing and cockpit. Going into his third pass, Butch concentrated on keeping altitude advantage and triggering opportunistic shots. He ignored task-force antiaircraft fire and set his sights on a straggler. The downing of this fifth Betty earned him a shot at the formation’s lead. A point-blank burst literally tore the bomber’s port-side engine loose from the wing.

As the pair of survivors toggled bombs (the nearest erupted barely 100 feet from the Lex’s fantail) and retreated, O’Hare’s four-minute, one-man, one-plane rampage was all but over. Ten lofted rounds finally emptied his magazines. When he touched down, pilots and deck personnel who’d stood ringside to the remarkable gunnery show mobbed him.

The aftermath of a highly publicized White House award ceremony in April (during which Rita O’Hare draped the Medal of Honor ribbon around her husband’s neck as a beaming President Franklin D. Roosevelt looked on) was used to showcase Butch before a hero-hungry nation. The newly promoted lieutenant commander was the Pacific war’s first Navy ace. (Though convinced he’d dispatched six enemy bombers, O’Hare was ultimately credited with five.) 15 There were morale-boosting defense-factory visits and a celebratory St. Louis parade rivaling Charles Lindbergh’s during his 1927 transatlantic homecoming. Butch next made a round of visits to naval aviation training facilities, including Norfolk, Miami, Corpus Christi, and Jacksonville. The goal was to inspire another group of bystanders—cadets stalled in the training pipeline because of shortages in instructors, planes, and carrier decks.

Among the eager if frustrated acolytes watching from seats in the NAS Corpus base auditorium during O’Hare’s May 1942 appearance was Alex Vraciu, an Indiana native and son of Romanian immigrants. As an undergraduate at DePauw, a small Methodist university in Greencastle, Indiana, he had completed the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Called to active duty three months after his 1941 graduation, Alex pursued his Wings of Gold via stops in Glenview, Illinois; Dallas; and Corpus Christi. After seeing O’Hare in person, Vraciu, like many others in the audience, vowed to become a carrier-based fighter pilot. He continued to pile up solo flight hours (nearly 300 during his time in Corpus) as he waited in the queue.

The following month, in a change of command ceremony at NAS Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, Jimmie Thach passed the VF-3 torch to Butch O’Hare. Thach then ranked as a fighter ace as well, having chalked up four more aerial victories (and combat-tested his Thach Weave) during the Battle of Midway. 16 But triumph at Midway—and the earlier draw at Coral Sea—had cost vital carriers, planes, and pilots. Accordingly, VF-3 lost its accustomed slot on board the Saratoga and, with it, aircraft and veteran airmen. It was not until March 1943 that a depleted Fighting Three finally shipped stateside, to San Diego, set up shop in a hangar at North Island’s South Field, and readied to rejoin the Pacific war with a new carrier air group. Only then could Butch write to his family: “Things are looking up. We have quite a few pilots and a third of our planes and they really are good ones this time.” 17

Learning from a Master

O’Hare’s enthusiasm about the new aircraft was justified—a dozen factory-fresh Grumman F6F-3 Hellcats had arrived—but the loss of veterans made it doubly hard to sort through the influx of squadron rookies. One promising new arrival was Alex Vraciu. A coin toss at ComCarPac’s San Diego detailing office had won him the chance to train with Butch O’Hare.

Within weeks, when VF-3 departed for Pearl Harbor (and ultimately NAS Puunene), Alex’s skills had earned him assignment as Butch’s wingman—a big opportunity to get one-on-one coaching from a venerated master. O’Hare’s practical, soft-spoken approach taught the neophyte how to temper eagerness and ego. After one practice dogfight, during which Vraciu had risked a collision to keep O’Hare from getting on his tail, the mentor quietly counseled his acolyte to “save it for the Japanese.” 18

Newly attached to Air Group Six and designated VF-6, the squadron managed to keep its “Felix the Cat” swagger but faced more daunting tests of identity and cohesion. For the August 1943 raid on Marcus, VF-6 was split between the Independence and Princeton (CVL-23). And then, in the run-up to an assault on Wake Island, O’Hare lost a half-dozen more pilots to the carrier Cowpens (CVL-25). A painstakingly melded VF-6 had been split three ways. Fortunately for Alex, the link to Butch remained intact: He was now second section leader in O’Hare’s division.

At 1145 on 5 October, while covering a cruiser detachment as it readied to bombard Wake’s main island, Butch’s two divisions were vectored to a trio of incoming Zekes. After maneuvering his flock to jump the unsuspecting Japanese, O’Hare led his wingman, Ensign Hank Landry, toward the most distant Zeke, leaving Vraciu and wingman, Willis “Willie” Callan, to take on the closest.

Alex ripped into the enemy fighter with a sustained burst from above and to the right. The plane’s cowling streamed smoke before quickly bursting into flame. Engine and fuselage fragments fluttered in front of Vraciu’s windscreen. It was his first kill, the culmination of months of training. Then—as he was supposed to—Alex climbed to reestablish contact with his flight leader. Butch was nowhere to be seen, but Vraciu tallyhoed a lone Zeke racing for Wake’s airfield.

He and Willie Callan caught up with their new quarry just as it touched down. Moments after the Japanese pilot leapt from his cockpit and bolted for cover, the two low-flying Hellcats deftly torched the Zeke and a Betty parked nearby. Now low on fuel and ammunition, the pair returned to the Independence . O’Hare, meanwhile, had chalked up the fighter he’d set out after and a Betty as well.

In all, the Wake raids went well for VF-6. Though split among three carriers, their combined aerial tally for the day was four Zekes, one Betty, and one G3M Type 96 “Nell” attack bomber. O’Hare had his sixth and seventh kills—and every reason to expect more.

Within a week, however, the organizational cards were shuffled again. O’Hare took overall command of Air Group Six. But because his former squadron’s resources remained split among the CVLs, VF-6 was displaced by VF-2 on board the Enterprise (CV-6), AG-6’s new carrier. This severed the immediate tie between Butch and Alex. While the pace and fortunes of war had cut short his combat-craft apprenticeship, Vraciu was no longer a fledgling. The weeks ahead tested both men, and proved tragic for one.

Near dusk on 20 November, the first day of Operation Galvanic, the invasion of Tarawa, the Independence was jolted by the explosion of a Japanese aerial torpedo. Vraciu had just scored his second aerial kill, a Betty, and was relaxing in the ready room when the torpedo hit. The wounded carrier immediately withdrew south to sanctuary in Fanafuti, part of the Ellice Islands.

On board the Enterprise , meanwhile, O’Hare, ever the tactician, was trying to counter the sort of twilight menace that torpedoed the Independence . Lacking radar-equipped night fighters, the jury-rigged solution entailed teaming radar-equipped TBF Avengers with pairs of F6Fs, the Avenger to guide the Hellcats to a visual intercept.

On 26 November, a black, moonless, and overcast night, as Butch and his wingman, Ensign Warren A. “Andy” Skon, maneuvered to rendezvous with an Avenger piloted by VT-6 CO Lieutenant Commander John L. Phillips Jr., a Betty lurked above and astern. In the tracer-lit crossfire between the intruder and the Avenger’s ball-turret gunner, O’Hare’s Hellcat dropped away. 19 There was no radio transmission and no further trace of Butch or his plane.

Alex’s Pledge

It was only when Vraciu and other VF-6 refugees reached the carrier Essex (CV-9) that they learned of O’Hare’s loss. The angry, heartsick disciple made an immediate pledge: “I’m going to get ten of those bastards—ten Bettys!” 20 Alex would have to wait another two months, but in late January 1944—assigned now to the Intrepid (CV-11) as part of Operation Flintlock, the conquest of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands—he began to fulfill his pledge.

On a mission to strafe the Japanese airfield on Roi, Vraciu and his new wingman, Ensign Thomas Addison Hall, spotted a trio of low-flying Bettys. Alex angled for a flat high-side run on the formation’s Tail End Charlie. He barely touched the trigger before the Betty’s starboard wing root burst into flame and the bomber crashed. Skimming over Roi’s lagoon to overtake a second Betty, Vraciu torched its wing tanks and sent it tumbling.

He then pointed Tom Hall toward the more distant of the two remaining Bettys, while he chased west after the other. When Alex finally caught up, he made sure to avoid the bomber’s deadly 20-mm tail stinger; instead, as O’Hare had taught him, he made full-deflection runs from either side. Because his wing guns were malfunctioning, it took nearly ten passes before the Betty finally stumbled and nosed into the sea. It was Vraciu’s third kill of the day, and it made him an ace. Just as important, all three scores were Bettys.

Two weeks later, during the massive 16 February fighter sweep of Truk Atoll, Alex was one of five pilots to chalk up a quadruple—three Zekes and an A6M2-N “Rufe” seaplane fighter. Having reached nine confirmed aerial kills, he became the Navy’s second leading fighter ace—Butch’s worthy successor.

But Vraciu’s aerial prowess didn’t spare him continued bad luck with carriers—or the unwanted prospect of being sidelined. That same night, a B5N “Kate” launched a torpedo straight and true into the Intrepid ’s hull, sending the ship limping toward Pearl for months of repairs. Air Group Six simultaneously was slated to rotate home, prompting Alex to angle for a new squadron billet in order to resume the hunt.

Fortunately, Vraciu ran into Lieutenant Mark Bright, a VF-16 veteran and an intramural basketball opponent at DePauw. 21 “Heck, come join us,” Bright suggested, and, with AirPac approval, Alex boarded the Lexington (CV-16). On 29 April, during another raid against Truk, Vraciu scored his first victories as a VF-16 “Airedale”—two Zekes. It brought his overall tally to 11, but Alex’s most productive sortie—a mission astoundingly reminiscent of Butch’s 1942 fete—was still ahead.

The ‘Turkey Shoot’

Central Pacific Forces (now officially the 5th Fleet under Admiral Raymond Spruance’s command) next set its sights on the Marianas—Operation Forager. Vice Admiral Mark Mitscher’s Task Force 58 boasted a “Murderer’s Row” of nine CVs and seven CVLs in four carrier task groups (CTGs). 22 Jimmie Thach, now a full commander and prospective operations officer for Vice Admiral John McCain (slated to relieve Mitscher after Forager), was along for the ride on board the flagship Lex .

Beginning 11 June, Mitscher staged devastating fighter and bomber sweeps to soften up the island chain for the 15 June invasion of Saipan. Though he’d been allotted four days, it took just two to command Mariana skies. During a 14 June bomber escort mission north of Saipan, Vraciu managed to bag a reconnaissance Betty (his 12th overall kill and 4th “revenge” Betty), but, like many fliers, wondered if he’d ever see any more Japanese airplanes aloft. 23

Nineteen June (D-day +4) supplied splendid flying weather for TF 58 Hellcats to pummel Guam’s Orete Airfield. Planned sorties were on schedule until a “Hey Rube!” (the recall order) flashed at 1000. Bogeys were orbiting at high altitude a hundred miles west of the carriers. Guam would have to wait; 140 additional fighters scrambled to join 60 CAP planes already airborne. Task force bombers and torpedo planes cleared the area, freeing flight decks for fighter operations. 24

Beginning at 1035, the two-day Battle of the Philippine Sea began in earnest when as many as 54 Hellcats battled a first wave of 60 Japanese fighters and torpedo bombers, destroying an estimated 42. At 1107, the Lexington ’s radar detected a new raid—an estimated 100 aircraft. The welcoming party, VF-15 Hellcats led by CAG-15 Commander David McCampbell, arguably the Navy’s best aerial marksman, bounced them 40 miles out, claiming 18 splashes. Despite these dreadful losses, enemy remnants flew on—directly into a 40-plane ambush. Half of these Hellcats were from VF-16.

The Airedale CO, Commander Paul D. Buie, led three divisions through a sky scribbled with contrails. Buie’s Hellcat boasted a new engine, and he steadily left his flock behind—including second division leader Alex Vraciu and Alex’s wingman, 21-year-old Ensign Homer Brockmeyer. Although Vraciu’s supercharger was stuck in low blower and leaking oil misted his windscreen, he was determined to get into the fight. Requesting a new vector, he and Homer were pointed to bogeys 75 miles out.

Halfway there, Alex spotted several bandits but sensed there had to be more. Sure enough, off to port and closing fast flew a mass of at least 50 Japanese aircraft—a mix of D4Y “Judy” dive bombers, B6N “Jill” torpedo planes, and Zekes. No time to waste.

“Plenty of cookies on the plate,” Vraciu reminded himself when another Hellcat cut in on his first target. Adjusting quickly, Alex dispatched a nearby Judy in a ball of fire and black smoke. Through his misted windscreen, he next set sights on two more Judys aligned in column. One short burst splashed the trailer and, dipping a wing, Vraciu hit the second Judy in the same pass. Its rear gunner continued firing even as the plane arced down.

Friend and foe alike now edged into range of ships’ guns. Against a background of exploding flak, Alex spotted another “meatball” breaking formation, slid onto its tail, and poured tracers into the wing root. This Judy flamed and twisted out of control, its pilot dead.

Vraciu next headed for a column of three Judys, overtaking the nearest just as it nosed into a dive. He scarcely squeezed the trigger before the bomber burst into flames and plummeted. Another short squeeze got the second in mid-dive—a blast so close that Alex had to yank his stick to stay clear. He’d never seen anything explode like that.

“Splash number six,” Vraciu radioed exuberantly, but then warned: “There’s one more ahead and he’s diving on a BB.” He’d barely added “I don’t think he’ll make it,” before the Judy hit the antiaircraft curtain and fell to a direct hit.

Looking around, Alex saw only Hellcats in the sky. Behind and below stretched a miles-long trail of smoke, fluttering debris, and flaming oil slicks. When he touched down, Vraciu learned that the whole sequence had lasted under eight minutes. The armorers told him he’d fired fewer than 400 rounds.

There were many superlatives for a day when boastful aviator aerial kill claims approached 400 (a more realistic figure was closer to 250). VF-16’s Lieutenant (junior grade) Zeigel “Ziggy” Neff, a Missouri farm boy who claimed four kills in two hops, perhaps put it best. “It was,” Neff told VF-16’s intelligence officer, “just like an old time turkey shoot.”

The next day, 20 June, earned its own name. Beginning at 1630, a 216-aircraft strike force set out to destroy the distant and retreating Japanese carriers. 25 The “Mission beyond Darkness” was a gallant endeavor that ran short on fuel and daylight. It claimed just one Japanese carrier (with damage to two more) while costing the lives of 16 TF-58 aviators and 42 air crewmen.

Over the Japanese fleet, Vraciu and Homer Brockmeyer were surrounded and forced to fight for their lives. Briefly flying abeam of his wingman, Alex saw Homer’s Hellcat peppered from astern and heard Brockmeyer say “I’ve been hit.” Vraciu rolled hard right, taking out the attacking Zeke with two deflection bursts, only to see Brockmeyer’s Hellcat spiral seaward. The new master ace had lost an apprentice.

After escaping the Zekes that had cornered him, Vraciu climbed to pick up TF-58’s homing signal. Returning through the dark to a spot-lit task force, he reached the Enterprise ’s landing circle, touched down on the first pass, and was hustled below.

Connecting the Generations

“Pete” Mitscher wished the 23 June photo to be “personal” rather than “official.” Mitscher and Alex stood shaking hands atop the starboard wing of Alex’s Hellcat. Prominently displayed between them are 19 “Rising Sun” decals—what at the time made Alex the U.S. Navy’s leading fighter ace.

The photo reflects the connections among generations of naval aviators. Mitscher, then 57 (but looking older), represented naval aviation’s origins. Vraciu, meanwhile, stood for the present and, at 25, the ostensible future. Missing from the frame, but perhaps in the minds of both, were men of the generations between. Men such as Jimmie Thach and Jimmy Flatley, who were still serving and shaping naval aviation’s future, and Butch O’Hare, who had paid the ultimate price.

Alex Vraciu soon departed for home leave and for a “victory lap.” Back in the States, he was lavishly feted, particularly at a parade in his hometown of East Chicago, Indiana. While home, he married Kathryn Horn, a girl he’d known since childhood. Their wartime marriage, however, did not curb his impulse to return to combat. After a honeymoon in New York and parrying Navy efforts to schedule a publicity tour like the one endured by Butch, Alex wangled duty with VF-20 on board the Enterprise .

On a 14 December 1944 mission over Luzon, Vraciu was shot down by ground fire and rescued by Philippine guerrillas. Evading Japanese captivity over the next month, he eventually led a contingent of the resistance fighters that met up with invading U.S. Army forces. These exploits, however, ended his aerial combat ambitions. His knowledge of Philippine guerrilla operations meant the Navy could not risk his capture.

Alex ultimately was the U.S. Navy’s fourth-ranking fighter ace and a Navy Cross recipient. The overall leading ace was David McCampbell—a Medal of Honor recipient with a final total of 34 aerial kills.

1. David Sears, Pacific Air: How Fearless Flyboys, Peerless Aircraft, and Fast Flattops Conquered the Skies in the War with Japan (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2011), 269.

2. Ray E. Boomhower, Fighter Pilot (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2010), 68.

3. Author interview with Alex Vraciu.

4. I have not found an authoritative source that settles whether the actual spelling is “Jimmy” or “Jimmie”; I have adopted the spelling used in Steve Ewing’s Thach Weave: The Life of Jimmie Thach (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004).

5. Sears, Pacific Air , 44–45.

6. Ewing, Thach Weave , 19–24.

7. Steve Ewing and John B. Lundstrom, Fateful Rendezvous: The Life of Butch O’Hare (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 93.

8. Ibid., 35.

9. Admiral John S. Thach, “Butch O’Hare and the Thach Weave,” Naval History , vol. 6, no. 1, (Spring 1992), 49–52.

10. Ewing, Thach Weave , 39.

11. Sears, Pacific Air , 95.

12. Ibid., 102.

13. Ewing, Thach Weave , 56.

14. Sears, Pacific Air , 104.

15. Ibid., 117.

16. John B. Lundstrom, The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), Appendix 6, 490–95.

17. Ewing and Lundstrom, Fateful Rendezvous , 186.

18. Interview with Alex Vraciu.

19. Sears, Pacific Air , 286, 283.

20. Interview with Alex Vraciu.

21. Ibid.

22. Sears, Pacific Air , 300.

23. Ibid., 305.

24. Ibid., 308.

25. Ibid., 314.



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