Rear Admiral Clarence W. McClusky Jr.: The Hero of the Battle of Midway

By Edward Feuerherd

He was born in 1902, one year before the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight at Kill Devil Hill. He flew everything from open cockpit bi-planes to the first carrier-based jets. He was one of those rare heroes whose leadership and valor not only vanquished a foe but changed the course of a war. His skills as an aviator are honored each year by the presentation of an award in his name to the U.S. Navy’s air wing squadron recognized for outstanding achievements and contributions to naval aviation. He is Rear Admiral Clarence Wade McClusky, Jr, the hero of the Battle of Midway. 

Young McClusky

Wade McClusky, Jr. was born in Buffalo, New York on June 1, 1902. He was the youngest of five children born to C. W. McClusky and Mary (Stearns) McClusky. His father was a successful accountant.

Young Wade’s first attempt to fly was off the roof of the family home. He learned very little about aeronautics that day but gained a bit of knowledge about fractures.

He was a popular classmate in high school and an inquiring student. Handsome and athletic, he was the football team’s starting quarterback and outstanding baseball player.

After high school in 1922, he received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.  Also, in that class were Midshipmen Max Leslie and Lofton Russell Henderson, both were in the air at Midway. Following graduation in June 1926, Ensign McClusky remained at the Naval Academy for the summer course in aviation. He was then ordered to the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, where he completed flight training and was designated Naval Aviator on 7 May 1929.

World War II

By 1941, American military planners began to realize that war in the Pacific was inevitable. It was just a matter of where it would start and when. American war plans reflected the emphasis from defending American and European possessions in the Pacific. Increasing diplomatic and economic pressure was applied to Japan, aimed at forcing her withdrawal from China, where her armies had been involved in a long series of "incidents" since 1931. Japan, however, would not budge.

A superior Japanese Navy had been pummeling American and Allied forces for six months after first ambushing Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December of 1941. Victory for the Axis powers, which included Italy, Japan, and Germany, seemed virtually imminent.

Code-breakers

Captain Joseph John Rochefort’s code-breakers cracked the Japanese fleet’s covert signals and learned about a pending attack on Midway Island, a tiny atoll northwest of the Hawaiian archipelago and a key strategic position, located roughly halfway between North America and Asia. The American fleet, under the command of Admiral Chester Nimitz class ‘05, rushed to put together a counter-offensive.

Nimitz devised a surprise attack to ambush the Japanese Kido Butai, which was the name given to the fleet of aircraft carriers, airplanes, battleships and destroyers that was bearing down on Midway (Americans called these groups “task forces”). Nimitz planned to go after the Japanese carriers as their planes were occupied attacking Midway, or when the planes were returning to the ships to refuel.

McClusky leads Air Group Six

On the morning of June 4, 1942, McClusky was ordered to lead Air Group Six on a 180-mile search for the location of the Japanese aircraft carriers bearing down on Midway. He had only been in command of the group since April when Halsey told him at age 40 he was too old to fly fighters. He was an odd choice for such a critical mission. The group he was leading consisted of dozens of planes, including torpedo bombers and dive bombers.

Lt. Commander McClusky was confident that his group would nail the unsuspecting Japanese carrier group, stating, “If we were on the proper heading and with the course I was given for the Japanese striking force we should have caught up with them at 11:20 that morning.”  But at the appointed time the ocean was empty.

Somehow, against all perceptible odds, McClusky found the enemy fleet. Japanese fighters and bombers had just returned from Midway and were refueling. Bombs were all over the deck. The carriers had no fighter protection. Their decks were painted yellow with bright yellow in the center, no camouflage at all. It was the perfect moment for an attack. McClusky maneuvered his squadron into ideal position from which to launch his attack.  He recalled, “Then I gave my orders to the scouting squadron and the bombing squadron to attack the first two carriers one was Kaga, the other Akagi. I dropped down to twelve thousand feet, and I began my dive, and the rest of them followed me.”

He took his bombing squadron and nailed the Kaga aircraft carrier. Behind him, Dick Best ’32 took his group and punished the Akagi. Later that day, Best and others sank the Hiryu. Dive bombers from the nearby Yorktown carrier destroyed the fourth Japanese carrier, Soryu.  "...we were very successful we severely damaged both those carriers, we put them out of commission," stated McClusky.

McClusky wounded

On his flight back to the Enterprise, McClusky fought off attacks by two Japanese Zero fighters.

His plane shot up and wounded he still managed to land safely with less than a gallon of gas in his tank. His aircraft, an SBD Dauntless, was peppered with fifty-five bullet holes, its instrument panel smashed. Blood dripped from the Lt. Commander’s arm as he reported what happened to Admiral Raymond Spruance on the bridge of the Enterprise. The Admiral noticed his wounds and ordered him to the sick bay. “That was my part of it. I was taken to sickbay of course. They did not take out any of the bullets. I had to live them for some time,” said McClusky.

After-Action Report

A week after the battle, Captain George Murray ’11 issued a Midway After-Action Report wherein he described the importance of McClusky’s role. “It was McClusky’s decision, and his decision alone, that made the attack possible which led to the destruction of a major part of the enemy forces,” Murray wrote. “It is the considered opinion of the commanding officer that the success of our forces hinged upon this attack. Any other action on the part of Lt. Commander. McClusky would inevitably have led to irreparable loss to our forces.”

Admiral Nimitz said that McClusky “...decided the fate of our carrier task force and our forces at Midway.” In the book, The Big E, by retired Navy commander Edward Stafford, McClusky’s role is underscored. “If one man can be said to win a battle and change the course of a war, Wade McClusky, by deciding to search beyond the range of his aircraft and correctly calculating the direction of that search, won the Battle of Midway and turned the war against Japan.”

A Monument to McClusky

On June 4, 2017, the city of Buffalo New York, McClusky’s hometown, dedicated a bronze monument of the Admiral in the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park. The first hometown hero to be so honored at the park. 

Special Thanks to Phil McClusky for sharing his photos and special insight into his father’s remarkable life and career.

Edward Feuerherd has been an award-winning writer, producer and director for thirty years. His productions have appeared on The History Channel, Discovery Channel, Hallmark Channel, TBS, ValorousTv, among others. He is a past President of Phi Alpha Theta - The International History Honor Society and contributor to the Historian. He is presently working on a book entitled "Reprisal-The Exploits of Revolutionary War Captain Lambert Wickes, 11th on the Continental Navy's seniority list. This article is Mr. Feuerherd's final salute.

Citations:

https://www.darientimes.com/31862/an-honorable-quest/

http://cv6.org/1941/1941.htm

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