The son of one of Buffalo's greatest war heroes had a surprise for those who turned out to pay tribute Sunday to C. Wade McClusky Jr. on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway.
To welcome the son of the naval aviator who played an instrumental role in winning the pivotal World War II Pacific battle was exciting enough.
But when Maryland resident Philip M. McClusky unexpectedly donated four of his father's most prestigious war medals to the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park for permanent display, a sense of awe came over the crowd at the Canalside park.
The moment was made even more special by Philip McClusky's words in presenting the medals to Donald A. Alessi, chairman of the park's board of directors. The words epitomized the humbleness of the Greatest Generation.
Philip McClusky said his father was a quiet and humble man who rarely spoke about Midway, and when he did, he stuck to the facts and "his small role" in winning the battle.
"He was so humble that he kept these medals in an old drawer," McClusky said, as he presented the narrow black, silk-lined case that contained his father's Navy Cross, Navy Air Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart.
And while Lt. Commander McClusky, whose accomplishments had fallen into obscurity here, might well have been embarrassed by all the attention if he were alive, the praise and gratitude expressed Sunday left his son feeling "overwhelmed."
"There are flags and bands that we celebrate our democracy with, but Lt. Commander McClusky represents the substance of democracy," said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who, like McClusky, graduated from South Park High School.
Phil and his hero dad Wade from Midway pic.twitter.com/tNNojVuxR7
— Lou Michel (@LouMichelBN) June 4, 2017
Part of that "substance," Higgins added, was embodied by 96-year-old George J. Walsh, a World War II dive bomber pilot who traveled from Darien, Conn., to speak on behalf of his fellow airman.
"At 10:20 a.m. that morning, we had lost the Battle of Midway. There had been nine separate attacks by the Japanese, who were jubilant. They were within five minutes of launching their attack on our carriers and would have wiped them out if it wasn't for McClusky, who persisted in going beyond the point of no return," Walsh said.
Walsh has long pushed for McClusky's Navy Cross to be upgraded to the nation's highest military tribute, the Medal of Honor.
But on Sunday, Walsh turned his thoughts to the unveiling of the statue of McClusky that will soon be installed at the park's Circle of Heroes Monument and how it marked a "new beginning" for paying tribute to the dive bomber pilots and crews who saved the day at Midway.
In providing a short history lesson to the 125 people present, Walsh explained that, six months after the enemy had bombed Pearl Harbor, the country's two main weapons against the Japanese were "from the air, its dive bombers, and on the ground, the Marines."
U.S. torpedoes often malfunctioned, he said, and the Navy's admirals were learning "how to fight the Japanese fleet with on-the-job training."
If not for the dive bombers sinking four Japanese aircraft carriers at Midway, Walsh says, Japan would gained control of the Indian Ocean, linked up with the Germans at the Suez Canal and fought the Russians on a second front in Manchuria.
In other words, the second world war might have had a different outcome.
State Sen. Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, and State Assemblyman Mickey Kearns, D-Buffalo, also paid tribute to McClusky, saying that what he accomplished helped preserve the nation's freedom.
Lee Simonson, a Naval & Military Park volunteer, said McClusky's actions represented not only a great WWII victory, but one of the greatest military victories in history.
"It was the bravery, skill and courage of this Buffalonian who led the charge," Simonson said. "If we'd lost the battle, our way of life would have been different."
Turning the tide of battle
It was a victory that almost didn't happen. Using coordinates from military code breakers, McClusky learned that Japan was planning to attack the U.S. base at the Midway Atoll and then go after the American fleet.
McClusky’s air group flew for more than two hours and arrived at the spot where intelligence predicted they would encounter the enemy fleet.
“I should have caught up with the Japanese striking force by 11:20 that morning. They were nowhere in sight. It was a nice clear day. So I had to make a decision. Which way will I go to try and find them?” McClusky said in a 1972 interview with New York City radio station WMCA.
With no enemy in sight, he started a search. McClusky first steered his squadron west, then northwest, calculating that the Japanese fleet had reversed course. Though low on fuel, he decided to carry on the search until noon.
Earlier that morning, U.S. warplanes in two separate waves – the first at 7 a.m., and the second at about 9 a.m. – were all but annihilated by the Japanese fleet. An entire squadron of 15 torpedo planes from the USS Hornet, in fact, never returned, and only one pilot was later rescued.
So McClusky’s decision to continue the search was crucial.
Five minutes before the deadline he had given himself to turn back, McClusky spotted a Japanese destroyer. He followed it.
Ten minutes later, McClusky could see the fleet some 35 miles away. As the American pilots closed the gap coming in from the southwest, he gave orders to bomb the two closest Japanese aircraft carriers, the Kaga and the Akagi.
In a half-roll, McClusky started his vertical dive, straight down, leading the charge. The two aircraft carriers were destroyed.
At about the same time, a squadron from the USS Yorktown flew in from the northeast and devastated a third carrier, the Soryu.
The fourth Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, met its end later that afternoon, but not before its planes had inflicted heavy damage on the Yorktown, which sank three days later.
“I decided to go down to 20 feet off the water and go through the perimeter of their force. They were unable to fire at me because they’d be firing at their own ships,” McClusky said. “But after I got outside the perimeter, why, of course, I was fired at, but fortunately none of it hit me.”
Once he was out of range, he said he plotted a course that would take him back to the Enterprise.
“About 15 minutes later, bullets started flying past me, and I looked back and there were two Zeroes,” he said of the Japanese fighter planes.
For about five minutes, the Japanese pursued McClusky, as he took swift maneuvers to avoid the stream of tracer bullets. At one point, a burst of gunfire “seemed to envelop the whole plane,” he said in an account provided by the USS Enterprise CV-6 Association.
“The left side of my cockpit was shattered, and I felt my left shoulder had been hit with a sledgehammer. Naturally enough, it seemed like the end; we sure were goners.”
In fact, the bronze statue of McClusky created by Youngstown sculptress Susan Geissler shows the puncture marks on the aviator's flight jacket where he was hit.
When McClusky finally made it back to the Enterprise, his plane had one gallon of fuel to spare.
He was rushed to sick bay with bullet wounds to his shoulder and left arm. His plane had been hit 55 times. Seventeen of his dive bombers were either shot down or ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean, though many pilots and crew members were later rescued.
Upon retiring from the Navy, McClusky was promoted to the rank of rear admiral and settled in the suburbs of Baltimore. He died in 1976 at the age of 74.
Son's first visit
Philip McClusky and his wife, Karen, arrived in Buffalo Friday for their first visit here. Following the elaborate ceremony at the park, they headed to South Park High School for a second round of honors.
Principal Terri Schuta announced one of the main passages off the school's lobby had been named "McClusky Memorial Hall," marked by a newly installed bronze plaque featuring images of the aviator, his Navy Cross and details of his heroics.
And again Phil McClusky surprised spectators. He donated a plaque his father had received from the U.S. Naval Institute shortly before he died.
Expressing gratitude, Schuta said it would be mounted on the wall. She then took the McCluskys on a short tour of the school.
"Here's where your father as the quarterback of the football team would have attended pep rallies," Schuta said in the auditorium.
Philip McClusky asked, "My father would have walked across that stage?"
"Absolutely," Schuta said of the 1918 graduate.
Later, Schuta drove with the McCluskys to nearby 54 Lilac St., where a young Wade had grown up. Standing in front of the 2½ story house, the son pointed to the porch roof in excitement and said:
"That's the roof he jumped off of, I think with an umbrella. He told me it was his first flight," Philip McClusky said with a laugh.
Shannon Hadley, the owner of the house, welcomed the McCluskys inside for a tour.
Touched by the hospitality, Philip McClusky marveled at the original oak woodwork and a living room fireplace where perhaps his father's Christmas stockings had been placed.
And when his pilgrimage to his father's hometown was finished on a day that had been declared "C. Wade McClusky Jr. Day" in Buffalo by city officials, Philip McClusky offered thanks.
It was a journey, he said, he will always cherish.