Wade McClusky was flying 19,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, peering through binoculars as he led two groups of dive bombers.
They were searching for the Japanese naval fleet.
It was just six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and McClusky knew the Japanese were hunting for what was left of the American fleet, the aircraft carriers that had escaped the sneak attack.
But McClusky and his squadron were hoping to catch the Japanese off guard.
The lieutenant commander had more than 30 airplanes under his command, and they were running low on fuel. But he was willing to put everything on the line – his life and the lives of his fellow pilots and crew. So he pushed them farther away from their own aircraft carrier. And they all knew they were close to the point of no return.
Secret intelligence given to the pilots on the location of the Japanese striking force proved inaccurate. The ships had changed course. But McClusky continued searching. Too much was at stake to turn back. Somewhere in the vast Pacific below, the Japanese navy was preparing another assault on the U.S. carriers, to finish them off.
Then, just before he was about to give the order to return to the USS Enterprise, the 40-year-old McClusky glimpsed a lone ship, a Japanese destroyer, moving quickly through the water.
It must be on its way to join the rest of the Japanese fleet, he thought. So he ordered his pilots to follow.
Finally, he spotted four aircraft carriers, surrounded by destroyers and other escort ships. It was the Japanese armada.
And the American pilots took them by surprise.
When the smoke cleared later that day, all four enemy aircraft carriers were destroyed, two at the hands of McClusky’s squadrons.
McClusky barely made it back to the Enterprise, wounded and bleeding, his shot-up plane running on fumes.
The Battle of Midway turned the Pacific Theater of World War II. And military historians credit McClusky with making the crucial decision for that victory.
“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,” Edward Stafford wrote in “The Big E: The Story of the USS Enterprise.”
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Most Buffalonians know the names of Matt Urban and Wild Bill Donovan, other World War II heroes. For years, there was the state’s Donovan Office Building downtown. An East Side human services agency bears Urban’s name and in Lancaster, a Veterans of Foreign War post is named in Urban’s honor. Twice there have been unsuccessful attempts to affix Donovan’s name to another public place, the new federal courthouse in downtown Buffalo and the planned veterans cemetery in the Town of Pembroke. The stories of Donovan and Urban are well chronicled.
But few – if any – are aware of C. Wade McClusky Jr., a graduate of South Park High School and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
That may change. At 11 a.m. Saturday, the 74th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, a special ceremony to remember McClusky will be held on the USS Little Rock at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park at Canalside.
And in Washington, efforts continue to give McClusky greater recognition by upgrading his Navy Cross to the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award.
“More than a third of Japan’s 11 aircraft carriers were destroyed that day,” said George Walsh, a 95-year-old World War II dive bomber pilot.
The Connecticut resident has been trying for years to persuade politicians and the military to award McClusky the Medal of Honor.
McClusky’s early life
McClusky was one of five children.
His father, Clarence Wade McClusky Sr., was of Scottish ancestry and worked as a bookkeeper and accountant for a Buffalo company. He died in an auto accident in 1928.
His mother, Mary, known as May, was Irish Catholic and she lived until 1953.
In McClusky’s early years, the family lived on the first block of Lilac Street in South Buffalo, but later moved to Tuscarora Road. By that time, Wade was already in the military. His brother Robert became a Buffalo firefighter and another brother, Frank, moved to Lackawanna.
Less is known about his sisters. Bernice and Evelyn both married and one stayed on in South Buffalo, while the other apparently moved to Canada.
Growing up in the first and second decades of the 20th century, McClusky was intrigued by airplanes. Flight was still in its infancy. When he was still a student at elementary School 28, he decided to see if he could fly.
“His first flight experience was jumping off the roof with an umbrella, and he broke his arm. The house is still there,” said Phillip M. McClusky, his only surviving child.
McClusky was bright, especially in math, and graduated at 16 from South Park High School.
He also was an athlete. The 1918 edition of the high school’s yearbook, The Dial, listed him as a member of the basketball and football teams. In the pages of the rope-bound yearbook, there is a black and white photograph of the football team. McClusky is kneeling in the first row center, holding a pigskin. He was the quarterback.
Four years later, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy, where he also played football.
But what of the gap between high school and the academy?
Not much is known, though Phillip McClusky believes his father worked during that period and came to the realization that he wanted more from life than manual labor.
“He told me he had a job cleaning out the insides of railroad tank cars,” the son said. “He said it was so horrible that he decided to go to college.”
The steely blue-eyed McClusky, at 150 pounds and 5 feet, 9 inches, graduated from the Naval Academy in 1926 and three years later qualified as a naval aviator, flying more than a dozen different types of aircraft that included dive bombers, fighters, observation planes, torpedo planes and flying boats, according to David Rigby, a military historian and author who is working on a biography of McClusky.
McClusky also was an aviation stuntman, one of the original “Nine High Hats,” a forerunner to the Navy’s Blue Angels, performing aerial acrobatics at air shows.
McClusky advanced in the ranks, and in the early 1930s was stationed in Hawaii. He lived there with his first wife, Millicent, whom he met in Baltimore while in his senior year at the Naval Academy. Their only child, Wade Sanford McClusky, was born in Honolulu and later followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a Navy pilot.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Millicent and 10-year-old Wade were aboard the SS Lurline ocean liner bound for the states. They had reluctantly left several days before the bombing. They had wanted to say goodbye to their husband and father, but the Enterprise was delayed in its return to Pearl Harbor.
“They had waited and waited for Wade’s ship so they could see him. But it didn’t come in and they went to San Francisco. The Lurline was about halfway to San Francisco when Pearl Harbor was bombed and Millicent and Wade Sanford did not know if the Enterprise had gone into Pearl Harbor or not.
“If it had made it in, it’s likely it would have been bombed. But because of bad weather, it was held up at sea. That’s how the Enterprise got its nickname ‘The Galloping Ghost,’ ” said Carole Pewthers, the widow of Wade Sanford McClusky, who died in 1986.
Battle of Midway
McClusky had proved his mettle well before Midway. He flew “operations against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of Wake, Marcus and the Hawaiian and Marshall islands from Dec. 7, 1941, to March 4, 1942,” according to a Navy narrative of the Air Medal he was awarded.
He later repeatedly bombed and strafed enemy targets on the Wotje Atoll in the Marshall Islands, which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.
So when he awoke for breakfast at 3:30 a.m. on June 4, 1942, McClusky was a seasoned combat pilot. Hours passed, and finally at 9 a.m., McClusky’s group of Douglas SBD Dauntless scout planes, which doubled as dive bombers, took to the air, followed by a second group of bombers. They then circled in a holding pattern waiting for the torpedo planes to take off.
There had been a malfunction in one of the elevators in the hangar deck that raised the planes to the Enterprise’s flight deck.
“We wasted about 40 minutes of gasoline, and I finally got orders to proceed on mission assigned,” McClusky said of the light signal flashed his way from the ship.
Radio silence was maintained, so as not to tip off the enemy.
Using coordinates that military code breakers provided, 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 northwesterly, 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. – had been 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 beyond crucial.
Five minutes before the deadline he had given himself to turn back, McClusky spotted the Japanese destroyer and started following 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 damaged on the Yorktown, which sank three days later.
An angry enemy
McClusky viewed at close range the devastation his squadron inflicted, as he maneuvered to escape anti-aircraft fire.
“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,” he 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 make it harder for the stream of tracer bullets to hit his aircraft.
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.”
Then there was a brief, eerie silence.
McClusky, though wounded, said he managed to turn and look at his gunner, W.G. Chochalousek, in the seat behind him. McClusky realized Chochalousek had shot down one of the fighters.
“The other had decided to call it quits,” he said.
McClusky landed on the Enterprise. His plane had one gallon of fuel to spare.
He was rushed to sick bay with several 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.
After the battle
McClusky was promoted to captain and placed in command of a makeshift escort carrier, the USS Corregidor, toward the end of the war. It was a cargo ship fitted with a small flight deck.
“In my opinion, Wade deserved to command a real aircraft carrier. He kept his flying skills sharp, continuing to pilot naval aircraft right up until his retirement in 1956,” said Rigby, the military historian and author.
At the time of his retirement, McClusky was promoted to the rank of rear admiral.
Finding work in civilian life was not a problem. He had earned postgraduate degrees in aeronautical engineering, political science and education.
He taught math at Bryn Mawr School, a private girls’ school in Baltimore, worked at defense contractor Martin Marietta on what would be the last Navy seaplane and finally took a position with Maryland’s Civil Defense Agency, which maintained fallout shelters built during the Cold War amid the threat of nuclear attack.
But McClusky had an Achilles’ heel, according to his son Phillip. He said his father drank hard, especially when he got together with other Navy aviators.
“They all thought they were Errol Flynn,” Phillip McClusky said of the action movie star from the 1930s and ’40s. “They were from a generation where you had cocktails at night. It was normal.”
C. Wade McClusky Jr. died June 27, 1976, of cirrhosis of the liver.
But his drinking did not tarnish his image. The “McClusky Award” was established while he was still alive and is awarded to the Navy’s top aviation attack units.
In 1982, six years after his death, he was elected to the Navy’s Carrier Hall of Fame.
Another honor came his way that same year, when the Navy launched a ship named for him – the USS McClusky, a guided missile frigate.
“My mom, Ruth, actually christened the ship. It was decommissioned in 2015,” said Phillip McClusky, who works as a media producer at a community college in Maryland.
At the ship’s launching in Southern California, he says he saw his brother Wade Sanford McClusky, 20 years his senior, for the last time.
Amid all the fanfare, the older brother reflected on the Navy tradition of naming ships in honor of heroes who have died:
“What a crime it is you have to be dead for this to happen.”
But in death, an even greater honor may one day come McClusky’s way – the Medal of Honor.
Rep. Brian Higgins’ office says it would be willing to look into the possibility of upgrading McClusky’s Navy Cross to the Medal of Honor if McClusky’s relatives make the request of the congressman. Phillip McClusky believes he would be “way too biased” as McClusky’s son to take up the cause, but says his father is worthy of the military’s highest medal.
Patricia D. McClusky, a granddaughter of the World War II aviator, said she would be willing to work with Higgins’ office to try to secure the Medal of Honor.
“My grandfather earned the Medal of Honor and it would be a humbling honor to receive it. His legacy is so important to us,” Patricia McClusky said, adding that just the thought of a local ceremony set for Saturday in her grandfather’s honor “is so amazing that it brings tears to my eyes.”
Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat and graduate of South Park High School like Wade McClusky, will speak at Saturday’s ceremony at the Naval & Military Park. Erie County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs, who helped organize the event, says he too is willing to support an effort to posthumously award McClusky the Medal of Honor.
And while the medal may be a long shot, Jacobs said he also wants to look into the possibility of raising money for the construction of a monument of some sort to honor McClusky.
Terri Schuta, South Park High School’s principal, said an even bigger ceremony to honor McClusky will be held a year from now on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway.
“We want the students to be part of the research and make it a meaningful project for South Park High School and most importantly give our fellow alumnus the distinction he deserves,” Schuta said.