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Buffalo pays overdue tribute to homegrown WWII aviator, hero

An overdue tribute will be paid to C. Wade McClusky Jr., the Buffalo native credited with playing an instrumental role in helping win World War II's pivotal Battle of Midway.

Philip M. McClusky, the deceased war hero's only surviving child, will attend a series of events at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park and at his father's alma mater, South Park High School, on Sunday – the 75th anniversary of the Pacific battle that helped set the stage for America's victory against Japan.

"Like all those World War II guys, he was extremely modest. When he talked about Midway, which was not very often, he just laid out the facts," McClusky said of his father, who died in 1976.

And though modesty is the hallmark of the Greatest Generation, the upcoming honors for the naval aviator come at a fitting time, just days after Monday's Memorial Day ceremonies honoring servicemembers who died defending America.

Had it not been for McClusky's actions, historians believe many others would have died at the hands of the Japanese navy.

McClusky was flying at 19,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean in the late morning of June 4, 1942, leading a squadron of 30 airplanes. The goal was to catch the enemy warships off guard. But secret intelligence on the enemy's location proved wrong.

With fuel running low, but unwilling to turn back, the 40-year-old lieutenant commander kept searching. That decision put him and his fellow pilots and crew members at risk of flying beyond the point of no return.

McClusky's gamble paid off. Four enemy aircraft carriers were located and destroyed with the help of a second squadron of dive bombers.

Before McClusky died at the age of 74 in Bethesda, Md., he had received several honors. But Buffalo had nearly forgotten him.

That is about to change.

Among the highlights of Sunday's program, which starts at 11 a.m. in the Naval and Military Park at Canalside, will be the unveiling of a life-size likeness of McClusky that will soon be cast into a bronze statue and placed on permanent display at the park.

At 2 p.m. Sunday in South Park High School, 150 Southside Pkwy., a portion of the building will be named in honor of the 1918 graduate.

Coming to Buffalo

Philip McClusky says he is looking forward to attending the ceremonies. It'll be his first visit to his father's hometown.

He and his wife, Karen, are driving from their home in the suburbs of Baltimore, where Wade McClusky settled after retiring from the Navy as a rear admiral.

He explained that his father's ties to Buffalo gradually slipped away as relatives moved from here or died.

"My grandmother died within a couple weeks after I was born and most of his family had left long before I was born, so there was no reason for me to go there before this," Philip McClusky said.

But now the 63-year-old son is eager to see the place his dad had called home when growing up.

Wade McClusky had lived at 54 Lilac St. in South Buffalo before leaving to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he graduated in 1926.

Terri Schuta, the principal of South Park High School, who was raised just down the block from where Wade McClusky once resided, said she hopes to serve as the McCluskys' tour guide.

"I grew up at 67 Lilac and had no idea that someone of such historic significance was from my little street in my little neighborhood. What are the chances?" Schuta mused.

Old high school yearbooks from when McClusky attended South Park show him in class and in sports team photographs. He played basketball and served as the football team's quarterback.

Wade McClusky was the quarterback of his football team. In this photo, he holds the ball in the middle.

But students interested in learning about the war hero who once sat in the same classrooms as they now do will not have to dig through those old yearbooks. Instead, a bronze plaque detailing McClusky's actions at Midway will be unveiled Sunday at the school.

"It is a great honor for us to honor him and the plaque will be a permanent tribute for future generations to take pride in his accomplishments," Schuta said.

Philip McClusky said he is also looking forward to seeing the statue Youngstown sculptress Susan J. Geissler has been working on since January.

"I've sent her photographs of my father," he said of the images she has been working off of to create the statue.

Making McClusky lifelike

Geissler said her research included not only referring to those photos, but reading different historical accounts of McClusky's life to understand the man beneath the flesh and bone.

"When you build a sculpture, you think about the personality and try to incorporate that, and I've come to realize that when he was young, he was playful and loved life. He realized he would be young once," Geissler said. "That's my interpretation."

In studying the photographs from different periods in his life, she said it was important to capture his features at the time he was leading the squadron and yet reflect him in a way that took in all of his years.

"There are many angles in his features and they change as he ages. There's also shadowing in the photographs and in those shadows, I know there is a dip or a rise and I have to get it right," she said.

Geissler is no stranger to creating historic figures. Two of her more prominent works are on display in Lewiston. The Freedom Crossing Monument depicts slaves escaping to Canada and the Tuscarora Heroes Monument shows Native Americans helping Lewiston residents escape to safety in the War of 1812.

Pointing out McClusky's facial features in her studio as she worked on them, Geissler likened the creation and others she has done to pregnancy.

"It seems like it will never come and then all of a sudden, it is here. It's like the sculpture is alive," Geissler said.

The bronze statue of McClusky will feature the upper half of his body, about 3 ½ feet in height and 20 inches in width at the shoulders.

After the clay model of McClusky is unveiled at the Naval and Military Park, she says it will be shipped to Loveland, Colo., where it will be cast into bronze and returned to the park.

Susan Geissler works on the bust of C. Wade McClusky in her studio in Youngstown. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The McClusky statue will then be placed atop a stone pedestal and be the first to be displayed at the park's Circle of Heroes Military Monument.

But on Sunday, speeches and stories will also help to shape McClusky's life and what he accomplished in what could have been one of America's darkest moments.

Historians and politicians will tell in detail what McClusky did to help destroy the Japanese fleet, which six months before the Battle of Midway had carried out the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Midway, from the Japanese perspective, was intended to finish off the American fleet.

'Pure courage'

"It could have easily gone the other way had McClusky turned back," said local historian Lee Simonson, who is heading the Naval and Military Park's committee to honor him. "If we had lost the battle, there was no stopping the Japanese from attacking the West Coast. McClusky showed pure courage."

After McClusky had determined the intelligence given him on the enemy's location was wrong, he decided to continue the search though his dive bombers were running low on fuel and would soon pass the point of no return.

But at 11:55 a.m., June 4, 1942, five minutes before his self-imposed deadline of ordering the squadron's return to the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier, he spotted a lone Japanese destroyer and guessed correctly that it was heading to the enemy armada.

Ten minutes later, peering out of his binoculars, he spotted four Japanese aircraft carriers some 35 miles away. When his squadron closed the gap, he ordered them to follow him in his vertical dive to attack the two closest carriers, the Kaga and the Akagi.

At approximately the same time, a squadron from the USS Yorktown arrived and destroyed a third carrier, the Soryu. The fourth enemy carrier, the Hiryu, was put out of commission later that afternoon.

When McClusky returned to the Enterprise, he had one gallon of fuel to spare and his plane had been shot 55 times. He suffered a shoulder wound from enemy shrapnel.

McClusky's valor earned him the Navy Cross, the second highest award in the military. The citation mentioned his "extraordinary heroism."

Before retiring, he was promoted to rear admiral. Six years after his death, he was elected to the Navy Carrier's Hall of Fame. A guided missile frigate was also named in his honor.

Local tributes

Donald A. Alessi, chairman of the Naval and Military Park's board of directors, says Sunday's honors are long overdue.

"He is a truly outstanding local hero who is credited with causing the turning point in the war in the Pacific during World War II by going beyond the point of no return," Alessi said. "It is remarkable that such a heroic action by a naval aviator from Buffalo was little known to our community for so great a time."

World War II Navy dive bomber George J. Walsh, who has long championed the cause to have McClusky's Navy Cross upgraded to the nation's highest military award, the Medal of Honor, will also speak on Sunday.

The 96-year-old, traveling here with his two daughters from his home in Darien, Conn., believes that if the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet had been lost, the consequences in WWII's European Theater would have been dire.

"Before we could build and launch new carriers and staff the ships it would be well into 1943, possibly too late to avoid Axis defeat of Britain and Russia," Walsh said of Japanese forces potentially joining up with the Germans. "McClusky and his dive bombers snatched victory from defeat."

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