Saturday, May 12, 2012

At the Battle of Midway in 1942, the United States Navy faced a looming disaster of unprecedented proportions. The heroic willingness to sacrifice his life, and those of his air group, enabled Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky to snatch victory from defeat. His actions had incalculable impact on WW II, including the fate of the British at Suez, the Russians at Stalingrad and the Chinese at the terminus of the Burma Road. There would have been no invasion of Guadalcanal. The state of Israel would have remained a dream.

 “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.” 
The Big E, by Edward Stafford, 1962, Page 109

 ENTERPRISE Air Group, both pilots and gunners, displayed a spirit of utter fearlessness, resolution and determination throughout all air actions. This spirit, though shared by pilots and gunners alike, found its highest expression in the person of the Air Group Commander, Lt Cmdr. C.W. McClusky, Jr. U.S.N. On June 4, prior to intercepting the main enemy forces, it was his decision, and his decision alone, that made the attack possible which led to the destruction of a major part of the enemy forces. 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 Cmdr. McClusky would inevitably have led to irreparable loss to our forces.                                                                             (Signed) G. D. MURRAY June 13, 1942

USS Enterprise
 Captain Murray was a pioneer Naval Aviator who won his wings at Pensacola in 1915. Having served through the Navy’s Fleet Exercises of the 1930’s he well understood the “kill or be killed” nature of aircraft carrier warfare.

Meditate for a moment on the last sentence of his timely report issued a week after the Battle.As this last sentence indicates, when Admiral Spruance brought the Enterprise and Hornet close enough to launch our attack aircraft against the Japanese our ships were necessarily within range of a Japanese counterstrike.


In the evening of May 27, the CinCPac and task force staffs held a joint conference under the direction of Admiral Draemel to hammer out battle plans. Present, among others, were Admirals Fletcher and Spruance, Com­mander Layton, and the operations officers: Captain McMorris from CinCPac, Commander William H. Buracker from Task Force 16, and Commander Wal­ter G. Schindler from Task Force 17. The guiding principles were that the Americans, with inferior forces but presumably better information concerning the opposition, must achieve surprise, must get the jump on the enemy, and must catch the enemy carriers in a vulnerable state. It was assumed that the Japanese Striking Force would begin launching at dawn - attack planes south­ward toward Midway, search planes north, east, and south. At that hour the American task forces, on course southwest through the night, should be 200 miles north of Midway, ready to launch on receiving the first report from U.S. search planes of the location, course, and speed of the enemy. With good timing and good luck they would catch the Japanese carriers with half their planes away attacking Midway. With better timing and better luck they might catch the enemy carriers while they were recovering the Midway attack group. That the Americans might catch the Japanese carriers in the highly vulnerable state of rearming and refueling the recovered planes was almost too much to hope for.
NIMITZ, by E.B Potter, Pages 86-87

With the planned ambush the ‘Principle of Calculate Risk’ was abandoned. Our Navy was going ‘all in’. If we had not succeeded in incapacitating the enemy flight decks with our first strike it was inevitable that our carriers would be subject to smashing blows from the longer ranging squadrons of dive bombers and torpedo planes from all four of the Japanese carriers.


Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky was the right man in the right place at the right time to lead the Enterprise Air Group into battle that morning. He was a 40 year old Annapolis trained career naval officer and pilot. In the early carrier raids by Admiral Halsey on the Japanese held Marshall Islands he flew the Wildcat F4F fighter plane. He was one of the Navy’s best fighter pilots.

On March 21st he was designated Air Group Commander for the Enterprise. As such for the Battle of Midway he flew the Dauntless SBD dive bomber. The SBD was a more stable platform for command and had greater range than the F4F.

After 13 years of flying for the Navy he was proficient in piloting all types of attack aircraft. It is reported that Halsey commented, “Wade, you are too old to be flying fighter planes.”

However, Wade McClusky put in a sterling performance as leader that day from takeoff until he stood back aboard Enterprise, dripping blood as he made his combat report to Admiral Spruance.

The pilots of the Enterprise were in their ready room at 4:30 AM on that sober morning of June 4th, 1942, well aware that they were facing a major battle.

Midway-The Waiting Is Over
As Wednesday turned into Thursday, 4 June, Fletcher's Striking Force steamed southward at an economical 13.5 knots, the two carrier task forces remaining about 10 miles apart. First light (around 0430) was to see Striking Force at a point bearing 013 degrees, 202 miles from Midway. This constituted the famous flank ambush position planned by Nimitz, Fletcher, and Spruance. They expected the Japanese carriers to roar down on Midway from the northwest and launch a massive air strike at dawn to pummel the island's defenses.
The First Team by John Lundstrom, Page 413

But the waiting was not over. Unforeseen events occurred to complicate their well-planned mission. Admiral Fletcher elected to launch routine defensive searches of the sea 100 miles to his north. At 0430 hours he abandoned the ambush position. Task Forces 16 and 17 steamed southeast at high speed into a light 4 knot wind to launch his CAP and the SBD search planes. Destroyers consumed strategic fuel as they raced to keep up.

 It was 0600 before Fletcher released Admiral Spruance to turn back toward the enemy, and Enterprise began the race southwest to bring our aircraft back within attack range. McClusky and the pilots who had waited restlessly in the ready room since dawn manned their planes. The Yorktown continued east to recover its search planes at 0630.

 At 0700, as the planes of the Navy, Marines and Army Air Force based on the island of Midway were already attacking the Japanese carriers, the Enterprise began launching aircraft. They were beyond optimum range and too late. The element of surprise had been lost.

McClusky was instructed to proceed with his attack without waiting for fighter support. Finally Capt. Miles Browning was able to mount the attack as Admiral Halsey had planned, using the SBD dive bombers alone. He led his squadrons southwest at a fuel conserving 110 knots. 

Still, his flight was low on fuel when he approached the point at which he expected to find the enemy carriers. There was not a ship in sight.

At 0917 a jubilant Admiral Nagumo had recovered his Midway attack aircraft, and turned the Kido Butai fleet to steam northwest at high speed. He planned to close in and smash the U.S. carriers, which had been located. While this maneuver frustrated McClusky it brought the Japanese within easy range for Max Leslie and the small force of 13 effective dive bombers from the Yorktown Admiral Fletcher had held back half of his dive bombers and most of his fighters to defend his flagship, the Yorktown.

McClusky knew what was at stake and took his squadrons to the “point of no return” in his determination to save his ship and shipmates. He had been fully briefed on Admiral Nimitz’s original plan to ambush the Japanese carriers as they were occupied attacking Midway. He suspected that the torpedo plane attacks would probably prove futile and that the survival of our carriers depended on the dive bombers incapacitating the flight decks of the Japanese carriers before they could launch their counterattacks.

"The SBDs had been airborne for nearly two and a half hours and were at the limit of their combat radius. Even if he were to order an immediate return he knew that he might not get them back before their fuel ran out. But out here somewhere was the heart of the enemy’s naval strength and in the echelons of Dauntlesses at McClusky’s back was the power to destroy it. He had to find the enemy if he put every plane in the ocean. But he could lose them all for nothing by searching in the wrong direction."
The Big E, by Edward Stafford, Page 99     

 Following doctrine he commenced a square search stubbornly carrying on with binoculars glued to his eyes. On the second leg of the search the feathery white streaks of a ship came into view heading northwest at high speed.  It was the destroyer, Arashi, hurrying to rejoin the Kido Butai after attacking our submarine Nautilus. McClusky turned to this heading and it led him to the Japanese carriers. He maneuvered his squadron into perfect position from which to launch his attack.

Report by Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky, Enterprise CV 6
“I then broke radio silence and reported the contact to the Enterprise. Immediately thereafter I gave attack instructions to my group. Picking the two nearest carriers in the line of approach, I ordered Scouting Six to follow my section in attacking the carrier on the immediate left and Bombing Six to take the right-hand carrier.”

Postwar, Lt. Dick Best, as an excuse for his own undisciplined behavior, accused McClusky of not following fleet doctrine in assigning targets. This is not true.
Target assignments were made in accordance with fleet doctrine laid down for Group Attacks on Page 121 of USF-74 Section 3-101… “The Group Commander will direct distribution of the targets, taking into consideration the results of attacks previously made.”

Again, USF-74 Page 139, Section 3-207, states… “In all of the above attacks the group commanders will determine and direct the distribution of targets to the squadrons of their respective groups.”

There was confusion but it was not caused by McClusky. His performance was flawless.

It was no mean feat for McClusky to maneuver his squadrons to the proper spot over a target from which to launch a  dive from 16,000 feet, taking into consideration the sun, wind, course and speed of the target. He had been flying the navy's planes for 13 years and had participated in many simulated attacks. He had from March to June to refresh his dive bombing technique. He was looking straight down at the Kaga  as his Dauntless tracked a 70 degree flight path because of lift on the wings. And he only missed the Kaga by 10 feet, "rattling her to her bilges". Not bad for an old man and better than the drops of so many of the younger pilots who missed the Kaga completely.

At 1000 AM that morning the United States Fleet had been in danger of losing the Battle of Midway. Suddenly, by 1020 AM the Battle had been won. While the Enterprise dive bombers smashed the Kaga and the Akagi, the 13 dive bombers from Yorktown took out the Soryu. The fourth Japanese carrier, Hiryu, was not attacked at that time but was sunk by 24 unescorted dive bombers later in the day despite being harassed by Zeros before, during and after their attack. Meanwhile Hiryu aircraft had fatally smashed the Yorktown.

After pulling out of his dive on the Kaga, McClusky was attacked by two Japanese Zero fighters. As a skilled fighter pilot himself he was able to dog fight the Zeros for ten minutes until his gunner shot down one and the other quit. His SBD was shot up, the instrument panel smashed, and he suffered seven wounds. Still he landed safely back on the Enterprise.

    "RADM W. H. Buracker, USN was at the time a Commander, naval aviator, and serving as Operations Officer on the Enterprise, He was present when McClusky climbed down from his cockpit and walked up to the bridge to report to Admiral Spruance, bringing with him his plotting board. In the letter to me, Buracker wrote

"Wade McClusky more than any other individual {deserves} the major credit for the success at Midway."
As my dissertation goes on to say, "McClusky completed his report when Commander Walter F. Boone, prospective Executive Officer of the ENTERPRISE, exclaimed,
'My God, Mac, you've been shot.'
Boone had noticed blood running down the pilot's left hand, and dripping onto the Admiral's metal deck. McClusky was taken below to sickbay." Email to author from Robert E. Barde

More than half the dive bombers were lost. Nobody knows how many were shot down and how many went down at sea for lack of fuel.

  Admiral Nimitz delayed his report of the Midway battle until June 19th after he had consulted with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Forrestal and Commander Eller, his public relations advisor. For reasons valid at the time a decision was made to emphasize the sacrifice of the torpedo bombers rather than the achievements of the dive bombers. Recognizing the heroic performance of Wade McClusky and the dive bombers would have divulged more of the true events of the Battle than would have been wise.

Ensign Gay, the sole survivor of Torpedo Squadron Eight, was hailed as the hero of the Battle of Midway. Gay was lionized by Hollywood, traveled the country selling War Bonds, and appeared on the cover of Life Magazine. With each telling his story was embellished beyond reason. Several books have been written about him and Torpedo Squadron Eight.

As late as the mid-fifties documentaries Victory at Sea and Crusade in the Pacific still showed all four of the Japanese carriers being sunk by torpedo bombers. Here is a film clip:

Crediting the torpedo planes with the victory could not have been a simple mistake. Why hide the truth more than ten years after the Battle. Even today, 72 years after the Battle of Midway, important documents remain classified ‘for security reasons’. Misleading magazine articles are published based on unsupported facts that suppress the role played by McClusky and the dive bombers. Instead the articles glorify the admirals, torpedo bombers, and Ensign Gay.

Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky recovered from his wounds and went back to sea as the skipper of an escort carrier. The importance of his actions at the Battle were never fully acknowledged. In 1986, ten years after his death, the Navy named a frigate after him!

 There has never been a book or a film about our WW II Midway dive bombers, not even a TV documentary. Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky deserved better.

After 75 years the City of Buffalo has erected a memorial statue to their home town hero.

George J. Walsh
Lt. Cmdr. USNR (ret)
Revised August 12, 2019

Wade McClusky biography available from Amazon