South Buffalo pilot’s mettle turned the tide in Battle of Midway

Lt. Commander C. Wade McClusky Jr., a South Park High graduate, led his squad from the USS Enterprise to victory in the Battle of Midway.
By Lou Michel
Published Sun, May 29, 2016

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.”

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.