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SBD-3 Dauntless bombers of VS-8 SBD-3 Dauntless bombers of the VS-8 squadron over the burning Japanese crusier Mikuma on June 6, 1942. Photo © US Navy

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Wade McClusky: Hero of the Battle of Midway

US Navy Historian David Rigby’s latest book looks at US pilot Wade McClusky. We spoke to David about the book, and how he hopes McClusky will be remembered

Published on July 4, 2019
First published in the July-August 2019 edition of The American magazine
Buy a copy of Wade McClusky and the Battle of Midway
Wade McClusky and the Battle of Midway

Thank you for your time David. Our traditional opening question, where in the States are you from?

I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, which is about ten miles west of Boston. I currently live in Acton, which is another suburb of Boston; a little further west.

Your latest book focuses on the story of American pilot Wade McClusky and his experiences during the Battle of Midway. What inspired you to undertake this particular project and tell McClusky’s story?

I started reading books about World War II when I was in grade school, so I first heard about Wade McClusky when I was quite young. I was always curious to know more about this man who did everything right at Midway. When I was in high school and college, there was plenty of literature about the actions of admirals in World War II, but there was not much literature about individual combat pilots. And in those days there was no Internet where you could look something up quickly. I think it was when I was in college that I first got the idea that somebody should write a biography of Wade McClusky, but I did not yet consider that that somebody should be me. Years passed and no full-length biography of McClusky appeared. Then, in more recent years, new books about the Battle of Midway began to appear which spend more time discussing the actions of individual pilots. These newer books often accuse Wade McClusky of incompetence; saying that he supposedly somehow bungled the attack on June 4, 1942. So, I got tired of waiting for somebody else to write a biography of McClusky and decided to do it myself, both to tell his story and try to correct the mistaken idea that McClusky made some sort of major error during the battle.

Why had his story been neglected for so long?

The reason for this neglect is, I think, that the power of the individual in modern warfare has been underrated. I was recently reading Alistaire Horne’s What Price Glory? about the Battle of Verdun in the First World War. I was reminded by Horne’s book that modern industrialized warfare has a way of taking on a life of its own, seemingly beyond the capacity of individual humans to exert control over events. Other literature on Twentieth Century warfare also makes the point that industrialized warfare is impersonal in the sense that the greatly increased striking power of modern weapons, such as long-range artillery, means that you often don’t see your adversaries up close. Rather, the killing is frequently done at long range. Against these ideas of the impersonal and sometimes uncontrollable nature of modern warfare, Wade McClusky’s story is a unique reminder that one middle-ranking officer can in fact exert a decisive impact on the outcome of a major battle.

Does his story alter how we look at Midway, the turning point of the war in the Pacific?

I hope so. Without Wade McClusky, the Americans would have lost the Battle of Midway. If McClusky had failed to find the Japanese fleet, the Japanese would have had three undamaged aircraft carriers with which to counterattack, instead of just one.

Wade McClusky Wade McClusky poses by the cockpit of a Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter, at Naval Air Station, Alameda, California, February 6, 1943. Note his Aviation green unfirom, and the plane’s reflector gunsight. Courtesy of Mrs C.W. McClusky, Jr., 1982. US Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph

What was McClusky like, both as a man and a pilot?

Wade McClusky was a quiet, modest man who got things done. Quiet competence was his distinguishing characteristic. McClusky was extremely versatile both as a pilot and as a staff officer. He excelled at special jobs, the most important of these being, of course, his leadership of the Enterprise air group during the Battle of Midway. Throughout his career, especially during the periods when he was ashore as a staff officer, McClusky would often be detached from his regular job for some sort of special duty. He also had experience flying many different types of aircraft, including torpedo planes, dive-bombers, fighter planes, and patrol aircraft. McClusky was definitely not a swashbuckler. He never engaged in any kind of self-promotion. He was a man of quiet habits. For recreation, Wade excelled at Tennis. He also enjoyed taking long walks and doing yard work.

What was McClusky’s strategic approach to the Battle of Midway?

As Air Group Commander of the USS Enterprise, Wade had expected to lead the entire air group into battle. However, problems with the launch on the morning of June 4, 1942 meant that Wade was ordered to head for the target with only the two dive-bomber squadrons; without the torpedo planes and without fighter escort. He therefore had to adjust his thinking from planning a combined torpedo and bombing attack to just a dive-bombing attack. The prospect of attacking the Japanese fleet without fighter escort must have been especially sobering. Wade has been accused of not understanding dive-bombing doctrine, but that is not correct. He had an excellent understanding of dive-bombing doctrine and he followed that doctrine. For instance, written dive-bombing doctrine for 1942 stated that when attacking a group of enemy ships, American dive-bombers should not spread their attack too thin. Instead of damaging a large number of enemy ships, it was better to choose a smaller number of enemy ships and distribute the bomb load so that those ships were destroyed, and not just damaged. Wade followed this doctrine closely. He sighted all four of the Japanese aircraft carriers on June 4th, but he gave explicit instructions to his pilots that they should focus on the two largest carriers so that those two ships could be sunk - and they were.

Why has McClusky been accused of not understanding dive-bombing doctrine?

The historians who make this accusation feel that McClusky was strictly a fighter pilot who supposedly did not understand dive-bombing tactics and doctrine. While it is true that McClusky had commanded the Enterprise fighter squadron before being promoted to the post of Air Group Commander, it is not accurate to say that McClusky did not understand dive-bombers. In fact, Wade McClusky had compiled some 400 hours of flying time in older model dive bombers during the 1930s. The idea that McClusky had flown nothing but fighter planes since earning his wings as a Navy pilot is quite inaccurate. During the 1930s, McClusky flew everything the Navy had; dive-bombers, float planes, torpedo planes, fighters, and even flying boats. (McClusky had compiled a total for all types of over 2,900 hours of flying time by the time of Midway). Also, several other dive-bomber pilots who flew at Midway, including Richard Best and Maxwell Leslie, had flown fighters before transitioning to dive-bombers. McClusky’s immediate predecessor as Enterprise Air Group Commander, Lt. Cdr. Howard Young, had also commanded the Enterprise fighter squadron before being promoted Air Group Commander. And, like McClusky, Howard Young returned to flying dive-bombers when he became Air Group Commander and led air strikes in the Marshall Islands and at Marcus Island from the cockpit of a dive-bomber. And yet, as far as I know, nobody has ever criticized Howard Young for his decision to switch back to flying dive-bombers from fighters upon becoming Enterprise Air Group Commander. It made perfect sense for Howard Young and Wade McClusky to return to flying dive-bombers upon becoming respective Air Group Commanders since the SBD dive-bomber had the longest range of any American carrier aircraft in 1942. The criticism Wade McClusky receives from historians for choosing to fly a dive-bomber and to lead the two Enterprise dive-bombing squadrons as Air Group Commander is thus unfounded and quite unfortunate.

Wade McClusky and USS Enterprise Colleagues USS Enterprise (CV-6) Pilots of Fighting Squadron Six (VF-6), including Lieutenant Commander Clarence Wade McClusky, Jr., photographed on board Enterprise in January 1942, prior to the Marshall Islands raid. Behind them is a Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighter. Official US Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archive

What happened to McClusky after Midway?

Wade McClusky had a very busy war. Soon after Midway, he was sent to California to train young pilots. In the mid-war period, McClusky was sent to Washington to serve as Aide and Chief of Staff to Vice-Admiral Frederick J. Horne, who was then serving as Vice-Chief of Naval Operations. This was high level staff duty in which Wade often sat in on meetings of the Joint and Combined Chiefs of Staff. Admiral Horne and McClusky worked on the logistical aspects of vast operations such as the Central Pacific Drive and the OVERLORD cross-channel assault. In September 1944, McClusky, now a Captain, took command of the escort carrier USS Corregidor (CVE 58). This small aircraft carrier and its escorts were involved primarily in anti-submarine work in the Pacific during McClusky’s tenure as commanding officer. After the war, Wade served as Executive Officer of a naval postgraduate program at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and later at what would become the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, California. He completed a course of instruction at the National War College that was the equivalent of earning a Master’s degree and he again saw high level staff duty during the Korean War. After his service in the Korean conflict, Wade was given command of the Naval Air Station at Glenview Illinois and he later served as Commandant of the Boston Navy Yard - the latter being his last assignment before he retired from the Navy in 1956 after thirty years of active duty. Upon his retirement, Wade was promoted Rear Admiral. After his divorce from his first wife had been finalized, Wade remarried in 1952. He and his new wife, Ruth Goodwin Mundy, settled in the town of Ruxton, a suburb of Baltimore. They had one child, Philip, who was born in 1953 (Wade also had a son, Wade Sanford, from his first marriage). Still only 54 years old at the time of his retirement from the Navy, Wade worked for three years as an engineer at Martin Co., after which he taught Math at the elite Bryn Mawr Girls School in Baltimore. In 1962 he took a job as a Shelter Officer for the civil defense division of the state of Maryland. In this job, Wade designed and inspected Cold War nuclear fallout shelters across the state of Maryland. Wade retired from his civil defense job in 1972 and he died in 1976.

How should McClusky be remembered?

I think the best way to remember Wade McClusky would be if the Navy were to name an aircraft carrier in his honor. That would be a fitting tribute since nobody else has made more of a contribution to US Naval Aviation than has Wade McClusky - a man who personified the integrity, professionalism, and can-do spirit which then and now has characterized the US naval aviation community.

In terms of researching McClusky, how helpful was it having access to resources through working with his son, Phil?

I would not have been able to write this book without the incredibly generous assistance of Wade’s son Phil McClusky. Phil made all of his father’s papers available to me. This included Wade’s pilot logbooks and his orders. Phil even showed me the leather flying jacket that Wade wore during the Battle of Midway, complete with bullet holes in the shoulder where Wade was wounded by the machine gun fire of a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 “Zeke” fighter plane.

What do you hope readers of the book take away from the experience, and what do you hope your book will do for McClusky’s legacy?

I hope readers take away the impression that Wade McClusky played the most decisive role of any participant in the Battle of Midway and that McClusky’s legacy should be that he was one of the most important American combat commanders of World War II in the Pacific.

David Rigby's Book, Wade McClusky and The Battle of Midway is available to buy now. It is published by Osprey Publishing. For more detail, see "Wade McClusky and the Battle of Midway", a blog entry written by David and posted on May 3, 2019, at: ospreypublishing.com


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