The Battle of Midway, C. Wade McCluskey
“They had no right to win, yet they did, and in doing so they changed the course of a war.” Walter Lord, in his book Battle of Midway
Tomorrow, June 4, 2017 marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Midway – one of the most important battles of WWII. Why was it important? Why should we care? Because in one battle just 6 months after a major defeat, the tide of the war in the Pacific changed course.
Lt Cmdr McCluskey was in command of the Air Squadron aboard the USS Enterprise when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Because the USS Enterprise was at sea instead of port at the time, it escaped damage. But it was only one of three carriers left afloat after the Japanese attack. The third carrier, the Yorktown, was still afloat, but was in need of repair.
Codebreakers at station HYPO knew how to crack the Japanese radio transmissions, and learned of an impending attack at Midway. Their intelligence gathering told them the attack would be in late May or early June, a finding disputed by other intelligence stations. But Station HYPO persuaded Admiral Nimitz to risk all three remaining aircraft carriers to ambush the Japanese fleet…that is, IF the Yorktown could be repaired in time. It was.
June 4, 1942
Japan had a vastly superior fleet of 4 aircraft carriers, and aircraft that had better range and maneuverability than the US planes. Their fleet was called the Kido Butai. Nimitz had no battleships at all…the Japanese had at least two, not counting destroyers.
McCluskey was in command of the SBD dive-bombers of Scouting Squadron VS-6 and Bombing Squadron VB-6, as well as the TDB-1 torpedo bombers of VT-6 aboard the USS Enterprise. All but the torpedo bombers launched.
Time was of the essence, and a few time-sucking problems ensued as McCluskey and his dive bombers circled the area waiting. But finally Rear Admiral Spruance overruled the Captain who was taking too long to load up the torpedo bombers and gave McCluskey the order to proceed without them.
McCluskey’s planes were tasked with finding the Japanese fleet and sinking it. But they were running low on fuel. Should they carry on or turn back? He chose to keep going, but the direction he thought was their fleet turned out to be empty ocean. At around 9:55 he saw a lone destroyer. He followed it back to the fleet- and the fight was on.
When a communication error pitched 27 of the 30 planes on one target, it ended up not to matter because of Dick Best, another pilot’s quick thinking. By the end of the day, the fliers had sunk 3 Japanese carriers, and nearly destroyed the fourth. The Kaga, the Akagi were burning out of control. The Soryu was engaged by the fliers of the Yorktown. Within 5 minutes, 3/4 of the Japanese naval fleet was completely destroyed.
It was not a picnic, however, as 10 of the planes in McCluskey’s squadron had to ditch into the ocean and their crews were never found. He made it back to the carrier with less than 5 gallons of fuel in the tank.
Risks are the stuff of true leadership. Nimitz could have declined to attack the vastly superior Japanese fleet. McCluskey could have turned back for a fresh tank of gas. There were many “almosts” or “what ifs” in the Battle of Midway. But in the end, the risks are what changed the course of the war.
Featured photo: Clarence Wade McCluskey with one of his Wildcats. For his part in the Battle of Midway, he received the Navy Cross.