Aviation History

The story of Wade McClusky, the US Navy dive-bomber pilot who changed the course of the Battle of Midway

At 10am on Jun. 4, 1942, Wade McClusky was leading a group of 32 dive-bombers with orders to attack the Imperial Japanese Navy’s aircraft carriers. The fleet, however, was not where it was expected to be.

On Jun. 4, 1942, US Navy dive-bomber pilot Wade McClusky changed the course of the Battle of Midway, proving himself to be one of America’s greatest pilots and combat leaders.

At 10am that morning, McClusky was leading a group of 32 dive-bombers with orders to attack the Imperial Japanese Navy’s aircraft carriers. The fleet, however, was not where it was expected to be. With his air group’s fuel running low, McClusky spotted instead the Japanese destroyer Arashi bearing northeast. Suspecting that the Arashi must be following the main fleet, he made the calculated decision to follow her — in opposition to his orders.

As told by David Rigby in his book Wade McClusky and the Battle of Midway, McClusky did not break radio silence to ask for guidance when he learned that the interception coordinates he had been given were out of date, which was just as well because Adm Spruance and his staff on the Enterprise were as yet unaware of the change of course made by Adm Nagumo’s carrier striking force — a course change that had taken the Japanese fleet away from the interception point in a northeasterly direction. By the time Jim Gray, occupying McClusky’s old billet as the commander of Fighting Six, very belatedly radioed in a contact report at approximately 10.00am after circling above the Japanese fleet for almost an hour, McClusky was on the verge of finding the enemy on his own anyway. Also, Gray’s contact report seems to have included only that he was leaving the vicinity of the enemy fleet due to fuel shortage. Gray apparently did not report the coordinates of Nagumo’s location. McClusky continued on to the southwest for 15 minutes beyond the anticipated interception point because there was a slim chance that the Japanese approach track toward Midway was further west than he had anticipated or that Nagurno may have turned west.

Wade McClusky

What followed was one of the most important decisions made by any American military commander in all of World War 2. Wade McClusky now displayed that sixth sense: the intuition shared by all great military commanders of having a gut feeling, even when the enemy was not in sight, as to what the enemy was actually doing — a gut feeling that in this case turned out to be dead on in terms of accuracy. A logical assumption would have been that the Japanese were making better than expected speed, and thus had gotten past McClusky and were now off to the south. McClusky was sure that this was not the case, which was a counterintuitive but quite accurate assessment. He sensed the truth: that persistent American air attacks from Midway-based aircraft and carrier-based torpedo planes, as well as a Japanese cruiser floatplane’s sighting of one of the American task forces, had forced Nagumo to undertake course changes. The initial changes were evasive actions to avoid bombs and torpedoes dropped by attacking American aircraft. These maneuvers slowed Nagumo’s southeasterly progress. Then, at 9.17am, Nagumo turned 90 degrees to port, on to a northeasterly heading, in order to close with the American surface ships so that he could launch a strike against them with his own dive-bombers and torpedo planes. McClusky did not know all of these details yet, but he was certain that something had delayed the Japanese and that the carriers of Kido Butai were north of him.

McClusky himself never thought it was intuition or guesswork that guided him during the battle. After the war, he always bristled if he read an account of the Battle of Midway that claimed that he had made a lucky guess in turning north. Wade told his family that there was no guesswork involved. According to Phil McClusky, on the relatively rare occasions when his father spoke about the battle, Wade always said that if the Japanese carriers had gotten past the interception point and had thus been to the south, off to McClusky’s left, that “he would have heard about it.” He was apparently referring to the fact that he knew that Midway-based Catalina PBY flying boats were out on patrol and that they would have reported any large body of ships nearing the atoll.

However his intuition paid off— the Arashi led the bombers straight to the Japanese carriers Kaga and Akagi, which they swiftly destroyed. At the same time, a squadron from the Yorktown arrived, bombing a further carrier, the Soryu. Within minutes, three of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s major carriers were destroyed, leaving it severely weakened.

At 10am on Jun. 4, 1942, after six months of war, the U.S. was losing the war in the Pacific. Half an hour later, at 10.30am, they were winning.

Wade McClusky and the Battle of Midway is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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