An honorable quest: WWII dive bomber seeks to salute late comrade with Medal of Honor

With eyes burning blue as a gas flame, George Walsh stares into an over-size computer monitor, checking out the latest statistics for his blog about a World War II dive bomber, the late Wade McClusky. At 93, Walsh claims to be the oldest blogger on the Internet.

“I am until someone proves otherwise,” he says. He points to the stats and spouts a few six-digit numbers. His eye glimmer and a smile slides across his face.

Himself a former dive bomber in the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet during the war, Walsh has been on a multi-year mission to honor Lieutenant Commander McClusky with a Medal of Honor for his efforts at the Battle of Midway.

“McClusky changed the tide of the war,” Walsh says. “It was the experience, determination, and willingness of Lt. Cmdr. McClusky to sacrifice his life and his squadron’s that saved the day as he flew beyond the point of no return.”

It turns out Walsh is right. At least, according to some. To others, Walsh is a cantankerous curmudgeon — an emotional man trying to stir dissent in the Navy by challenging traditional history with unfounded accusations and inappropriate demands.

For Walsh, he says he seeks only the truth. And he’s tired of bureaucrats and “creative historians” deciding what becomes accepted as common knowledge and what doesn’t.

I first met Lieutenant Commander Walsh while writing the Memorial Day feature story in 2011 for The Darien Times. I spent many hours with him, learning about dive bombing and his disdain for Japanese-made cars — a fact that became apparent as I prepared to leave his house in my 1989 Nissan Maxima.

We have kept in touch, meeting occasionally for dinner and to discuss his efforts to honor McClusky. At first, I imagined his crusade was simply an attempt to kill time. Having been retired for a number of years, he had found a hobby that he felt was meaningful. He spoke of McClusky with such conviction he was impossible to ignore. Soon I began to wonder if this New York native was right.

The more I listened to him and read his work and other Battle of Midway accounts, it became clear that McClusky had, in fact, changed the course of the entire war. It wasn’t long before I realized that this cantankerous curmudgeon was on to something.

After this realization, I had to figure out why McClusky never got the Medal of Honor to begin with, and if he could now receive one, 72-plus years later. The answers span the gamut, merging fact with opinion as historians, naval officers, aviators and politicians all disagree on exactly what happened, and what should, or could, be done about it.

The battle

A superior Japanese Navy had been pummeling American and Allied forces for six months after first ambushing Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December of 1941. Victory for the Axis powers, which included Italy, Japan and Germany, seemed virtually imminent.

Then there was a revelation. Code-breakers cracked the Japanese fleet’s covert signals, and learned about a pending attack on Midway Island, a tiny atoll northwest of the Hawaiian archipelago and a key strategic position, located roughly halfway between North America and Asia. The American fleet, under command of Admiral Chester Nimitz, rushed to put together a counter-offensive.

It was imperative for the Allied forces, which included England, Russia and the U.S.A., that Americans prevent the Japanese from yet another devastating assault. Nimitz devised a surprise attack to ambush the Japanese Kido Butai, which was the name given to the fleet of aircraft carriers, airplanes, battleships and destroyers that was bearing down on Midway (Americans called these groups “task forces”). Nimitz planned to go after the Japanese carriers as their planes were occupied attacking Midway, or when the planes were returning to the ships to refuel.

However, Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, commander of two task forces during the battle, moved his ships, which included the Enterprise, the ship from which McClusky was stationed. The fleet was taken from an ambush attack position and into a defensive one. This delayed the element of surprise that American forces were hoping to exploit, Walsh contends, since it pushed them even farther away from where the Japanese actually were.

On the morning of June 4, 1942, McClusky led an air group on a search for the Japanese aircraft carriers. He was ordered to take the air group, which consisted of dozens of planes, including torpedo bombers and dive bombers, out 180 miles to search for the Kido Butai.

When McClusky and his crew made it to where they believed the Japanese to be, no ships were in sight. Already running low on fuel, McClusky had to make a choice: Turn back, or charge forward, and risk losing all planes to the sea if they found nothing.

He kept going. Risking the almost certain possibility that the planes would run out of fuel before being able to return to the Enterprise, McClusky began a grid search pattern, putting all his efforts into finding the Japanese.

“On the second leg of the search, the feathery white streaks of a ship came into view heading northwest at high speed,” Walsh writes in his blog. “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.”

Somehow, against all perceptible odds, McClusky found the enemy fleet. Japanese fighters had just returned from Midway and were refueling. It was the perfect moment for an attack.

He took his bombing squadron and nailed the Kaga aircraft carrier. Behind him, Dick Best took his group and punished the Akagi. Later that day, Best and others and sank the Hiryu. Dive bombers from the nearby Yorktown carrier destroyed the fourth Japanese carrier, Soryu. Victory for the Allies was won.

On his flight back to the Enterprise, McClusky fought off attacks by two Japanese Zero fighters. He still managed to land safely with less than a gallon of gas in his tank. His plane, an SBD Dauntless, was peppered with 55 bullet holes, its instrument panel smashed. Blood dripped from his arm as he reported what happened to Admiral Raymond Spruance on the bridge of the Enterprise.

Admiral Nimitz said that McClusky “decided the fate of our carrier task force and our forces at Midway,” according to the Public Affairs Office of the U.S.S. Enterprise CV-6 Association.

A week after the battle, Captain George Murray issued a Midway action report wherein he described the importance of McClusky’s role.

It was McClusky’s decision, “and his decision alone, that made the attack possible which led to the destruction of a major part of the enemy forces,” Murray wrote. “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.”

In the book, “The Big E,” by retired Navy commander Edward Stafford, McClusky’s role is underscored.

“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,” Stafford wrote.

No Medal of Honor?

To earn a Medal of Honor, a member of the armed forces must commit an act that is “so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes his gallantry beyond the call of duty from lesser forms of bravery; it must involve the risk of his life; and it must be the type of deed which, if he had not done it, would not subject him to any justified criticism,” reads the official criteria.

Some have argued that McClusky simply did was he was supposed to do. Barrett Tillman, a prolific author, speaker and historian, challenges Walsh’s notion that McClusky deserves America’s highest military honor.

“McClusky did an excellent job, he definitely helped win the battle,” Tillman said. “That was his job. There was nothing ‘above and beyond’ about it. He was an air group commander leading his air group and he received the Navy Cross, which was justified.”

Jon Parshall is considered by many to have written one of the most definitive accounts of the Battle of Midway in his book, “Shattered Sword”. Awarding McClusky the Medal of Honor would open the door to others who are equally as worthy, according to Parshall.

“To me, it feels very strange to somehow place McClusky on a pedestal at the expense of a bunch of other very worthy aviators,” Parshall said in an email.

“Was McClusky worthy of [a Medal of Honor]? Yeah, maybe so,” Parshall said. “But if so, it also raises the question of why was he somehow worthier than a whole bunch of others?”

There is also a question about the integrity of the actual attack McClusky led. According to Parshall, McClusky botched the attack, and it was fellow dive bomber Best whose quick thinking prevented the battle from becoming a disaster.

“It is absolutely unarguable that McClusky placed the outcome of the attack in jeopardy by fumbling doctrine and attacking Kaga with his squadron, when by all rights that should have been Best’s target,” Parshall said.

But Walsh has a different take. He claims that Parshall is referencing attack protocol for a squadron of 18 planes, whereas McClusky was leading an air group, which consists of multiple squadrons. In that case, the attack protocol would be different.

According to Walsh, McClusky assigned targets in accordance with doctrine laid down for group attacks in the Navy’s air force manual, USF-74.

“The Group Commander will direct distribution of the targets, taking into consideration the results of attacks previously made,” the manual reads.

What actually happened is still in dispute. Historians agree there was confusion. The heat of the battle can cause many things to happen — including faulty memory later and poor decisions at the time, notes Rear Admiral Bob Besal, a 30-year naval veteran and aviator who, in addition to other battles, fought in the first Iraq War.

“You may have the greatest playbook in the world, and say, ‘Here’s the play,’ but as soon as a couple people bump into each other, a lot of different things happen,” Besal said. “You adapt the best you can.”

Midway dive bomber Dusty Kleiss, one of the few living men who fought at Midway, recalled confusion during the attack. When squadron leader Best noticed that all dive bombers were headed to the same carrier, the Kaga, Best pulled out of his dive and went toward another carrier, Kleiss said.

“Just four [dive bombers] made the Akagi useless,” Kleiss told Walsh.

In McClusky’s recollection of the battle, he ordered Best to attack one carrier, and ordered another squadron to follow his group to attack another carrier, according to a narrative he provided to the U.S.S. Enterprise CV-6 Association. Radio problems seemed to cause the confusion, as Best and McClusky both initially went after the Kaga.

Regardless of the battle’s details, it’s the outcome that mattered, Besal said.

“Whether McClusky was right or wrong, in retrospect, we look at the outcome,” he said.

If McClusky never decided to push forward, the attack would never have happened, argues Peter Smith, a U.K.-based author who has published 76 books on military history, including “Midway: Dauntless Victory,” a book heralded by Kleiss as “the most compelling and accurate historical account of this battle to date.”

“Smith brings numerous new facts to light as well as dispels previous misconceptions,” Kleiss wrote in an Amazon.com review.

Smith, like Walsh, says McClusky’s heroism is deserving of the Medal of Honor.

“Had he not pushed his mission to, and beyond, the safe limit, the two Japanese aircraft carriers that his team destroyed would have escaped, and it is more than likely that their aircraft would have inflicted punishing damage on the American carriers in a return strike,” Smith said. “The outcome of the Battle of Midway would most certainly have been very different, and that battle was a most important one in the history of the Pacific War.

“For that reason McClusky deserves the honor — many others received it for far, far less,” he continued.

Seventeen naval aviators received a Medal of Honor for air combat during the war, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command, the military branch that maintains naval historical records. Fourteen were Marines. Of the remaining three, none were dive bombers.

During World War II, it was not uncommon for soldiers to go above and beyond the call of duty, notes Craig Symonds, a retired chairman of the history department at the U.S. Naval Academy.

“The bravery, determination, and willingness of all those pilots, and their back-seat gunners, to sacrifice themselves for their country are consistent with the Medal of Honor,” Symonds said. “It is very likely that the fact that so many men served above and beyond the normal call of duty during this battle that McClusky did not receive the medal in 1942.”

At that time, newspapers and radio gave torpedo bombers most of the credit for winning the Battle of Midway. Military officials did not correct this information until years later. Some say it was to prevent the Japanese from learning about America’s best air attack. Others, such as Walsh, say the Navy didn’t want anyone to know about the poor quality of American torpedoes, so they let those pilots take credit.

Walsh contends that this shroud of secrecy set the stage for years of misleading information about the battle itself. In 1956, the action reports surrounding the battle were declassified, but according to Walsh, much of the misdirection surrounding the battle since has come from Admiral Nimitz’s graybook, a collection of wartime communiqués that was released digitally in full only this year.

• View the graybook archive here

Admiral Besal noted that the second world war was a time when an official historical account was often derived from whoever survived a battle, or whoever returned first to tell their story.

“We now have very sophisticated flight tracking for training and air combat,” he said. “Everything can be recorded on the computer… It used to be the guy that got back to the ready room and got the chalk in his hand — he who had the chalk first, won the fight.”

Will it happen?

McClusky’s efforts were certainly recognized. He received the Navy Cross, the branch’s second-highest honor, along with the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. The Navy named a guided missile frigate after him, and it awards an annual Clarence Wade McClusky Trophy to outstanding attack squadrons each year. His photo also sits in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

In 1942, when his Navy Cross was awarded, the full importance of his role at the Battle of Midway was not comprehended, Walsh says.

“Loss of the battle would have left the Japanese dominant in both the Pacific and Indian oceans, cutting off the Lend-Lease routes to the British in North Africa and the Middle East, the Russians via Iran, and the Chinese through Burma,” he said.

In 1946, Winston Churchill called the spring of 1942 the “most dangerous moment of the War,” with the Japanese linking up with the Germans in the Middle East. Historians point to the Battle of Midway as the key moment that enabled the Allies to focus on the war in Europe.

McClusky’s son, Phil, applauds Walsh’s efforts to salute his father, but admits the chances of success are remote. However, he recalled a story from his youth about his father possibly receiving the Medal of Honor.

Admiral Spruance commanded Task Force 16, which included McClusky’s ship, the Enterprise. Growing up, McClusky’s son heard a story about Spruance and possibly members of his staff wanting to give his father the Medal of Honor. When it was mentioned to Fleet Admiral Earnest King, the commander of all U.S. Navy operations, he reportedly responded, “McClusky has enough awards.”

“I also remember a British naval officer and aviator, I don’t recall his name, visiting our home when I was about 16,” Phil McClusky said. “He stated that if my father had been in the Royal Navy he would have been knighted.”

In March this year, President Barack Obama presided over a ceremony that awarded 24 soldiers the Medal of Honor in one of the largest ceremonies of its kind in American history. The awards came after the results of a 2002 congressional inquiry into whether the military discriminated against minorities when it gave its highest honor. Included in this group were seven World War II veterans, all of whom have died.

While the effort was lauded my many, it was a soft spot for Walsh, who hoped McClusky would also be in that group. Referencing the potential loss of Hawaii had McClusky not done what he did, Walsh, in his usual straightforward manner, speculates on what might have been for the president had the Japanese won at Midway.

“Aside from extending the war by an unknown number of years, it is unlikely that President Obama’s grandparents would have found Honolulu to be an inviting place to settle after the war,” he said.

But the process to grant a posthumous medal is quite tricky, according to the Navy Awards Branch, which requires a recommendation be made within three years of the act. Normally, the time limit is only waived if the person was originally nominated for the medal but was not given one due to loss of paperwork or racial discrimination. Because McClusky was never officially nominated — despite stories that Spruance had discussed the possibility — his chances of being honored are, as his son suggested, remote.

Or are they?

I ran into Sen. Richard Blumenthal at a fundraiser in Greenwich last year. On his way out, I stopped him and introduced myself. I told him that a World War II veteran was trying to award a fellow dive bomber with a Medal of Honor. Himself a former enlisted Marine sergeant, Blumenthal’s eyes widened as I briefly discussed Walsh’s efforts.

“Here’s my personal email address,” he said, writing it on the back of his business card. “Have him email me.”

And so he did. Walsh began cc’ing the senator on his emails to other historians and veterans on McClusky and the Battle of Midway. Blumenthal appeared receptive at first, but has since appeared distant.

Blumenthal’s spokesman, Elizabeth Benton, said that Blumenthal is doing what he can.

“Sen. Blumenthal has communicated with Mr. Walsh regarding Rear Admiral Wade McClusky’s heroism and bravery at Midway, and he is now gathering the information necessary to assess and advocate for his candidacy for a Medal of Honor,” Benton wrote in an email.

What’s next?

At the very least, the powers that be should consider the possibility of recognizing McClusky with a posthumous Medal of Honor, says Admiral Besal. Fellow naval aviator Captain Will Dossel agrees, but has his reservations.

“The retired aviator in me wants to see it happen — the naval historian and longtime student of naval bureaucracy says it won’t happen,” Dossel said.

Walsh’s opponents, such as Tillman and Parshall, don’t see any merit in examining McClusky’s eligibility for the medal, since it would open up a can of worms for other soldiers to be considered.

But Walsh will not give up. He’s begun to reach out to John Lehman, former Secretary of the Navy, in hopes that Lehman can spark a congressional inquiry into the matter. But the award, like many accolades, is not without its politics.

“Navy has historically been the harder of the services in awarding major decorations and medals,” Dossel said.

For example, injury from smoke inhalation is criteria for awarding a Purple Heart in the Army and Air Force, but not the Navy, something Dossel learned after Sept. 11, 2001.

“There is an expectation of exceptional performance under duress that is part of what is supposed to be the ‘norm’ for a naval officer,” Dossel said.

Despite what seems to be insurmountable odds, Walsh continues his quest. He doesn’t do it for money or notoriety. He simply does it because he believes any alternative would be an injustice to McClusky and the entire war effort that eventually thrust the United States, for this first time in its young history, into a world superpower.

“He changed everything,” Walsh said. “Everything.”

• Check out Walsh’s blog here

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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