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On the Anniversary of the Officer Corps: A tale of two leaders

From Naval History and Heritage Command
Communication and Outreach Division

On this date 220 years ago the U.S. Congress, shortly after reconstituting the U.S. Navy in the Naval Act of 1794, gave the President the authority to appoint naval officers. It’s an important date in naval history and one that has particular bearing this week as America’s Navy celebrates the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of Midway June 4-7, and discusses those who planned, led, and fought the U.S. Navy’s greatest victory at sea.

June 5 is an important date because it is from those first naval officers that the men and women who followed in their wake have inherited the legacy of “bold and decisive” leadership.  They are the source of the leadership, which at all levels of the chain of command today, makes the U.S. Navy the greatest navy in the world.

As with most decisions, the move to establish the officer corps came after much debate about money. Was it cheaper for the U.S. to operate its own national Navy or continue paying off those who preyed upon its economic interests?

For years, the U.S. paid tributes to the Barbary States to keep their pirates from attacking American merchant vessels. Still the attacks came because it was known the U.S. would then pay ransom for the captured crew. And while negotiating the release of prisoners, the tributes increased, rising from one-sixth to a tenth of the young nation’s budget.  With no sign of letting up and already costing more than a million each year, Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794 in March. It authorized the building of six frigates. Just a few months later, on June 5, Congress approved the commissioning of naval officers to help oversee the building of those frigates.

John Barry.
A Gilbert Stuart painting of Commodore John Barry, the U.S. Navy’s first commissioned officer, from around 1801. (Naval History and Heritage Command photo)

The first U.S. naval officer commissioned in 1794: Capt. John Barry.

The Irish-born Barry was a fitting choice. He had ably captained the Continental Navy’s last frigate, Alliance, and was at her helm off the coast of Nova Scotia  at the end of May 1781, when the 36-gun ship sighted British sloops Atlanta and Trepassey. Being outnumbered wasn’t Barry’s biggest challenge in this battle; it was the wind, or lack thereof. Unable to move without wind in her sails, Alliance was raked bow to stern by the two sloops.

Still, Alliance fought back. Barry, a commanding presence on the deck at around 6-foot-4-inches, was struck in his shoulder by a canister shot filled with shrapnel. Bleeding from many wounds, Barry continued to direct the gunfire for 20 minutes until he lost consciousness due to loss of blood. Only then was he taken below deck for medical care by the ship’s surgeon.

As the British sloops continued their onslaught against Alliance, Barry’s second in command, Lt. Hoysted Hacker, brought the recovering Barry up to speed. The ship was in a “frightful” state with many men killed or wounded. Without wind, Alliance was at a “great disadvantage” to the smaller sloops. Hacker asked Barry if they should strike their colors.

The loss of blood did nothing to dampen Barry’s temper.

“No sir, the thunder!” he angrily snapped back at his lieutenant. “If this ship cannot be fought without me, I will be brought on deck. To your duty, sir.”

Orders were given to raise the flag, and just as it unfurled, the wind picked up. Alliance responded immediately, swinging around until the starboard side faced her enemies. It only took two successive broadsides by Alliance’s 14 12-pound cannons for Atlanta and Trepassey to strike their colors, ending the final naval battle of the American Revolution.

When the Continental Navy was disbanded after the Revolution, Barry was the last commissioned naval officer. When the time came to commission naval officers under the newly-reconstituted U.S. Navy on June 5, 1794, Capt. John Barry was given the honor of being the first commissioned naval officer.

Barry, went on, like thousands of naval officers who came after him, to train and mentor Sailors across the service. And just like Barry, the fates of those Sailors were based on decisions made by those who led them.

One hundred and forty-eight years later, the Battle of Midway hinged on the leadership of many people, but one of them faced the choice of either turning back or continuing the fight. And like Barry, this naval officer also refused to give up the fight, resulting in one of the biggest reversals of fate in a naval battle since Alliance caught that whiff of wind.

Cmdr. C. Wade McClusky Jr., taken in 1943.
Cmdr. C. Wade McClusky Jr., taken in 1943.

Clarence Wade McClusky shared Barry’s Irish heritage. A native of New York, McClusky entered the U.S. Naval Academy July 22, 1922. A fair-to-middling student at the Academy, he graduated 158th out of a class of 454. But he did lead his class in one dubious honor: he was a 5-time recipient of the notorious “Black N,” the Academy’s “scarlet” letter given to midshipmen who accumulate more than 100 demerits. Receiving one was bad enough – to get five was epic.

But mindless compliance with rules doesn’t always a great leader make. McClusky was accepted into flight school upon graduation and on May 7, 1929, became a naval aviator. Over the years, he earned a reputation of being an excellent Wildcat F4F fighter pilot. After a two-year stint teaching at the Naval Academy, McClusky was back out with the fleet as the commanding officer of Fighting Squadron VF-6 onboard USS Enterprise (CV 6) in 1940.

In March 1942, three months after the unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor, McClusky was named Enterprise’s air group commander. The squadron included SBD dive-bombers of Scouting Squadron VS-6 and Bombing Squadron VB-6, as well as Torpedo Squadron VT-6.

The carriers Enterprise and USS Hornet (CV 12) had just been joined by a third carrier, the patched-together USS Yorktown (CV 5), which had been damaged in early May during the Battle of Coral Sea. The group was tasked with defending Midway Atoll from an impending attack by a four-carrier, Japanese strike group.

Although deemed too old, at age 40, to fly fighters, McClusky’s experience as a naval officer kept him at the helm of the squadrons launching from Enterprise June 4, 1942. Instead of his F4F Wildcat, he piloted the slower Dauntless dive-bomber.

That morning, American torpedo and dive bombers from Yorktown and Midway Island had already been wiped out by the onslaught of 108 Japanese aircraft earlier that morning. Now it was time for McClusky’s squadrons to attack the carrier group.

When McClusky arrived at the point of interception, there wasn’t a Japanese ship in sight on a day of clear visibility.

McClusky knew his planes had already burned scarce fuel circling the ship before heading off on their mission. With dwindling fuel, he could have turned back to the ship. That was when McClusky made a decision not so unlike that of his forerunner Capt. John Barry who refused to strike the colors of the badly damaged Alliance and continue fighting.

Gone was the immature midshipman with five Black Ns at the Academy. Lt. Cmdr. McClusky deduced the Japanese carriers were now zigging instead of zagging and changed his course. At 9:55 a.m., he spied a single Japanese warship at full speed heading northeast. McClusky changed course to follow the destroyer’s course, and at 10:05 a.m., “that decision paid dividends,” McClusky wrote in his report. Through his binoculars that “were practically glued to my eyes,” he saw the Japanese carrier striking force.

The rest is history. At 10:22 a.m., McClusky and his squadrons started their attack approach, and within two minutes, both of the Japanese carriers, with their decks full of planes being refueled and re-armed, were ablaze and sinking.  A squadron that launched after McClusky’s group hit the third carrier, also sinking it. By the end of the next day the fourth Japanese carrier was also sent to the bottom and so began the long and bloody retreat of the Japanese military in World War II.

At the June 4, 2014 Battle of Midway celebration held at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington D.C., Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mark Ferguson, discussing the leadership of all Midway’s heroes, noted “Fortunately, history has shown in our darkest hours, leaders emerge.”

Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mark Ferguson delivers remarks June 4 during a wreath laying ceremony at the Navy Memorial to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of Midway. The Battle of Midway was the turning point in the Pacific theater of World War II and set the stage for the United States victory over Japan. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Pedro A. Rodriguez/Released)
Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mark Ferguson delivers remarks June 4 during a wreath laying ceremony at the Navy Memorial to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of Midway. The Battle of Midway was the turning point in the Pacific theater of World War II and set the stage for the United States victory over Japan. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Pedro A. Rodriguez/Released)


“The victory at Midway teaches us many lessons – preparation, decisive action, the power of intelligence, trust in commanders, and of course, the necessity of good fortune,” Ferguson said in his remarks. “But it teaches us more about the spirit of the American Sailor – bold, decisive and fearless in the face of adversity.”

It is while honoring the battles and leaders of the past that “we remind ourselves again that leadership matters,” Ferguson said.

While a tip from his intelligence community about Midway being targeted by the Japanese Imperial Navy may have given Adm. Nimitz one advantage, Ferguson said the Admiral’s “greater advantage was his trust in his commanders and staff. And he never, ever, lost his belief in the strength of the U.S. Navy when fighting at sea.”

Ferguson went on to say that Sailors of today’s Navy are inspired by and have accepted the gift of leadership at sea from those who preceded them, like Barry and McClusky.

“We recognize security and stability are forged at sea, and trust and skill must be built in waters far from home, “said Ferguson. “We continue to remind ourselves that others have indeed faced far greater challenges and have emerged with their honor and victory.”

“I believe the historian Walter Lord said it best when he wrote, ‘Even against the greatest odds, there is something in the human spirit, a magic blend of skill, of faith and valor that can lift men from certain defeat to incredible victory.’”