Following shore duty, Sprague qualified as a naval aviator at Pensacola Navy Air Station in 1920. He then served aboard the airship tender Wright on the West Coast (1920–1923). From 1926 to 1928 at Hampton Roads Naval Air Station, he helped develop arresting gear for aircraft-carrier landings. He was then assistant air officer aboard the aircraft carrier Lexington (1928–1929) before commanding a patrol squadron aboard the Wright at San Diego, in the Panama Canal Zone, and at Pearl Harbor. He served once again at the Hampton Roads Naval Air Station before helping to outfit the Yorktown, where he was air officer from 1937 to 1939. From 1939 to 1941, he commanded auxiliaries. He was commanding the seaplane tender Tangier at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked.
In June 1942, Sprague became chief of staff of the Gulf Sea Frontier, helping to develop convoy techniques. In 1943, he commanded the Seattle Naval Air Station. Promoted to captain, Sprague outfitted the carrier Wasp and brought it into commission that November. He continued as skipper of the Wasp through the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Promoted to rear admiral in August 1944, Sprague commanded escort carrier Task Unit 77.4.3 ("Taffy 3") in the invasion of Leyte, Philippines.
On the morning of 25 October 1944, Japanese Vice Admiral Kurita Takeo's superior force suddenly surprised the Americans in Leyte Gulf. Sprague's command of six escort carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts was nearest to an advancing Japanese force that consisted of four battleships, six heavy cruisers, and numerous destroyers. While ordering his destroyers to attack the Japanese, Sprague summoned air support from other escort-carrier groups. His defensive efforts eventually led the Japanese to withdraw. Sprague's handling of the battle, as well as the bravery of the men on the destroyers, are credited with preventing the Japanese force from destroying the American transports anchored off the invasion beaches. In February 1945, Sprague took command of Carrier Division 26, participating in support of the U.S. landings at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He then headed Carrier Division 2.
In summer 1946, Sprague commanded Joint Task Group 1.1.2 and Navy Air Group Joint Task Force 1 in the Bikini atomic bomb tests. From 1946 to 1948, he was chief of naval air basic training at Corpus Christi, Texas. He commanded Carrier Division 6 in the Mediterranean in 1948 and 1949 and the 17th Naval District and Alaskan Sea Frontier from 1941 to 1951. Sprague retired in November 1951 as a vice admiral. He died at San Diego, California, on 11 April 1955.
Edward F. Finch
Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 5, The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942–February 1943. Boston: Little, Brown, 1949.; Reynolds, Clark G. "Sprague, Clifton Albert Federick ‘Ziggy.'" In Famous American Admirals, 322–324. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002.; Wukovits, John F. Devotion to Duty: A Biography of Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.