Tom Cheek aboard Lexington in 1942. (Tomcatters Association)
The Pilot: Commander Tom Cheek
Tom Cheek joined the Navy in 1935 and went to flight school in 1938.
By the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea, Cheek had served with Torpedo
2, Scouting 2 and Fighting 2, and in April 1942 had been advanced to Warrant
Although he had already enjoyed a varied career, the next twist
in Cheek's career would place him almost literally at a crossroads in
history. As part of the reconstituted VF-3 aboard Yorktown at the Battle
of Midway, Cheek had the unique experience of seeing three Japanese carriers
mortally wounded before his very eyes.
On June 4, 1942, Cheek was part of a six-plane escort for Torpedo
3, along with Lieutenant Commander John S. "Jimmy" Thach, Ensigns
Robert A.M. "Ram" Dibb, Edgar "Red Dog" Bassett and
Daniel Sheedy and Lieutenant (JG) Brainard T. Macomber. In the fight over
the Japanese fleet, Bassett was lost in combat, but the escort got in
its licks, especially Cheek, who knocked down three Zeroes. His damaged
plane later crashed into the barrier on landing, and he experienced two
Japanese attacks on Yorktown before finally having to abandon ship.
Cheek took time to speak with Internet Modeler about the Wildcat,
navy fighter tactics and the remarkable way in which he spent June 4,
Internet Modeler: Pilots are reported to have been unhappy
with the F4F-4 because it had two more guns and less ammunition, and
was a little heavier than the F4F-3. Was that something that bothered
Tom Cheek: Well, the first time I got into the Wildcat, I felt
like I had my hip pockets full of cement the way the thing handled! Part
of that goes back to the fact that I spent a year flying the F2A-2. That
was a real airplane. They totally screwed it up when they came out with
the -3 model. The F4F didn't handle as cleanly as the F2A did, and it
took a little time for us to get used to. The gun situation wasn't happy
for anybody, but the joke was, like Jimmy Thach said, if you can't hit
with one gun, you can't hit with six!
There was another factor in there too, that people don't take into
consideration. Up until the time that they came out with the monoplane
fighter, tactics in air-to-air combat was still considered a World War
I, plane to plane, get on his tail thing - dogfighting. When they came
out with the monoplane, you came out with a cavalry type of weapon - hit
and slash, go in on him and then get back up to your altitude. That took
a lot of getting used to for some of the older boys. I wasn't that old
at the time, but the squadron I was in, Fighting 2, was the tops in the
Navy at that point.
IM: VF-2 was also known as the Fighting Chiefs. That's one
aspect of the navy that people today don't catch on to - the fact that
there were enlisted pilots, and they were generally just as good if
not better than a lot of the commissioned guys.
TC: In a lot of ways, they were better, because they lived it.
To get into Fighting 2 was harder than getting into the senate! When there
was a new candidate, everybody had their chance to put in their say-so,
whether he was qualified or not. One bad mark and you didn't get aboard.
They were picking the top guys all the way around. When I got into it,
it was by mistake! They'd come out with the F2A-2, and they were going
to put younger pilots in it. VF-2's executive officer came to our squadron
- I was in the torpedo oufit at the time - interviewed us, and he asked
me if I wanted to go to Fighting 2. I told him no. I'd just become eligible
for shore duty and I'd like to try that out! Next thing I knew I had orders
to Fighting 2!
IM: As a pilot in the pre-war Navy, you were trained on and
had the opportunity to fly a lot of different types.
TC: In training, we had all the types that the navy had, patrol
planes, fighters and what have you. When I came out, the standard at that
time was for us enlisted guys to go into patrol planes, and I was totally
thunderstruck when my orders were to Torpedo 2. I had gone from the Lex's
air group and Scouting 2 to flight school, and I thoroughly expected to
go to big boats when I came out. So I was a bit startled about that one.
We had TBDs back then.
IM: You have an interesting outlook on the Battle of Midway,
since you flew two of the three American types in the battle from carriers,
and when the battle actually happened, you got to see most of it first-hand.
You were also part of the only carrier air group that was able to launch
a coordinated strike.
TC: That was the plan. The Hornet and the Enterprise Air Group
was supposed to be coordinated as one unit. The Hornet Air Group Commander
(Commander Stanhope Ring)was... Well, he was something else. He was the
only naval officer I ever saw who carried a swagger stick. That was about
his caliber. The way they went out, with fighters launched first and circling
around for god only knows how long, it's no wonder they ran out of gas.
And his navigation apparently wasn't the best, either!
When we took off - now, this was one of the tactics the Yorktown had
developed when they raided Lae and Salamauathey let the torpedo planes
go out ahead because they're the slowest and use less fuel. Then came
the dive bombers. They held us back. When we figured out our navigation
from the first report as to the Japanese position, we didn't have gas
enough to get out there and tangle tails and come home. The F4F just didn't
walk that far. When we took off, as far as I was concerned, I didn't know
where I was going to go or when I was going to get back.
IM: You and the rest of VT-3's six-plane escort were in a
situation where a lot of the guys hadn't gotten the information about
the Thach Weave yet.
"Jimmy" Thach, Commander of VF-3 and leader of the six-plane escort
on June 4, 1942. (Navy)
TC: Thach, (Tom) Barnes and "Ram" Dibb and I worked
it out. [The weave] was entirely (Thach's) idea. He explained to us one
afternoon, after coming in from a gunnery flight. He called Tom and I
into the ready tent and, on a blackboard, he showed us what he had in
mind. The next day, we went up and tried it. "Ram" Dibb was
an Ensign, one of the new boys, and he was the only one in the group who
had his orders to Fighting 3. The other ensigns we had were all supposed
to go to Fighting 8. At that time, they were just grabbing people and
putting them in. Of course, Fighting 8 was on the Hornet, and they'd gone
down south, so they sent (the new ensigns) over to us at Kaneohe. When
I first went over to Thach, it was when we'd come back from the Doolittle
escort. He was sitting there with 14 brand-new F4Fs, and he was the only...Well,
he had two dive-bomber pilots just out of the hospital that he was lent
to fly, and we had Dibb and Epps, two new boys. So he picked Dibb to be
his wingman because he was going to be in Fighting 3 anyway.
We went up over Kaneohe and we practiced that weave for a couple of
days in between our gunnery stuff. Then one morning, Thach said he'd arranged
to have two P-36s from Wheeler Field come over and practice against us.
These boys came in and they tried everything they could. The weave was
working real good. We all landed on the fighter strip at Kaneohe, and
one of the Air Force boys said, "Y'know, everytime I made a run,
ah had a damn F4F coming right at me!" We were the only four that
had really worked with it.
I know there are people who have written that we were trying to get
into the weave (at Midway). Well, Thach was the only one who tried to
get into the weave from his position. When we started out, I was supposed
to have a four-plane division. They took two of the planes away. They
weren't even going to send us at the start, then said they were only going
to send six. When we got ready to take off, Thach cornered me and said,
"I want you to get down about 1000 feet over the torpedo planes and
just behind them and give them close support. I'll give you high cover.
I'll be four or five thousand over you." After we split and I went
down to join VT-3, that's the last I saw of my high cover! We were in
and out of the damn clouds. He eventually got "Ram" Dibb to
work with him on the weave, but that's as close as anybody did. Sheedy,
my wingman, had seen it work from the ground, but that's all, and he had
no idea. In fact, that was his first flight out of the sight of land!
IM: There's an oral history with Jimmy Thach, and he talks
about how Macomber was intially too close for him to think of starting
LCDR Herbert Duckworth, VF-2 Commanding officer, in his F2A-2. (Tailhook
TC: Macomber had been flying under the old system - keep it tight.
When I went into Fighting 2, we had Lieutenant Commander (Herbert S.)
Duckworth as the skipper. They had just been assigned an experiment from
the bureau to use two-plane sections instead of three-plane sections.
The Germans flying Me 109s in Spain worked out the two-section thing.
Anyway, Duckworth had the squadron started on that. They hadn't even really
started to fly - there were eight or 10 of us who went to Fighting 2 as
new people. When we first went in there, they turned us loose to familiarize
ourselves with the airplane. I think we had about six or seven hours in
it. Then, they published the organizational schedule and I was assigned
to fly as Duckworth's wingman.
The day the schedule was published, he came into the ready room where
we all were, and said, "I'll meet you on the flightline in so many
minutes." We went out in what you'd call section tactics - I just
flew wing on him. That character tried everything in the world to shake
me off, and I wasn't going to get shook! We ended up right over North
Island, doing a big loop and coming in to land. When we got on the ground,
he said, "You're doing real good, but you're too damn close! I want
you to stay back, and stay loose! When I decide to do something, I don't
want to have to worry about you. Get back there and stay out of the way!"
The first time we had the squadron out on formation tactics, we came
back in, and I was flying where Duckworth put me, a little wide. The Exec
cornered me on the flightline and he told me, "You're flying too
damn far out! Get in there and close up!" That's about the time that
Duckworth was standing near me. He turned around and started talking to
the exec in a voice you could hear down the line. He said, "Cheek
is right where I want him, and I want every other plane in the squadron
in the same type of formation". So from then on, I kept wide. We'd
be flying along, the whole squadron, for some reason, going here or there,
and I'd see Duckworth turn his head and look back. If he just turned his
head back again and looked straight ahead again, things were all right.
But if he snapped his head forward, I started cutting throttle and pulling
stick right then, because the next thing I'd be looking at would be the
floorboards of his cockpit. He'd just lay that damn thing up into a flipper
turn to the right, and zingo! He'd go back to the left and back to the
right, and in the middle of one of them he'd pick up the microphone and
say, "Loosen up dammit! I want you to loosen up!"
Macomber, the squadron he'd been with was from the old school, so he
was tucked in tight, with the wingman right under there. In that situation,
Thach was trying to get him out to the side where he could at least get
him started into the weave. Sheedy was flying wing on me, but when the
action started I was so damn busy I couldn't look and see where he was
until he tried to shoot me down! I had a Zero on my tail that was plastering
the hell out of me. Sheedy said he was bouncing around to where I was
always in the way. He said he moved out a bit and he though he'd try a
shot. His fire went right over the top of my cockpit - I could feel the
heat of his tracers!
IM: After the initial engagement, the Zeroes began going after
the TBDs in earnest. That's where you scored your first kill.
TC: The first Zero that came in, he came in right head on, firing
at VT-3šs lead plane. He fired from so far back that I don't think the
bullets were still on an even plane when they went under the TBDs. When
he pulled up, he swung around. He was getting in position to make a run
on the starboard flank of the formation. I was at the moment positive
that he hadn't seen me. When he came around to the right spot, I had everything
firewalled and pulled up. I got him in just the perfect hit on a low pass.
I saw my tracers go right into him, and the engine and what have you,
and the plane kind of bucked up a bit and started down, and that's about
the time I stalled out. When those six .50s cut loose, the recoil and,
most of all, the muzzle blast, upsets the flow of air across the wing.
She started to stall out, and I just let her roll down to the left. I
figured I could pivot right around and catch him head on as he came around
and tried to get on my tail. He went by me and he was burning stem to
stern. I could see him. He was sitting there looking straight ahead. I
knew right then that that was a dead man, because if he had been alive
he'd have been looking at me to see what I was going to do.
IM: You got a piece of a couple more...
TC: I got the second one - I got him positive - and I hit a
third one, I know he had to walk home. Lundstrom says from the Japanese
records that it was a kill.
IM: It sounds a lot like both sides didn't have all their
tactics completely worked through.
TC: I don't know what their combat air patrol doctrine was,
but fighter pilots always wanted to tangle with another fighter. When
they caught us down there, I think the word went out that there was fresh
meat and they all came piling in. I don't know where they all came from,
but there were plenty of them and, when the bombers came in, they had
a clear shot of it.
IM: After you'd tangled with the Zeroes, you were trying to
locate anyone from the Yorktown Air Group when you saw the dive bombers
do their work.
TC: Actually, I think I am the only person that really did see
the total show there. When you're dive bombing and coming down, you're
thinking more about getting the hell out of there and getting back up
level. Where I was sitting was totally by accident. When I got away from
these Zeroes and came out of the cloud I'd ducked into, I was sitting
right there within three miles of Akagi, and three more of them were sitting
right smack ahead of me. I was wondering, "What am I supposed to
do? I'm a one man gang here. Should I make a strafing run - what the hell
could that accomplish?"
That's about the time I saw the first hit on the Akagi, and almost
simultaneously I saw the Kaga explode in flames from one end to the other.
I didn't see any explosions on the Soryu; she was just starting into a
hard starboard turn when I first saw her. She was sitting over behind
the Akagi, a little off to the side, and the next thing I noticed after
seeing the bomb hit on the Akagi and the explosions aboard her, was smoke
pouring out of the Soryu from one end to the other. I damn near hit the
IM: Your adventures that day were hardly over! The photo we
used for the model shows your Wildcat upside down on the hangar deck,
but the whole story of that landing isn't very well explained anywhere.
Tom Cheek's plane on the hangar deck of Yorktown after its barrier
TC: Well, I came back by myself, and I was circling the Yorktown.
When I came up along side of her, they hit me with one of their signal
lamps. I picked up the aldis lamp we carried in the plane and I thought
I'd send a message: "3 CVS BURNING." The last I'd saw the three
of them burning like hell. But I didn't realize I was too close to the
ship. By the time I got part of my message out, and I'm not a speedster
at that, I was going around the fantail or bow and the signalman on the
other side of the bridge was there. He came back at me, "REPEAT."
I did that about two times, and here came three planes. It was Thach,
"Ram" Dibb and Macomber, so I joined up on them.
When we dropped our hooks, I dropped my gear and flipped the handle
on the hook release, which is ordinarily on the side of the cockpit and
slid forward. I flipped the handle of it with my elbow, and it would slide
forward and I would lock it down. This time, when I flipped it, it didn't
slide. I wound up with a hold on it and my feet braced to push it foward.
The engineering chief later told me the track was shot out back there.
But Macomber, looking back, he gave me an okay on the hook. I had no idea
anything was haywire.
When I got the cut, I hit the deck. I was coming up the deck like a
Sunday parade.That's when I saw that I was going to hit the barrier. I
didn't want to go over it, because the day we landed aboard, one of our
pilots set down on top of Don (Lovelace, VF-3's Executive Officer) and
killed him. So when I saw I was going to the end of the barrier, I wanted
to make damn sure I didn't go over it. I didn't want to be setting up
too high, so I shoved the stick all the way forward and doubled over in
the cockpit as far as I could get.
The next thing I knew, I was right next to the deck and I couldnšt
even see out of the cockpit. I saw a nose - a guy was trying to look inside,
and all I could see was his nose! I yelled at him, "Get this S.O.B.
off of me!" I heard him yell, "He's all right!" About that
time, the tail of the plane started up and I reached down - up, actually
- and tripped my seat belt. Somehow I was also tangled up in the damn
barrier wire, too, but I got out from under it.
IM: You hunched over in the cockpit- there were no shoulder
harnesses on the F4F-4 at the time?
TC: No. Shoulder harnesses came in maybe six or eight months
earlier. But if I had had a shoulder harness, I would have been a dead
man. It would have held me straight up, and I would have had my skull
mashed down on the deck. I never wore a shoulder harness after that.
IM: You went from being part of the attacking force to being
aboard a target - that must have been an odd feeling.
TC: It was damned odd! We were in the ready room making out
our combat report when we heard the anouncement, "Enemy aircraft
35 miles out on the port quarter." We all ran outside to look. The
combat air patrol was into them then, and there were several black spirals
coming down. Thach came along at about that time, and he said, "Get
back in that ready room! You cost Uncle Sam too much money to be out here!"
I didn't look at it from a dollar and cents basis, but later figured the
ready room was a better place! We were in the ready room when the racket
all started and the first, second and third bomb hit. When the third one
hit, someone had left the after hatch, which led to the inside of the
island and a stairwell, left that open, and the black soot and smoke came
up through there so bad we had to get out. A little while later, the black
gang came up. They were all sooted up and choked up. You just had to sit
and wonder what was coming next!
IM: Yorktown got back under way, but the Japanese followed
up their dive-bombing attack with a successful torpedo attack a few
hours later. How did you get through that?
TC: When they ordered all the fighter pilots out of the ready
room when the second attack was coming in, people had jammed in there
after the bomb hit on the stern and they saw what it did to people who
were out in the open. we were jam-packed in there and I had a heck of
a time getting out. When I got out, every plane on deck had a pilot in
it. I finally found one back in the stack, and I climbed into it and tried
to start it. A mechanic finally came up and yelled that there was no gas
in it. It was the plane Macomber had been flying and they had de-gassed
it. So I headed back to the ready room. I was there when the torpedoes
IM: At that point, the order was given to abandon ship. How
did you get off the Yorktown?
TC: When they ordered abandon ship, everybody started back aft
to the starboard quarter, which was actually the highest point at that
point. There were man-ropes and cargo nets that they were putting down
the side to go down on. The ship would roll, and it had a feeling it wasn't
going to stop. You could tell by looking around that everyone was wondering
if this thing was going on over.
When I took a look at the mass of men back there, I decided that being
back there in that mass was no place to be if the ship did go. I wanted
to be where I could hopefully get clear of the thing. So I started up
forward. I got up to the forward gun gallery area and I saw four or five
or six guys in the gun gallery, in the forward end, and I thought they
had a line over the side. So I went down the ladder to the deck to see
what was going on. They had one of the long gas hoses, and they were going
down it. So I dropped my gun belt and kicked my shoes off - I left my
socks on, because I didn't want any white flashers - and when I had a
chance, I got on the line, too. When I first got on it, it was maybe an
inch in diameter. Then it got a little bigger when two of the people got
off of it. About halfway down, I came to where the line had been joined
together. Those were couplings that were a foot-long winding of spring
brass to keep the coupling from taking too much wear and tear. I started
sliding by that, and I couldn't get by. I couldn't figure out what was
going on. I realized that the end of the damned thing was caught in my
belt buckle and was holding me up. I wiggled a little bit, and it popped
loose from my belt buckle and it came up between my hands. I almost lost
my grip on the thing, but it just ripped up through there. It didn't break
anything or tear anything, but it sure stung.
I got down in the water, in my life vest, and some young fellow in
a kapok jacket, with a white helmet like the plane handlers wore, said,
"What are we supposed to do now?" I told him, "Swim for
that destroyer over there, Mac."
(Editoršs note: Later, Cheek became an instructor (counting Marine
ace Jim Swett among his pupils), helped set up air wings for newly-commissioned
fleet carriers, and flew transport aircraft before retiring from the Navy
in 1956. He now lives in Salinas, California.)