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 Machinist.

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, 1942.

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 you?

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 Salamaua‹they 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 the weave.

LCDR Herbert Duckworth, VF-2 Commanding officer, in his F2A-2. (Tailhook via Duckworth)

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 ship!

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 crash. (Navy)

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 took us.

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.)

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