WILDCAT VERSUS ZERO AT MIDWAY: TOM CHEEK'S STORY©

Commander Tom Cheek, USN (ret.)

Tom Cheek was born on 15 April 1917 at Harrison, Arkansas. He grew up at Aberdeen on the coast of Washington State. He enlisted in the US Navy on 17 July 1935 as an Apprentice Seaman. Tom's first sea duty was aboard the carrier USS Lexington (CV-2), known affectionately to her crew as the "Lady Lex". He served initially with Air Group squadron VS-2. Tom undertook flight training and graduated as a Naval Aviation Pilot (NAP) in 1938. He returned to Lexington and served in the torpedo squadron VT-2 flying the Douglas TBD "Devastator" from November 1938 to November 1940. From November 1940 to July 1942, Tom was assigned to Lexington's fighter squadron VF-2 and flew the Brewster F2A-2 "Buffalo". He was promoted to Chief Machinist (NAP) in February 1942.

Tom Cheek aboard Lexington in 1942

From 1 April 1942 to 26 April 1942, Tom Cheek was detached for temporary additional duty with fighter squadron VF-6 aboard the carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6), and flew Combat Air Patrol (CAP) to cover the launch from USS Hornet (CV-8) of the historic Doolittle bomber raid on Japan on 18 April 1942. The CAP was vectored first to intercept a suspected hostile aircraft, but failed to sight it. The CAP then strafed and sank a Japanese picket boat. The function of these small radio-equipped vessels was to provide early warning of the approach of American warships to the Japanese home islands. Tom was promoted to Warrant Machinist on 19 April 1942.

When Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor, Tom Cheek and Doyle C. (Tom) Barnes were attached for temporary additional duty to USS Saratoga's Fighting Three (VF-3) whose commander was the legendary fighter pilot Lieutenant Commander John S. "Jimmy" Thach. At this time, Saratoga was still undergoing repairs to torpedo damage received off Hawaii in January 1942.

After the badly-damaged USS Yorktown (CV-5) returned from the Battle of the Coral Sea on 27 May 1942, Thach, Cheek and Barnes were assigned to a composite Fighting Three (VF-3) which was itself part of a hastily assembled makeshift Air Group-5 aboard Yorktown. The composite Fighting Three assigned to Yorktown also included members of that carrier's own fighter squadron VF-42.

The next twist in Tom Cheek's career would place him in the thick of the great naval battle that turned the tide of the Pacific War against Japan. At Midway, Tom Cheek had the extraordinary experience of seeing three of Japan's best carriers turned into blazing hulks before his very eyes.

On 4 June 1942, Tom Cheek was part of a six-plane escort for Yorktown's Torpedo Three (VT-3), along with Lieutenant Commander "Jimmy" Thach, Ensigns Robert A.M. "Ram" Dibb, Edgar "Red Dog" Bassett and Daniel Sheedy and Lieutenant (JG) Brainard T. Macomber. As the lumbering, obsolescent Devastator TBD bombers of Torpedo Three approached the powerful Japanese First Carrier Striking Force, they and their six escort F4Fs were attacked by forty-one Zero fighters defending the Japanese carriers. The heavily outnumbered F4Fs were forced to defend themselves while the TBDs pressed home their gallant but hopeless attack.

In the fierce air battle over the Japanese fleet, Tom Cheek shot down three Zeros. Bassett was lost in combat. The remaining five F4Fs returned to Yorktown. Cheek's damaged plane crashed into the barrier on landing, and flipped onto its back. He experienced two Japanese air attacks on Yorktown on the afternoon of June 4, and abandoned the severely crippled carrier with other crew members. Following the Battle of Midway, Tom Cheek was awarded the Navy Cross and appointed to the rank of Ensign.

Tom Cheek now tells his story of the Battle of Midway to which he has given the title:

"A Ring of Coral"

Destination "Point Luck"

4 June 1942 - "Pilots, man your planes!"

Wildcat versus Zero

Watching the attack on Japan's First Carrier Striking Force

Return to Yorktown

Yorktown under attack

Abandon ship!


Footnote: 

Some references to the Battle of Midway credit Tom Cheek with only one Zero shot down, plus one or perhaps two others probable or damaged. Tom attributes this to his hurried verbal report to squadron commander "Jimmy" Thach immediately upon his return to Yorktown on June 4At that time, Tom was not aware that the second Zero he’d fired at head-on had exploded after passing behind him. However, the destruction of this Zero was observed by his wingman Dan Sheedy. Tom only became aware when he discussed the fate of the second Zero with Dan Sheedy at Pearl Harbor several days later.  Japanese records subsequently disclosed that the Zero Tom fired at and hit while banking left (immediately after the head-on encounter) did not return after the engagement, thus becoming Tom’s third "kill" for the day.


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© Copyright CommanderTom Cheek, USN (Ret.). All rights reserved. This story has been reproduced in its present form on the Pacific War Web-site with the permission of the copyright holder, and as a result of collaboration between Commander Cheek and the author of this web-site. The text of the story cannot be reproduced elsewhere without the permission of Commander Cheek.