Ozzie Groethe was sure he had tracked down all of North Dakota's fighter aces for a Fargo Air Museum exhibit that took years of dogged sleuthing. He found eight pilots, recognized by the Army or Navy for shooting down at least five enemy planes in flight.
But a couple of years ago, he realized he had missed a Williston hero Groethe came to call "the lost ace." And, as it turned, out, that pilot had quite a story.
Groethe, a retired businessman who lives in Alexandria, started out with just a last name. Over months of research, he came to piece together the bio of Leonard Check, a decorated pilot whose string of good luck ran out abruptly as World War II was drawing to a close.
"In researching this person, I found he was indeed an unusual hero," said Groethe, who traveled to the Air Museum Tuesday to add a ninth plaque to the ace display.
Back in the 1990s, Groethe volunteered to help the American Fighter Aces Association compile information on "lost" aces. He'd start out with names and places of birth from Army and Navy records. Then, he says, "You go to their home town and ask around."
He tracked down more than a dozen such pilots in Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Kansas and Oklahoma. Then, he resolved to find all of North Dakota's aces.
For Groethe, the project became an outlet for a long-standing fascination with flying. A native of Kindred, he was a teen in fighter pilot training when World War II ended. He opted for an earth-bound career, but the disappointment that he didn't apply his pilot skills lingered.
His display of North Dakota's aces, complete with bios and plane drawings by award-winning artist John Valo, went up in 2001. But several years later, a Williston veteran told Groethe a high school mate went on to become an ace. All he could remember was the last name: Check.
Groethe went back to Navy records and found a Leonard Check, of Coronado, Calif. He visited Williston High School and confirmed that Leonard Check and several siblings attended. But he could find no Checks in town.
After some computer searches and cold calls to unrelated Checks, he found a Mrs. Gilbert Check in Maryland. He wrote her a letter and got a response from her son-in-law, who said she was the widow of the ace's younger brother.
Groethe called Dennis Larson, the former Air Museum director, to tell him of his find.
"I was quite surprised because Ozzie was very thorough," Larson said. "I didn't think he would have missed anyone."
Slowly, Groethe learned Check was the oldest son of German immigrants. After stints with the National Guard and the Army, he enlisted in the Navy in 1936. He was stationed in Coronado, where he married and had a daughter.
He barely escaped the attack on Pearl Harbor when bad weather delayed the arrival there of his carrier, the USS Enterprise. Later, he was assigned to the USS Hancock in the Pacific, where he shot down 10 enemy planes.
But in 1945, an inexperienced pilot crashed his plane into Check's as they flew in formation through clouds. Check was 34 when he died. He had lost a younger brother, Raymond, an Air Force pilot killed by a German fighter over France. A third brother, Gilbert, was the only Check son who returned from World War II.
In the past year, Air Museum director Fran Brummund says, a couple of visitors asked about an ace from Williston missing from the exhibit.
"I let them know we had somebody working on that," she said. "Our resident ace historian was all over it."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529