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Eriksmoen: North Dakota brothers were war heroes

Three brothers, born and raised in North Dakota, were war heroes. The Check brothers, from the western part of the state, all served in World War II. Leonard, the oldest, was the only double-ace born in North Dakota. Raymond, the youngest, was de...

Three brothers, born and raised in North Dakota, were war heroes.

The Check brothers, from the western part of the state, all served in World War II.

Leonard, the oldest, was the only double-ace born in North Dakota. Raymond, the youngest, was described by Andy Rooney of "60 Minutes" as "one of the great heroes." Gilbert, the middle brother, was an Army officer during World War II, but received most of his awards and accolades during the Korean War. We will look at his life, contributions and legacy in next week's article.

The parents of the three Check brothers and two sisters were John and Lena Check. John was an assistant roadmaster (overseer of track maintenance and upkeep) for the Great Northern Railroad.

He was living in Berwick, N.D., when Leonard and Gilbert were born and was transferred to Churchs Ferry in 1913. From 1915 to 1919, the family lived in Granville, but moved to Williston in 1919 when John was promoted to head roadmaster. Leonard was born in 1911, Gilbert in 1912 and Raymond in 1917.

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Leonard graduated from Williston High School in 1930 and joined the Army National Guard. The next year, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served until his term of duty was completed in 1934. He then attended the University of Illinois, majoring in engineering. He quit school and enlisted in the U.S. Navy on July 22, 1936.

Leonard received pilot training and was designated a naval aviator on Oct. 25, 1937. He was stationed at North Island, off of Coronado, Calif. When his tour was over, Leonard joined the Naval Reserve in July 1939 and then transferred back into the regular Navy in February 1941.

After war was declared by the U.S. after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Leonard was promoted to squadron commander of a newly formed group of Grumman Hellcat fighter pilots and transferred to the USS Hancock.

Often engaged in aerial fights with Japanese pilots, Leonard found himself facing a difficult situation on Oct. 29, 1944, when he intercepted an enemy formation of seven bombers and eight fighters that had set their sights on the Hancock and other U.S. vessels.

He selected one of the dive bombers as a target and shot it down. He then continued alone and spotted two additional bombers. Leonard got behind one of them and set it ablaze and, as he was about to pursue the other, his gun jammed. Finally able to clear his weapon, he shot the other out of the sky. He spotted another enemy bomber and also shot it down. For his heroics, Leonard was awarded the Navy Cross.

In three months, Leonard shot down 10 Japanese aircraft and had one "probable" and one seriously damaged enemy airplane. On Jan. 4, 1945, while flying over Luzon in the Philippine Islands, he and his wingman collided, sending both aircraft crashing to the ground, killing Leonard.

Leonard was buried at the Punch Bowl, the military cemetery in Honolulu. Besides the Navy Cross, Leonard was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. In 2009, his plaque was hung on the wall of North Dakota Aces at the Fargo Air Museum.

Raymond graduated from Williston High School in 1936. He attended the University of North Dakota, earning a bachelor of philosophy degree in social and welfare education in 1940. He became a social worker in Minot, but after war was declared, enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in February 1942.

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Raymond received bomber training at Wendover, Utah, and was assigned to ferry planes to the airfield at Thurleigh, England. When he arrived, he was promoted to captain and attached to the 30th Bombardment Group of the 8th Air Force in the 423rd Squadron.

Raymond became friends with Rooney, a reporter for Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper. Rooney was also stationed with the 8th Air Force at Thurleigh, and, in two of his books, "The Story of the Stars and Stripes" and "My War," referred to Raymond as "the finest pilot and the greatest guy on the field."

Raymond also got to know another bomber pilot stationed at Thurleigh - actor Clark Gable. But his best friend on the base was a pretty nurse whom he planned to marry on June 27, 1943. Before the ceremony, Raymond flew one last bombing raid, his 25th. According to Rooney, the June 26 mission was expected to be uneventful, so they received no fighter escort.

Just as the plane was approaching its target, there was heavy flak from the ground and an enemy fighter plane attacked them from behind. A 20-mm cannon shell from the German fighter exploded right over the cockpit area, and a large fragment hit Raymond in the head, killing him instantly. Raymond's decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and a Purple Heart.

Information about "Did You Know That" and all three volumes of the book are available at eriksmoenenterprises.com. The column and books are written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen. Reach the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net . The Eriksmoens will be available for a book signing from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at the Fargo Civic Auditorium.

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