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WWII still vivid in memory of Weyerhaeuser veteran
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Photo by Ruth Erickson/  

Plaque, flag and wreath adorn the entrance to Wally Checkalski’s place at Woodstone Assisted Living in Rice Lake. He’s wearing a replica of his original flight jacket that his family gave him on his 90th birthday. The 99-year-old World War II veteran reminisced about his service as an aviation radioman.

Wallace Checkalski, 99, a resident of Woodstone Assisted Living in Rice Lake who has lived most of his life in Weyerhaeuser, is still hoping to catch a glimpse of his guardian angel. The World War II veteran knows he had one who saw him through traveling trials and matched him up with a pilot who became a trusted friend that he met up with again 65 years later in 2009.

He is third of six Checkalski brothers who were born and raised on a farm near Weyerhaeuser. His oldest brother Albert worked on the railroad and was never drafted nor enlisted in the war. Second oldest brother Donald was one of the first from Rusk County to be drafted, but he got rejected because of an injured knee. Then came Wally, as he prefers to be called, who enlisted when he was 20 years old in 1943. He did not have to serve but wanted to.

“They had given me a deferment to stay on the farm,” he recalled during a recent visit. “When I enlisted I got a call from the draft board who wondered what initiated my enlistment. I told them my friends were going, and it bothered me to stay behind. I enlisted in the Navy. I just felt I had to be a part of it.”

Completing the family lineup, Wally said the fourth brother Leonard enlisted in the Army and became a tank operator. Fifth brother Gerald stayed on the farm, and sixth brother Arnie, also now of Rice Lake, became a music teacher and accordion player who has been inducted into the Concertina Hall of Fame.

“I went to boot camp at Great Lakes,” he said of the naval station near Chicago where more than 100,000 sailors were trained after the Pearl Harbor attack. “Previously boot camp was eight weeks, but during the war they needed bodies, so we completed it in four weeks and they shoved us on.”

Passing his aptitude tests, Wally said he qualified for everything, but he wanted to become an aviation radioman.

“The war was on full bore,” he said. “Training was 24/7. It was intense.”

However, with much to cover in a short time, recruits had to learn fast or use skills they already had.

“We didn’t have much firearm training,” Wally said. Yet recruits like himself, who had hunted deer, partridge and squirrel from the time they could hold a gun, fared much better than the rest. Using lever, pump and the trusted bolt action .30-06 Springfield rifle, they were tested standing, prone, sitting and rapid fire. Wally said he “messed up” on two shots but he still impressed his superiors.

“The next morning after chow, my name was on the bulletin board to report to the office,” Wally said. “I remembered thinking ‘I’m a country hick, what did I do wrong?’ So I went to the office, and the guy behind the counter asked ‘how would you like to stay on the firing range? We will promote you to petty officer.’”

But to be on the firing range was not why he had enlisted. “I turned it down,” Wally said. “I still wanted to fly.”

The WWII veteran continued, “They sent me to radio and radar school in Memphis, Tenn. That was pretty intense. We had to learn all the systems — SOS, emergency calls and Morse Code — he said, rattling off some code. “I still remember some of them. When we graduated, we checked out on everything.”

His next mission was at Nass Obaloka, an auxiliary air field in Florida, six miles from Miami.

“Here they introduced us to different types of airplanes,” he said, noting that two-engine bombers and a single-engine Gramin Avenger torpedo plane were among them.

“One day we were called in, given a briefing on the dos and don’t about flying,” he said, recalling that the room was filled half with pilots and the other half with air crewmen. He thinks his guardian angel was there somewhere as well, intervening in the pairing off.

He said the one running the briefing was matching up pilots and crewmen, putting those from the same states together. Wouldn’t you know the small man in the back of the room, who looked too young to be a pilot, got matched up with Wally.

“I had a moment of misgiving, what did Wally get into?” he wondered.

“Then we started talking, and we had so much in common, it built my confidence,” Wally said. “His name was LeRoy Lindahl, and he was from a farm in Kendal (in Monroe County). We both had experiences like harnessing horses, milking cows by hand. We formed a tight knot. I had full confidence in him.”

“So then we started flying,” he said, relishing getting into talk of his passion. “They had a flight pilot leading the way. We were chasing the leader, swerving in and out of big, puffy clouds. LeRoy said later they were supposed to see if that would make us sick.”

Wally passed that test too with, well, flying colors.

As an aviation radioman, Wally was supposed to address pilots, who are officers, as sir. But the two from Wisconsin had developed such a rapport that they addressed each other by their nicknames — “Lindy” for Lindahl and “Check” for Checkalski.

“When scrambled eggs are around, use your better judgment, he advised me,” said Wally, explaining that scrambled eggs referred to those officers who wore the gold braid on their uniforms.

Long journey home

“Finally graduation came; we were all happy we had leave to go home,” Wally shared, showing no sign of tiring in retelling his wartime tales. “There were a few people with financial backing. Those lucky enough to have money in their billfold could get a ticket on a train. Anything, even with square wheels, was rolling.”

With his plan to get a free Air Transport Command flight, he said, “I rushed down as soon as I got my leave papers, but prit’near everybody had uniforms on of some sort. I sat there 18 hours; I was dead to the world when here comes a pilot of a C-47 called ‘the workhorse.’ He looked worn out but said I’m heading to Minneapolis; I’ve got room in the back.”

Wally took him up on the offer, not knowing what he was getting himself into. Turns out the rain was dripping in the aircraft and he could see lightning through the cracks of the plane. Then the engine started backfiring and the pilot asked him if he knew anything about a voltage regulator. He talked of walking out on the wing in the rain to fix it.

“It was rough,” he remembers. “We got as far as Nashville, and the engine quit. Holy fright, what next? Now what are you going to do, Wally?” he asked himself. “I walked across the air field in the rain to the commercial side.”

He told his woes — that he was on an 18-day leave after which he would be assigned to active duty — to “a pretty young lady” asking if he could get a priority flight. She took down his information and made a call in to the War Priorities Board in Washington, D.C. “I sat there, holding my breath,” he said. Somehow she got him a priority flight and because the plane to Chicago was full, they had to bump someone to make room for him. That someone ended up being “an Army officer, dressed sharp as a tack, with brass buttons so shiny you needed sunglasses.” he said. “I got on the plane, and I was so tired, I buckled the strap and fell asleep.”

In no time, he was shaken awake with someone saying, “Sailor, sailor, we’re landing in Chicago.”

“So I get off; now I’m in Chicago,” Wally said, hoping he could catch a Greyhound bus, which military personnel could sometimes ride for nothing.

That’s when his guardian angel intervened again. Out of the blue, he spotted a guy he used to play baseball with, who lived on a farm south of his family’s farm in Rusk County.

“Victor?” asked Wally, wondering if he was still dreaming. “Victor Sobkoviak?’

Hearing of Wally tell of his long voyage to get home on leave, his neighbor said, “My brother Leonard is coming to pick me up. You’re going to squeeze in with us.”

Still incredulous, after all these years, of how that last leg of his journey worked out, Wally said, “They drove me right home to the farm. I’ve been searching for that guardian angel to thank ever since.”

Action on the USS-FDR carrier

His trip back by train after leave was not near as adventurous. He reported to Grosse Isle, an auxiliary naval station in Michigan, where Lindy and he transferred from torpedo to dive bomber, aboard the SB2C Hell Diver.

“All of it was coming together,” he said of the VT-75 torpedo plane, dive bomber and VF-75 fighter escort. “Our fighter escort was the Consair. We were going to board the brand new carrier, the USS-Franklin D. Roosevelt, the biggest carrier ever commissioned. Our group, the White Squadron, was going on it. Everything was so hectic.”

His plane had twin machine guns mounted on a swivel track that fired at the same time and were zeroed in at a thousand yards. He said the radar was effective up to 100 miles.

They packed their gear and were bound for Naval Auxiliary Air Station Chincoteague Island, Virginia.

“I flew in the same kind of plane that President George Herbert Walker Bush flew,” Wally said. As a young pilot, the future president also trained at Chincoteague and photos of him in his harness looked the same as worn by Wally’s pilot.

They thought they would be a part of the invasion of Japan, but that never happened. Just when Wally was in the middle of the action, his two-year commitment (1943-1945) was up and he was honorably discharged. Only three weeks later, Japan surrendered and the FDR carrier was instead sent to the Mediterranean.

“The Russians, as soon as Japan surrendered and Germany was done, swarmed the Mediterranean,” he said. “They wanted control of all the shipping lanes from the Persian Gulf.”

Friend Jim Richie, asked “How was flying on and off the carrier?” Wally responded, “You know there’s always a risk; you have to have confidence. You pull on the harnesses; sometimes it hit down hard.” He said a buddy ended up with a broken leg once when they hit hard and bounced.

The near centenarian said another time they had to evacuate all the aircraft from Florida because of an impending hurricane, flying them to a small field in southern Maryland. Airplanes were parked alongside bombers and if room to park, they did. When it was filled to capacity, they pulled up their wings and taxied up two-lane highways with the tail bobbing up and down.

Wally smiles as he recalls the evacuation as one his “nice memories.” He explained why. “Highway patrol, MP [military police] and anybody with authority were directing automobiles into the shallow ditches so the aircraft could pass. One convertible came by with five young ladies who were waving and blowing kisses at us. I unhooked my harness and sat on the fuselage waving back, enjoying it until I heard Lindy say ‘Check, get your butt back in the airplane.’ ‘Yes sir,’” I replied, “end of fun.”

Charter member of Weyerhaeuser VFW

“When we got back we did not have a Veterans of Foreign Wars, so we started one, Post 5780,” said Wally, who is the last one living of its charter members. When the post celebrated its 75th year this past April, Wally got the honor of cutting the cake.

After returning to his family farm, he married Ann Keilbon, whom he called “a farm girl south of Weyerhaeuser” in 1946. They farmed and raised four children — Gary of Connecticut, a Navy veteran; Karen of Long Lake, a retired teacher; Bonnie of Kentucky, a Navy medic; and Rodney, an over-the-road semi driver. They have, in turn, blessed him with seven grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren. His wife died in 2006.

All in all, Wally says, it’s been a great life. He’s never thought of his wartime contributions as anything out of the ordinary, so was stunned when his family took him to a grassroots event at the Superior Middle School where then-Vice President Joe Biden was campaigning for President Barrack Obama in 2012. Biden spotted Wally wearing his WWII cap, walked to the end of the stage and saluted him. After the event Biden signed his admission ticket, writing “Wallace, proud of you, Joe.”

While he loves reliving the adventures of his enlistment, the 99-year-old still thinks he was just doing his duty to country.

“You think a lot when you get this far,” the veteran said. “It’s a long journey, and there’s so few left from WWII. Sometimes I wonder, ‘Why me?’ ‘Why am I still here?’ But maybe with the longevity that’s given us, maybe there is a purpose for us, maybe we have a conscientious duty to represent our fallen comrades that tried to alert and warn and gave their all to help save the world from tyranny.”

Rice Lake man convicted of murder

A Rice Lake man failed to beat a first-degree intentional homicide charge in Barron County Circuit Court last week after a four-day trial resulted in his conviction despite his plea he suffered from mental illness at the time of the crime and didn’t know his conduct was wrong.

Andrew J. Brunette, 26, was convicted Nov. 3 of the murder of Garrett Macone, 24, of the town of Chetek. The defendant had confessed to shooting the victim twice in the back of the head while he slept in his home, but his attorneys asked the jury to find him guilty of second-degree intentional homicide.

After the jury returned a verdict of first-degree intentional homicide, the defense presented a case that Brunette had suffered a mental disease or defect at the time of the crime and didn’t know the wrongfulness of his action.

Although the jury agreed Brunette suffered a mental illness when he shot Macone, it decided the defendant still knew his conduct was wrong and didn’t conform to law.

The trial had begun Nov. 1 before Judge James C. Babler with Barron County District Attorney Brian Wright leading the prosecution and defense attorney Stephanie Thomas-Schmidt presenting the defense’s opening statement

The trial moved along quickly and closing statements began the afternoon of Nov. 3 before the jury got its chance to weigh the evidence and determine the outcome.

Barron County Assistant District Attorney John O’Boyle delivered the state’s closing argument.

The case came down to whether Brunette killed Macone out of fear as opposed to anger or rage, O’Boyle said. The defendant was facing no imminent threat of death from Macone when he entered the residence as an armed intruder.

Brunette confessed to leaving a children’s hospital in St. Paul on the morning of Sept. 20, 2020, even though the daughter was scheduled for an MRI at 10 a.m., drove to his parent’s house, picked up his gun, hid it in clothes and drove to Chetek, the assistant district attorney said.

When Brunette arrived at the Macone residence, he surveilled the house. He then entered the house and shot Macone as he laid asleep in his bed.

Macone was no threat — “Those are facts,” O’Boyle said.

The assistant district attorney said prosecutors have proved that Brunette himself did not believe Macone was a danger as based on a hearing for a restraining order. Instead, raw anger drove Brunette on the drive from St. Paul.

Defense attorney Ryan A. Reid depicted the case as a matter of “love, lust, confusion.”

Reid said Brunette received messages stating the next time Macone saw him he would kill him and the kids. Although Brunette backed away from asserting these messages came from Macone during the course of a hearing to obtain a restraining order, the defendant did so because his estranged wife, whom Macone was seeing, promised to return.

Reid asked the jury to look at the case through the defendant’s perspective and asked them to find him guilty of second-degree intentional homicide rather than first degree.

But the jury came back with a finding of first-degree intentional homicide in the early afternoon, and proceedings continued into the second phase where Brunette’s mental health at the time of the crime came into question.

In his closing statement delivered Thursday, defense attorney Ryan A. Reid noted Brunette’s history of repeated sexual and physical abuse growing up, his diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression while he served as a U.S. Marine. The defendant described hearing voices, feeling panic, and thinking unclearly on or about Sept. 19, his attorney said.

At the time of the crime, Brunette was suffering from PTSD, and couldn’t conform his behavior or understand the wrongfulness of his actions, Reid said.

The defense concluded by asking the jury to vote yes to both questions on Brunette’s mental health at the time of the crime.

Barron County Assistant District Attorney John O’Boyle said not everyone with PTSD puts two rounds in the back of someone’s head and asked the jury to focus on Brunette’s mental state at the time of the offense, not on his mental health history.

The prosecutor said the jury should vote no to the first question, but if they did and moved to the second question, they should consider that Brunette understood his actions were wrong.

O’Boyle cited the moment when the UTV driver and the defendant saw each other. Because Brunette did not try to kill the witness, he knew his conduct was wrong.

The jury decided that at the time the crime was committed Brunette had a mental disease or defect. But in answer to the second question it decided that the defendant did not lack substantial capacity either to appreciate the wrongfulness of the conduct or to conform that conduct to the requirements of law.

Brunette faces life in prison, and a sentencing hearing has been set for Jan. 3.

UW-Madison testing COVID-19 vaccine in children 6 months to 4 years old
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As children ages 5 to 11 begin to get vaccinated against COVID-19, even younger kids are participating in clinical trials that will determine if they will be able to get similar protection against the disease in the near future.

This week, the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health announced a phase 3 clinical trial of the Moderna vaccine in kids ages 6 months to 4 years old had filled up. The trial has been underway for two weeks.

“We’ve had an overwhelming response from the Madison community,” said Dr. Bill Hartman. “So, we had way more people interested in the study than we had spots.”

Hartman is co-principal investigator of the KidCOVE clinical trial at UW-Madison, which also tested the Moderna vaccine on children ages 5 to 11.

So far, the Pfizer vaccine is the only brand approved for that age group. Moderna could seek emergency use authorization for children ages 5 to 11 next month, Hartman said.

Dozens of children ages 6 months to 4 years old are enrolled in the hospital’s COVID-19 clinical trial of the Moderna vaccine, according to the medical school. Nationwide, about 2,500 children that age are being given either a placebo, as part of a control group, or COVID-19 vaccine. That dose is one-quarter of the amount approved for adults.

Barron County

The number of new cases of COVID-19 is inching upward again after a decline and steady numbers over recent weeks.

Barron County Public Health reported on Monday 206 new cases over the previous seven days. On Nov. 1 new cases stood at 150, and the previous week at 170.

Of Barron County residents, 23,094 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, representing 51% of the population.


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