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International Falls WWII veteran has long dealt with ‘demons’ from the war

INTERNATIONAL FALLS -- Frank Soboleski's wife, Renee, never knew the extent of Frank's combat experiences during World War II. "He never talked about it. We were married 30 years, and I hadn't heard anything about it," she said. Frank had been de...

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Photos of Frank Soboleski and Renee Soboleski in their youth.

INTERNATIONAL FALLS - Frank Soboleski's wife, Renee, never knew the extent of Frank's combat experiences during World War II.

"He never talked about it. We were married 30 years, and I hadn't heard anything about it," she said.

Frank had been dealing with what Renee called "his demons" since his years as a paratrooper with Easy Company. But he began to open up about his experience when Easy Company became immortalized in HBO's miniseries "Band of Brothers" and the veterans gathered for a reunion in Europe.

"That was very therapeutic for all of them - to go back and see the fields that were all blown up all nice with cows grazing, everything nice again, and to see buildings that had been damaged had been rebuilt and all the riches that had been recovered were back where they should be," she said.

Seven decades later, Frank is one of the last remaining members of Easy Company and will celebrate his 90th birthday with a party Thursday.

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"The fact that he's reached 90 years old with all that behind him is so wonderful. I just want to celebrate with him and all his friends and relatives," Renee said.

She hopes that Frank will be well that day. She explained that Frank has suffered from severe headaches since coming under Nazi shelling during the Battle of the Bulge. A headache caused him to miss an interview with the News Tribune last week. But when he's feeling well, Renee described him as happy, pleasant and fun to be around.

Frank grew up as one of 14 children on a farm near International Falls - a childhood that readied him for his time in Europe.

"He was always in the woods as a young boy. He was, like, 6 years old bringing home a deer. He was a tough customer and he still is a tough customer," Renee said, explaining that being 89 years old didn't stop Frank from rebuilding his dock this spring.

Frank wanted to become a pilot, but colorblindness halted that dream. Instead he decided to jump out of airplanes with the paratroopers.

"The paratroopers were an elite group of soldiers and you knew that they had your back because they were committed," Renee said.

He tried to join the U.S. Army at age 17, but he had to wait to enlist until he was 18 in 1943. He jumped into combat in the Netherlands. He met up with Easy Company after the chaos of the unsuccessful Operation Market Garden, and they headed to Bastogne, Belgium, where his battalion would be under siege for 31 days.

Renee credits Frank's Minnesota upbringing for his survival while surrounded by the Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge.

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"He's a northern Minnesota hunter, and I still think that saved his life. He knew how to track. He knew you don't go in a straight line, you dart back and forth. He knew all the tricks to being invisible in the woods, and that's pretty much what he did," she explained.

In Germany, his battalion was instructed to cross a river to capture Germans as prisoners of war, Renee said. It turned out that Frank was the only one who knew how to swim - everyone else was a southerner who never swam because of water moccasin snakes. Frank swam across the river with the rope to bring the raft across. On the other side, a German soldier who had fought in both world wars surrendered. The soldier told Frank he watched him swim across the river and could have killed him at any time, but he wanted to surrender.

In a 2005 interview with the Minnesota Historical Society for its Greatest Generation project, Frank said he accepted that he was lucky throughout the war, describing how a French couple he helped rewarded him with a pie.

"The lucky part of it comes from, you met this guy and you befriended him and gave him what you could, because he's a person in time of need. So he pulls out a pie, you know. That's luck," he said during the interview.

Frank's story is told in a book entitled, "We Who Are Alive and Remain: Untold Stories from the Band of Brothers." When asked to write about his experience for the book, he asked for Renee's help with the writing, and it was at that point when Renee began to learn the depth of Frank's World War II experience.

She asked him to write his memories down on whatever paper was handy at the moment the memory came to him.

"So he comes to me in about three months with a grocery bag full of little tiny pieces of paper. I said I can't do it alone because it's not in order, everything is scattered, so we sat all one winter and I'd take one piece at a time and we'd put it on the timeline and then we wrote his story," she said.

She said she didn't know her husband was such a survivor. Both of them widowed, it was love at first sight when they met at a New Year's Eve party. They married 42 years ago. She's learned to be patient with him over the years, understanding that his anger was because of the war, but they went through tough times and eventually divorced.

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He began to talk more about his experiences after the release of "Band of Brothers," and that led to them reconciling and remarrying, she said.

His relationship with his children wasn't the best, but that also changed after HBO gathered Easy Company for a reunion in France and to watch the "Band of Brothers." Renee and Frank's children also traveled to France for the reunion.

"They showed the men jumping out of the airplane, and they were being shot while they were falling because it was anti-aircraft shooting up at the planes that were dropping the paratroopers, and they were being killed as they were dropping," she said. "When the beginning of the movie was over and they took a break, the kids all came over and hugged him. They started to understand their dad, and he cried. It was a very, very touching moment."

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