Remembering Frank Soboleski (1925-2017)
Frank Joseph Soboleski, one of the original Band of Brothers, died May 22, 2017, at age 91. I interviewed Frank for my book We Who Are Alive & Remain, and met him at several Easy Company reunions over the years. Frank’s life was colorful and lively, he will be missed greatly.
Frank was born June 18, 1925 into a family of 14 children, number eight from the top. He had eight sisters and five brothers, all born and raised on the family’s farm in International Falls, MN. When Frank got his chores done, he liked to spend his time outdoors hunting, trapping, fishing, swimming, riding horses and climbing trees. The winter when he was 13, he trapped a bobcat.
On December 7, 1941, Frank’s family had the radio on at home and heard the news that Imperial Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. Frank completed the enlistment process immediately but the recruiter demanded to see his birth certificate. Frank told him he was 18, but when he couldn’t produce a birth certificate he was sent home. Frank was only 16.
With the war on, Frank like he was wasting his time in high school, so he quit. (Later in life, he regretted not graduating and got his GED.) The Armors meat packing plant in South St. Paul was desperate for help, so Frank got hired there. In the summer of 1942 Frank hopped a freight train to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and got hired to drive a truck hauling beans during the harvest. When the harvest was over, Frank went to California and worked for the railroad, then as an extra in the movies, then at a defense plant in San Diego, then went back home to International Falls to work on the farm until he turned 18 in 1943.
He enlisted on his 18th birthday. He rode a bus to Fort Snelling for induction and continued on to Fort McClellan, Alabama, for basic training.
Frank said: “I noticed in boot camp at Fort McClellan that a lot of other guys appeared like they didn’t want to be there. They weren’t serious about learning how to be good soldiers or watching another guy’s back in combat. All they were interested in was drinking, smoking, bar-room fighting, and women. I grew nervous with the idea of being sent to fight with a bunch of chicken-shit soldiers and figured I was taking a bigger chance of getting killed if sent to combat with them. So the first time I saw a poster wanting men to sign up to be Paratroopers and heard how hard it would be to make it in, I knew that was for me. I wanted an elite group of soldiers around me.”
Frank trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, to be a paratrooper, and was sent to Camp Shanks, New York, for his trip across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary to England. The ship shut down its motors any time a Nazi submarine was spotted.
Frank joined Easy Company as a replacement and jumped into Holland for Operation Market Garden. It was a beautiful sunny day in September when the soldiers jumped, and Frank landed in a big cow-pie, which he always joked was his “grand entrance” to the war. He fought throughout the operation, then the outfit was sent to Mourmelon, France, to recuperate. He was a third platoon man. Sgt Darrell Shifty Powers was his squad leader, and they became good friends, often talking about deer and bird hunting. Frank became Shifty’s first scout.
Frank fought in the hellish winter battle of Bastogne, sharing a foxhole with Herb Suerth, who was later severely wounded and sent home. Together, when Herb was still well, they chopped down small trees to cover their foxhole, which helped protect them during intense shelling. Frank was injured when a piece of burning shrapnel landed on him, an injury for which he was later awarded a Purple Heart, but he kept fighting and didn’t leave the line.
In the middle of January 1994, Frank was selected by Lt. Ron Speirs, then company commander, to go to the city square in Bastogne, what was left of it, where Belgian and French officials presented them as representatives of the company with medals, the Belgium Fouragere, the Dutch Order of William, and the French Croix de Guerre. Frank told me, “I have always been proud to have them as a thank you gift from the people of Bastogne.”
Following Bastogne, the men were trucked to Haguenau and told to hold the line. Frank was promoted to Corporal and made an assistant squad leader, and later promoted to sergeant and assigned seven men.
Frank tells the story: “I was on guard duty one evening and another guard from another check point came over to get me. He had an old lady who was trying to get past his check point. She had an old gunny sack and she wouldn’t let him look in it. I went over and asked her in Polish, “sho ta miash” (what is that), pointing to the bag. She answered, “keat,” (cat). And she pulled two smoked cats out of the bag and held them up. I led her over to where we had supplies and motioned that I would give her food if she needed it. She motioned with her hand that she had small children to feed by showing how tall each one was. I said, “mea myaa bahatu.” (We have plenty to eat.) and I gave her a can of peaches and as much food as she could carry. She put her hand to her heart and motioned thank you and she left. I turned around and she had faded out of sight into the darkness of the night.”
Toward the end of the war, Frank and the company marched through Germany. Frank said, “We were constantly taking many prisoners and sending them back to the rear for interrogation. They were coming out of the hills, seven abreast in endless columns, with no weapons, tearing off any insignias they had, so not to be recognized as any specific unit when they surrendered in large numbers. There were so many of them at a time that it actually scared us. We were really outnumbered at times.”
As they were marching through Germany, Frank helped liberate concentration camps. He said, “I witnessed it with my own eyes. Rows and rows of buildings. Stacks of bodies. Low moaning and crying, sobbing made you want to plug your ears. Some had white armbands that signified that they were Jews. Others could have been Polish or Austrian. Our officers ushered us out of there as soon as they could. They didn’t want anyone giving the prisoners any of their rations because it would make them very sick to start eating our food uncontrolled. The Graves Registration and the Medics were rushed in as we were led out.”
Frank and the company moved forward and reached Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s hideout in the Alps. Frank said, “One [German] officer came right up to me. He said he wanted to surrender to me and he handed me his Luger with both hands outstretched. It was still in its holster. He went on to speak in very good English. He said that he had been Americanized for eight years going to school in the United States. He went back to Germany to visit his parents and the Germans told him he had to fight with the German Army or be killed. I took his weapon and saw to it that he was delivered with the other German officers to Headquarters. Lt. Spiers gave me a permit to keep the Luger and send it home. It was immaculate. It had never been fired, still in its beautiful leather holster, still had the cozmoline in it. I was very happy to have it. And the fact that a German Officer at Berchtesgaden Hof had handed it to me like that made it ever so special to me.”
In Zell am See, Austria, Frank helped feed the company by hunting in the mountains, and also ran a riding stable to help keep troops busy. At the end of July 1945, he was sent by train to France and the company began to disband. He was transferred in to the 82nd Airborne and shipped home from France. He was with the 82nd when they marched in the famed ticker tape parade down 5th Avenue.
Frank was discharged and returned home in January, 1946. He fished and trapped for a month, then worked in a mill. He became a contractor and built houses and later worked as a shipping inspector for the Boise Cascade Paper Company. He enjoyed hunting and guiding in the mountains. He married his first wife, Bertha, and raised four boys and a girl. He built a lake cabin and took the kids hunting, fishing, three-wheeling, snowmobiling, and camping as they were growing up. Frank divorced, and Frank married his second wife, Renee, a schoolteacher, and they were together for more than 40 years.
Frank struggled with memories from the war and endured severe headaches, dizziness, and nightmares for years. He was totally deaf in one ear from the loud shelling he endured. He chose not to have any contact with fellow veterans until 2001 when he reunited with his outfit and began to talk about his war experiences. He and his wife attended reunions afterward, and made trips to France, Germany, and Belgium. He said that talking about the war helped him a great deal.
Thank you, Frank Soboleski, for your service. You will not be forgotten.