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Silent for six decades, veterans tell their stories

The winter of 1943 was especially grueling for Fred Solberg, a 23-year-old Army sergeant from Medford. After his plane, The Blond Bomber, crashed in Sicily, he dodged German soldiers by sleeping in caves and begging Italian farmers for food.

Eventually, he was captured by the Germans, who sent him to Stalag 17B, a notorious war prison in Austria.

"You get to a point where you almost don't care if you are living or dying," said Solberg, now 88, of the months he spent in the bitterly cold prison camp, with very little to eat.

Solberg's amazing story is finally getting heard, thanks to the efforts of Thomas E. Convery, another World War II veteran from Medford. Convery has interviewed 85 veterans from his hometown, as part of the Veterans History Project, a national effort to document veterans' wartime experiences.

After each interview, Convery and his support crew make several copies. One goes to the veteran, another into a permanent archives file at the US Library of Congress. A third copy goes to the Med ford Historical Society, which is creating its own collection.

A final copy goes to the city's cable television station, which has been broadcasting the interviews in a weekend program called "World War II Veterans, the Greatest Generation." The show has become tremendously popular, especially among relatives of the veterans. Many say they are hearing for the first time what their fathers, mothers, uncles, and aunts did during the war.

"So many people have told me how much they love my father's show," said Thomas H. Convery, the filmmaker's son. "These are guys that came home from the war, and never talked about it. They put it all behind them.

"Now, it is finally coming out."

The elder Convery, 82, left Medford High School at 17 to join the Air Force, eager to save the world. "I thought I could win the war all by myself," he said in an interview at his Forest Street home last week.

He would spend many more years in the military, serving through the Korean War and part of the Vietnam conflict before retiring as a major in 1967. He then went into education, teaching civics at Medford High School.

Now retired, he recently teamed up with members of the Medford Historical Society to start making the films.

He said most of the veterans he interviewed were urged by their wives, daughters, and nieces.

"The women have really been pushing it," he said. "They want to know what these guys did during the war."

The interviews take place in Medford High School and follow the same format. Convery gets the generally reticent veterans warmed up with a few factual questions: where they did Basic Training, and whether they were enlisted or drafted into the service.

Within minutes, the stories would flow, usually with jaw-dropping details.

Solberg, for example, talked about being taken to Rome to celebrate Christmas Eve, in an attempt by the Germans to show that the American prisoners were being treated well.

"It was a propaganda effort," Solberg said. "They took 50 of us to the best restaurant in Rome, and fed us a tremendous four-course meal.

"During the meal, they came around with cameras, to take pictures of us, but we stuck our tongues out at them."

Another veteran, former Medford mayor John "Jack" McGlynn, now 85, told about his service in a top-secret operation called the Ghost Army. The 1,000-man unit used cutting-edge sonic technology to trick the Germans into thinking the US Army was more powerful that it really was.

"We would blow up these inflatable rubber trucks, and, with gigantic speakers, we would broadcast sounds of the trucks grinding up the hill," he said.

For years, McGlynn and other members of the unit were forbidden to speak about their wartime work.

"If our secret got out, the unit would lose its usefulness," he said.

But in the past decade, the ban has been lifted: A book has been written about the group, and a television documentary is in the works.

Convery said the veterans seemed to have all enjoyed the interviews. "They leave knowing they will be remembered," he said.

He said he has enjoyed them, too, because he is learning new things about the war.

"I didn't get to the Pacific until the Korean War, so I love talking to guys who were in the Pacific in World War II," he said.

But amid all the enjoyment in getting the interviews done, there's also an urgency to Convery's task.

World War II veterans are mostly in their mid- to late 80s, and, according to Convery's data, the group is dying off fast, at a national rate of 3,000 a month.

Last week, Convery was dismayed to learn that John "Jack" Drummey, a veteran and a cartoonist he had set up to interview, had died.

"I was supposed to interview him a few weeks ago, but he called to cancel," Convery said. "He said he wasn't feeling well."

But in other ways, Convery's timing couldn't be better.

Solberg came back to Medford a 100-pound, 24-year-old with recurring nightmares about his time as a prisoner of war.

With the help of his wife and a rabbi, he put the bad memories behind him. He opened a hardware store, Freddie's Hardware, on Winter Hill in Somerville, and raised his family.

Then, about 10 years ago, he decided it was time to open a box that he kept shut for almost 60 years. It had belonged to his late mother. It was filled with his letters home and articles from The Boston Globe and The Medford Mercury detailing the military's effort to locate him after his crash.

Last week, in the living room of the high-rise apartment he now calls home and surrounded by military medals and photographs of his grandchildren, Solberg said he can now finally talk about his experience as one of the Greatest Generation. "I'm 88 years old, and my life is almost over," he said. "It just doesn't bother me that much anymore."

Christine McConville can be reached at: