TOPEKA, Kan. – He lay in the dirt on Hill 913 for hours, drifting in and out of consciousness, unable to move or feel anything below his neck.
Bob Dole would survive the mortar, shell or machine gun blast – “whatever it was, I’ll never know,” he says – in the mountains of northern Italy in April 1945, less than a month before World War II ended in Europe. He went on to serve 35 years in Congress, ran for president in 1996 and inspired an institute on politics at the University of Kansas.
Now, six decades after the combat that damaged his spinal cord, cost him a kidney and took the use of his right arm, Dole has recounted his war experiences and long recovery in a new book, “One Soldier’s Story.” He has included material from dozens of letters he wrote as a young man, before, during and after the war.
“The book is about me, but it’s really about our generation,” the 81-year-old Dole said in an interview. “What happened to me happened to thousands of others – and it’s, of course, happened since.”
Dole’s book, published by HarperCollins, goes on sale Tuesday. Dole plans a 14-city tour in April and May to promote it, including events in Wichita, Lawrence and Kansas City, Kan.
Asked why he wrote a memoir, Dole said, “I’ve thought about it for a long time, and a lot of people have said, ‘Why don’t you write a book?'” he said.
Dole said he wanted to avoid writing about politics, a “who said what” tome, detailing political battles or past campaigns, partly because he thinks readers tire of such memoirs.
“I don’t want any enemies at this stage in my life,” he added. “I just need all the friends I can gather up.”
He also decided to recount his experiences after learning that a sister, Gloria Nelson, living in their hometown of Russell, had kept 400 personal letters, many of which he’d written to his parents as a young man.
He acknowledged, too, that he hopes readers find some inspiration. He said he thought about naming it after a favorite song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from the musical, “Carousel.”
“Others might take some comfort in the fact that you can be down one day and up the next,” he said.
Finally, near the end of his book, Dole writes, “Why did this happen to me? Why just a few days before the war ended? It’s taken me 60 years to come to grips with the toughest questions of life, and in some small way, this book is my answer.”
Only few pages into his book, Dole recounts how, as a newly trained second lieutenant, he arrived in Italy early in 1945 to take over an Army platoon of 40 men near the town of Castel d’Aiano, only to find his troops “didn’t go out of their way to get to know me.”
“They figured I wouldn’t be around long,” he writes.
He received the first of two Purple Hearts for a minor leg injury he received while on a night patrol.
Then, on April 14, 1945, on Hill 913, a captain ordered Dole’s platoon to take out a machine gun nest German soldiers had set up in a farmhouse. During the fight, Dole attempted to rescue his radio operator, who’d been hit.
“I felt a sting, as something hot, something terribly powerful, crashed into my upper back behind my right shoulder,” he writes.
The blow shattered his shoulder and left him paralyzed. A high school athlete lured to the University of Kansas by the prospects of playing basketball under legendary coach Phog Allen, Dole would lose 70 pounds to become a “122-pound weakling.”
He’d spend more than three years in hospitals, learning to stand and then walk again. Early in 1946, wracked by a high fever that nearly killed him, Dole became a test subject for the then-experimental drug streptomycin.
A year later, a doctor told Dole that surgery could give him partial use of his right arm. Friends in Russell began collecting donations to cover the hospital fees, raising $1,800. Dole would keep in the desk of his U.S. Senate office a cigar box used to collect change and small bills.
He underwent seven surgeries to repair his right arm, to no avail.
Nor did he regain full use of his left hand, where the first three fingers have been numb since 1945. Dole writes that the damage to his left hand and arm remained “one of the best kept secrets” about him, though, he said in an interview, not intentionally.
Throughout the book, Dole praises his parents. He said even though his mother detested smoking, when he was helpless and in a half-body cast, she would hold cigarettes to his lips so he could satisfy a habit he’d taken up in the Army. He quit two decades later.
Dole ends his book by recounting a serious fall in his Washington apartment sent him to the hospital, where again he was helpless, as he had been in 1945. He described the experience as humiliating.
Yet, Dole concludes, “Life, on the whole, has been more than fair to me. Certainly, I wouldn’t trade my life for any other.”
JOHN HANNA – Associated Press