Bob Dole’s World War II heroism ended his medical, athletic ambitions – The Washington Post


imageBob Dole was an athlete.As a 6-foot-2 freshman at the University of Kansas, Dole had joined the track team, football team and — his favorite — the basketball team.His grades weren’t amazing, but still he planned to enroll in the pre-med program and become a doctor.After his athletic career, of course.

Then Japan bombed Pearl Harbor .Like millions of other young men, Dole signed up to serve in World War II.

But what the future GOP leader, senator and presidential candidate had hoped would be a short detour on his life path turned out to change it forever.

Robert J.Dole, longtime GOP leader who sought presidency 3 times, dies at 98 Dole, who died Sunday at the age of 98, was severely injured in a battle in Italy in the waning days of the war.In an instant, his athletic career and medical aspirations were finished.After basic training, Dole was selected for Officer Candidate School.Despite his preference to enter the medical corps, he was shipped to New York for training in engineering.He excelled there, becoming the cadet first sergeant of his company.He also received some bad news: A woman he had been dating back home in Kansas married someone else.On D-Day, June 6, 1944 , Dole was at Camp Breckenridge in Kentucky, receiving artillery training and wondering if he would ever see combat before the war was the won.He was finally shipped to Italy a few days before Christmas, and, in February 1945, was assigned to take over a platoon whose commanding officer had been killed in combat.Italy had long since surrendered to the Allied powers, but the Nazis were still holed up in the mountains of northern Italy.

The 10th Mountain Division, I Company, was an elite unit of Olympic skiers and mountain climbers who could move quickly uphill and flush out the Nazis.“I thought it was mighty odd that a kid from Kansas who had seen a mountain up close only once in his life would be assigned to lead a platoon of mountain troops,” Dole wrote in his 2005 memoir “ One Soldier’s Story .” “We Kansans didn’t ski much.”While on a night patrol a few weeks later, he was injured in the leg by fragments from a grenade blast.It “hurt like crazy,” he wrote, but the wound wasn’t serious, and “the medics patched me up good as new.” Bob Dole’s final mission As the snow melted into spring, Army brass planned a major offensive.The entire Allied line — more than 200,000 men — would push the Nazis back simultaneously.On the morning of April 14, the assault began.

First, bombers pummeled the German bunkers.Then, Dole and his men were instructed to move across the valley and take control of area labelled Hill 913.It was slow going.They mostly crawled through the valley, between hedgerows and stone walls, watching for land mines and under heavy machine gun fire.

His men were being picked off one by one.By the end of the day, 98 U.S.service members would die on Hill 913.Dole searched for his radio operator to call for reinforcements.

The man was slumped over in his own blood, radio in hand.Dole crawled over to him to pull him to a shell hole.And that’s when it happened.“I felt a sting, as something hot, something terribly powerful crashed into my upper back behind my right shoulder,” Dole wrote.It could have been a mortar round, an exploding shell or machine gun fire.Whatever it was, it tore through his shoulder and spine, instantly paralyzing him from the neck down.His body twisted in the air, and he landed face down in the dirt.‘I thought I was done’: George H.W.Bush faced death at 20 during WWII Soon, one of his men pulled him behind a wall before being ordered to keep going.A sergeant dragged him another 60 yards to relative safety.

Dole was drifting in and out of consciousness and remembered only excruciating pain and bleeding profusely.He was given a dose of morphine, and the sergeant wrote an “M” on his forehead with Dole’s own blood to signify as much when the medics showed up.A second dose would be fatal.Then he was left to wait with another injured soldier.They waited for more than six hours.Two medics who had been sent to retrieve him were themselves killed.

Dole lay flat on the ground in the rain, thinking about Kansas.“It was like watching a movie of my entire life,” he wrote.Eventually, Dole was carried down the mountain on a stretcher and transported to a military hospital.At first, doctors were only aware of his shoulder injury; when his spinal injury was discovered after another hospital transfer, “the consensus of the doctors who examined me was that my condition was much worse than originally thought, and I would probably die — soon,” Dole wrote.

Their best-case scenario was that he would survive but never walk again.He was put in a body cast from his ears to his torso and lay in a hospital bed in Pistoia, Italy, for weeks, staring at the ceiling tiles and trying to wiggle his fingers and toes.

It was there he learned Adolf Hitler killed himself in a bunker on April 30, that the Nazis in Italy surrendered on May 2, and that Germany formally surrendered May 8.The war was over, but Dole had years of struggle ahead of him.Dole was eventually transferred to a hospital in Topeka, Kansas.When his mother first saw him she burst into tears.He was still in the same body cast, which now smelled “as though something died,” he said; plus, he had lost an enormous amount of weight.Before the war, he had weighed a trim 192 pounds; at his lowest, the 6-foot-2 Dole dropped to 122.Soon after his return, Dole nearly died from a kidney infection, spiking a fever of 108.7 degrees.

He was wrapped in ice packs and injected with an experimental new drug that saved his life.It was penicillin.His fever dropped enough for surgeons to remove the infected kidney.Doctors later determined most of the spinal damage was in his upper vertebrae, causing complete paralysis of his right arm, and partial paralysis in his left arm.Feeling returned to Dole’s legs little by little; he spent hours every day exhausting himself with wiggling a toe or lifting a knee.About six months after he was injured, he stood for the first time; within moments, his body was racked with tremors from the effort.In November, Dole was transferred again to a hospital in Michigan that specialized in rehabilitating soldiers with amputations and paralysis.

But almost as soon as he arrived, he developed a blood clot in his lungs, followed by another life-threatening infection, and another treatment with an experimental drug.The recovery from that took months.Dole stayed at the Michigan hospital for more than two years.He slowly regained his ability to walk, and he got some mobility with his left arm.His right arm remained paralyzed.

John McCain was a POW.

The psychologist was a Cuban.Their Vietnam War encounter: Strange.At times he struggled with self-pity.

But he also made lifelong friendships.Amazingly, two of them — Daniel Inouye and Phil Hart — were also future senators.And both had severely injured their right arms, just like Dole.In fact, Inouye liked to tell people that he got the idea to pursue a life in politics from Dole.One day they were playing cards, and Inouye asked Dole what he was going to do with his life.

As Inouye told it, Dole replied he was going to go to law school and eventually run for Congress.“I followed the Dole plan, and I beat him!” Inouye would joke.(Inouye became a congressman in 1959 and a senator in 1962.Dole became a congressman in 1960 and senator in 1968.)Dole remembered it differently.It took him a long time to accept that his athletic career really was over.

He grew frustrated with his slow progress at the hospital, though the doctors and nurses thought it was more than they could have hoped for.Eventually, he went around the country talking with surgeons, hoping one could offer a miracle operation.His last stop was to Dr.Hampar Kelikian, an Armenian refugee and an orthopedic surgeon in Chicago.After a thorough exam, Dole said Kelikian told him, “There will be no miracles … You won’t be playing basketball.We’ll do our best medically, but you have to stop chasing the rainbow.”It was the wake-up call he needed, Dole wrote later.Kelikian was confident he could improve Dole’s mobility somewhat, but he encouraged him to “think about what you have left … and what you can do with it.”Not long afterward, Dole met a young occupational therapist named Phyllis at a hospital dance.Soon they were engaged.After 39 months in military hospitals, Dole finally left in May 1948.

He and his bride moved Tucson, where he attended the University of Arizona.He threw himself into his studies.He was still learning to write with his left hand, so Phyllis would take notes for him.Eventually, the Veterans Administration gave him a 30-pound machine that recorded his lectures.After a year, Dole was admitted into a dual bachelor’s and law degree program at Washburn University in Topeka, and they moved again.“We found a great little place to live, too — a three-room apartment with rich-looking dark wood trim, right across the street from the Kansas state capitol.

The apartment complex was named ‘The Senate.’”Soon after, one of his professors suggested he go into politics.Read more Retropolis: D-Day: How technology helped win the Normandy invasion and World War II Hitler refused to use sarin during WWII.

The mystery is why.Gen.George Patton’s wife put a Hawaiian curse on his ex-mistress.She was dead within days.How a WWII Japanese sub commander helped exonerate a U.S.Navy captain The savage fight for Guadalcanal: Jungle, crocodiles and snipers during World War II.

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