Salute to Bob Dole

Trevor Soderstrum

Former Republican presidential candidate and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole is in the midst of that long good-bye. Stage 4 lung cancer. Memorial Day is almost upon us. Bob Dole’s story is one of the reasons we celebrate this holiday.

Born and raised in the flatland of Kansas, Dole had seen one mountain in his life before the United States Army appointed him to be a replacement officer in the 20th Mountain Division, 85th Regiment, 3rd Battalion in February 1945.

Trevor Soderstrum

The division had already seen brutal combat in northern Italy, pushing the Germans back to a fortified line known as the “Genghis Khan Line.” So many officers had been killed in action, that the forty men of the 2nd Platoon, figured their new Second Lieutenant would not be around long.

Handed the deceased platoon officer’s pistol, maps, and binoculars, the 6’2” Midwesterner had to prove to the men that he was more than just a “ninety-day wonder,” a derogatory expression given to officers who were ill-prepared.

He spent as much time as he could socializing with his men. During night patrols, instead of placing himself in the middle of the platoon like a lot of officers, Dole took point, to show the men that he would not ask them to do anything that he would not do. 

With the warm spring weather, the army brass decided an offensive was in order. Sensing the impending attack, German artillery pounded Dole’s battalion. They spent the early part of April hunkered down in their foxholes, trying to get what little sleep they could.

Covered in mud from the pelting rain and unable to eat anything warm because the light of a fire might bring unwanted attention from the enemy, on April 12, military leadership issued orders for the 5th Army to push the Germans out of the Po River Valley.

Instead, a heavy fog descended on the area. An inability to see the terrain made it impossible for Allied bombers to soften up the German defenses. Dole and his men endured two more days of shelling until the weather cleared  for air support.

Heavy bombers pounded the terrain before them. Finally, napalm was dropped. Watching the horror, Dole could not conceive how anyone could survive such a hell. In the gray smoky haze, the deafening noise of bombs being dropped suddenly ceased. An eerie silence followed. The order was given for them to move out. They were to cross the almost three mile wide valley in order to seize the summit on the other side.

Dole’s men had to cross a thousand yards of open ground, at the end of which lay thick hedgerows interspersed by waist-high stonewalls. From there, they would proceed up a hill. With possible landmines and booby traps, they crept across the valley.

Just as the 3rd platoon slightly ahead of them reached the stonewalls, someone stepped on a landmine! Another went off! And another! It was like the gates of hell opened. The Germans  somehow survived the bombing and opened up on the Americans with everything they had; artillery, machine guns, and mortars. In the chaos, men fled for safety. Booby traps were tripped. Grenades killed others.

One of the strongholds of this onslaught was a group of pillboxes in the hills behind a nearby stone farmhouse. Inside the building, machine gunners cut the Americans to shreds. Dole ordered his radioman to ask for some cover fire. It proved ineffective. His captain ordered Dole to take his platoon around the left flank and seize the farmhouse.

Dole decided to lead the attack. With members of his platoon providing cover fire, the young officer believed that if they could get to a nearby wooded area, they could use hand grenades to take out the farmhouse.

Crawling until they made it to a hedgerow. After a brief moment of rest, they scampered up the hill towards the farmhouse. They had made it about fifty yards before the machine guns opened up on them. With explosions all around him, Dole dove into a freshly formed hole. Most of his men were dead and wounded on the ground around him.

He spied his radioman in a bloody heap. With no way of knowing if he was alive or dead, Dole, on his hands and knees, moved towards him. Grabbing the man, he pulled him back towards the hole. At that moment, Dole felt a searing pain in his back, just beneath his right shoulder. Covered in blood and dirt, he tried to move, but couldn’t. He couldn’t feel anything below his neck. He had a broken collarbone and right hand, destroyed his shoulder, suffered spinal damage, and was hard into shock.

One of his men, seeing him go down, pulled Dole to one of the stonewalls and out of the line of fire. Left there, the platoon’s sergeant heroically pulled, rolled, and shoved Dole down the hill. Dole lapsed in and out of consciousness,. His skin took on a gray hue. Given morphine, the sergeant scrawled a giant M in Dole’s blood on the wounded Kansan’s forehead to prevent a possible overdose if another medic came upon him.

Alone again. His men’s priority was the hill. With the battle still raging around them, eventually one of the men, who had suffered a leg wound, stayed with their officer for the next six hours waiting for help.

Miraculously, Dole survived and went on to help lead this nation. We could sure use more heroes like him now!

Dole started hallucinating, finding himself back in his boyhood home. He saw his dad and mom at the dinner table, his white dog, himself running track, and the Methodist church that they attended.

Ninety-eight men died taking that hill. Bob Dole was not one of them. Returning to the United States, he battled life-threatening blood clots and infections over the next several months. He also struggled with the depression that came with knowing that his life would never be the same.