DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Bob Dole, the longtime former senator, Republican presidential nominee and World War II veteran, died Sunday. He was 98. Dole represented Kansas in the Senate for 27 years, 12 of which he served as Republican leader of the chamber. He was the Republican nominee for president in 1996 and was chair of the National World War II Memorial. Dole was instrumental in pushing the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, legislation that had personal meaning for him. He lost the use of one arm in a firefight with German troops in the Italian Alps during World War II. When Terry Gross spoke to him in 2005, he’d written a memoir about that moment that changed his life.
TERRY GROSS: Some men always know that they want to fight in the army. Did you feel that way? Did you, like, want to join? Or was that something you had actually aspired to, being in the military?
BOB DOLE: No, I don’t think so. I think – you know, we had a draft board. And if you didn’t – in my case, I enlisted. I thought I had more choices if I enlisted rather than waiting for the draft. But the draft wasn’t far behind. And it occurred to me that there are more possibilities by – through the enlisted reserve, which I’d joined in December of 1942, and then was called to active duty in 1943, and then later went onto Officer Candidate School. But did I have any burning desire to join the Army? No. I mean, I appreciated those who were serving. But I think we knew in World War II if we were a sound, body and the right age and physically fit, we were going to end up in the service.
GROSS: Before the injury that left your – left one of your arms useless and nearly killed you, you had another injury in the war. Would you just briefly describe what happened the first time?
DOLE: Well, I think what we had, we had almost – I was twice wounded. I got two Purple Hearts. But the first one was sort of superficial. We were out on a night patrol with my platoon – not the entire platoon, about 10 of us, as I recall. And at one point, we saw some fire coming from a farmhouse. It was occupied by the enemy, the Germans. And I think three or four of us unloaded grenades. And one of the grenades hit a tree and bounced back and hit a couple of us. And we had these superficial wounds. And later on, we got a Purple Heart. I never figured out why, but it didn’t detain us.
But then April 14 was the big one. That’s when I really got hurt. And I was trying to pull my radio man back to safety because he had been hit. And I felt this sting in my right shoulder. And apparently, it was some kind of a high-explosive shell. I still have fragments of the shell in my – that shoulder area. And it ripped into my body and injured my spinal cord and caused all kinds of problems. But I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t feed myself for about a year. You learn to be patient, which has never been a strong suit for me. And you learn to adapt. I mean, you have to use what you have. And you find out you can do a lot of things in a different way that you couldn’t do before.
GROSS: What do you actually remember from the moment that you were hit?
DOLE: It’s kind of fuzzy except your life kind of passes through. I mean, sort of these flash points. It must be what they call a near-death experience. I saw my little white dog, name was Spitzy – S-P-I-T-Z-Y. It was a spitz dog – not a very creative name. But I thought of a young lady there that I’d dated a couple of times. I thought of my parents, my brother, my sisters. My whole life just sort of floated by. And I was sort of in and out of consciousness as I was lying there on the battlefield waiting for some litter-bearers to remove me, which they did, I guess, about nine hours later. And beyond that, I don’t remember a great deal. I remember I couldn’t move anything on my body. And I thought my arms were gone. And the next thing I remember, I was going down a hillside in a litter. And I remember they scraped my back they apparently a rock or something and just sort of right down your back. And I could feel that. Then I went onto a field hospital. I remember being in a line of litters. And I don’t remember another thing until I woke up in a hospital in Pistoia – P-I-S-T-O-I-A – Italy.
GROSS: When you woke up in the hospital, you still didn’t have any movement.
DOLE: No. I didn’t have any movement for a long time.
GROSS: Or sensation in a good deal of your body.
DOLE: No. I could talk. I could see people. I mean, my – I was alert. I just couldn’t do anything. And people helped me. They bathed me. And they took me to the bathroom and – which is humiliating, as you might guess. And – but you get accustomed to it because it has to be done. And the nurses and the orderlies and the other technicians, they consider that’s their job. I’d always apologize. I’m sorry. I have to do this. But I’ve kind of joked that I think I could have learned to feed myself more quickly, but the nurses were so nice, and there was somebody to talk to. They’d bring your food in. If I could talk to them for a half hour or 45 minutes, whatever it took, that was always kind of a nice – you know, something a little different.
GROSS: You know, you describe how your mother basically moved in to take care of you. She took care of you in the hospital, and, of course, she took care of you when you got home. And, you know, here’s what I’m thinking. Like, you had no physical ability then. You couldn’t take care of yourself. You couldn’t control your body functions. You couldn’t…
GROSS: …Feed yourself. And, you know, a mother is somebody you never have to feel embarrassed around. And I think, you know, that’s – don’t you think that’s one of the wonderful things about a mother…
GROSS: …Taking care of you then?
DOLE: Oh, with a mother – you’re right, Terry. The mother – I’ve only once seen my mother really, really sob – I mean, really, uncontrollably crying. And that’s when she first got a glimpse of me when I arrived in Topeka, Kan. But she went back. She left to – say, for 5 minutes, and regained her composure and come back – and like nothing had ever happened. And I could tell – you can tell in people’s eyes that they’ve been crying and – but mothers are great. And you learn to appreciate your mother – and your father, of course. But the one thing that really pleased me – when we found all these letters, I didn’t know they existed. I couldn’t remember what was in the letters. But I read them all and read the letters that were sent to me. And I was – I thought I always respected my parents, but reading the letters back and forth confirmed that opinion that we had a great relationship. We weren’t the hugging kind of family, but we were the caring kind of family. People can express themselves in different ways.
GROSS: You know we were talking about how you never have to be embarrassed around your mother, so it’s wonderful, like, when a mother comes in and takes care of you when you’re really sick, as you were. You married…
DOLE: It’s still a little embarrassing. Maybe if it was – you’re dealing with one of your daughters. But, you know, it’s still embarrassing for a grown young man to have…
GROSS: Good point (laughter).
DOLE: …His mother…
GROSS: Good point. I’m thinking like a girl. Good point (laughter).
DOLE: Yeah. Well, no, not sure of that. But I…
GROSS: That’s a really good point (laughter).
DOLE: I was always a little embarrassed my mother had to empty the bedpan or…
DOLE: …You know, give me a bath. And – but never bothered her. I mean, she would just say, you know, just be good now; let me do this (laughter). So I tried to be good.
GROSS: Oh, that’s a very excellent point, though, yes.
DOLE: She used to hold cigarettes for me, too, which was a – she tested anybody who smoked, and here she was holding my cigarettes.
GROSS: Do you think you would have gone into politics if you weren’t injured in the war? Do you think your life might have taken a completely different direction?
DOLE: I think so. I’ve wondered about that a lot, if let’s say nothing had happened. The war was about over, three weeks to go, and I wouldn’t have been injured. But, you know, what do you do if you come back? Would I have gone back to school? I think so, but I’m not certain. But having this injury, I knew I had to do something. I had to finish my education. And I used to say if I can’t use my hands, I’ll use my head and go to law school and do whatever you do with a law degree. So I think I realized that, you know, you’re going to – you’re in good shape now. You’ve got a future ahead of you, and you’ve got to prepare for it.
DAVIES: Bob Dole recorded in 2005. He died Sunday at the age of 98. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK’S “SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN”)
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