Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole looked at four soon-to-be U.S. Army second lieutenants inside a Fort Benning conference room and it triggered a 72-year-old memory.
Long before he was a U.S. senator, long before he was a presidential candidate, Dole was an Army second lieutenant.
Thursday afternoon, he was on post for an Officer Candidate School graduation ceremony. The school trains enlisted personnel to become Army officers. In 1944, Dole graduated from OCS at Fort Benning, just before being sent to Italy to fight in World War II.
As Dole was telling the students that second lieutenants are required to lead from the front, he talked about April 14, 1945 — the day he was wounded in a battle with the Germans in northern Italy.
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“We were trying to push the Germans out of Italy,” he recalled.
The students and others listened quietly as Dole recounted in a steady but sure voice the events of the day that changed his life.
“We were ready to go on April 12, but that was the day President Roosevelt died,” he said. “We were all just young people and we were so shaken up, tears were rolling down our cheeks because we lost our commander. We didn’t know anything about politics, but we had certainly thought he had done a great job.”
That pushed the fight back two days.
“My radio man had been wounded and I went out to drag him back into a little ravine,” Dole said. “While I was doing that I was hit. I remember that some of the people in my platoon stayed with me as long as they could. It was about eight hours before I got picked up and they took me to the field hospital then on to a better hospital.”
As he talked to the newly minted officers, he still wore the scars from that day. As he sat in a wheelchair at the head of a small conference table, his right arm was limp at his side. He has no feeling in his fingers.
He was old, but not beaten.
Realizing that his story had captivated the room, Dole used his trademark humor to try to lighten the mood.
“Now, I am not trying to scare anyone about being a second lieutenant and I shouldn’t talk about myself,” he said.
But this trip to Fort Benning, the first time he had been on post since 1944, was about Dole and the school that launched his leadership career that went down the political road. He was a Republican U.S. senator from Kansas from 1969 until 1996. He was the Republican presidential nominee in 1996, losing to President Bill Clinton in his re-election bid.
Former Georgia Sen. Mack Mattingly helped arrange Dole’s visit to Fort Benning and the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center in Columbus.
“I told him he had to come and see this museum,” Mattingly said. “He said, ‘I have just had my birthday — 93 — and I want to see it because I hadn’t got that many years left.’ I told him I would make it happen.”
While the museum was what helped lure Dole to Fort Benning, the chance to see an OCS graduation was a opportunity to walk back in time.
“It was hard to keep my composure,” Mattingly said. “I have known him for 40-plus years and we are very, very close friends. I am glad he could make it back to Fort Benning because he was so wanting to see it one more time. ... This is where it started for him.”
Dole, from Russell, Kan., acknowledged that the Army opened up his world.
“I really liked the Army and I thought it was a great opportunity,” Dole said. “I came from a small town and it was a chance to meet people from all over the country. It kind of broadens your perspective to meet people from New York, California, Washington state and Florida.”
Dole had been drafted and serving in the 75th Division when he was selected to attend OCS, which was in its infancy.
“It was a great experience to learn about leadership,” he said. “You have to be out front to be a leader. That is part of what you learn here. I learned very quickly that second lieutenants will be out front. You are going to have to lead the way.”
That responsibility of leadership now falls on the new second lieutenants, and their job won’t be easy, Dole said.
“We are looking at the future,” he said as they sat at the table with him. “There are threats all over the world. The world is on fire right now. You can throw a dart and that is probably a place we have problems. It is up to you all to straighten out the mess we are in.”
Dole’s visit will continue Friday when he will visit the National Infantry Museum and tour the OCS Hall of Valor.