Share this article

print logo


The sad thing about our time is that war letters have become a genre. We've all read them. They're in books; they're online. Many families have a file of letters from a soldier, sailor or aviator tucked away in a closet.

Right now there's a new set of war letters circulating. Not exactly new, it turns out; they've been around for 60 years. But almost nobody knew about them, including the fellow who wrote them.

They are the war letters of an Army grunt named Robert Joseph Dole, and the people who first looked through the trove inevitably described them as "extraordinary." But they aren't extraordinary at all. They're actually ordinary, which in the end makes them even more extraordinary.

Listen to this: Can't anybody write in our family? I haven't gotten a letter from home yet. And to this: The thing I dislike most is night patrols. I think I age about 10 years on each patrol. You can't see a thing, which is probably the worst part of it."

This, too: Send candy, gum, cookies, cheese, grape jelly, popcorn, nuts, peanut clusters, Vick's vapor rub, wool socks, wool scarf, ice cream, liver and onions, chicken, banana cake, milk, fruit cocktail, Swiss steak, crackers, more candy, peanuts, piano, radio, living room suite, record player, and Frank Sinatra. I guess you might as well send the whole house if you can get it in a five-pound box. I would like some food, though, honestly.

These letters were hidden away in Russell, Kan., the rail, oil and wheat town that shaped Bob Dole, sent him off to World War II and then supported him as he recuperated in a string of Army hospitals; welcomed him back to 1035 N. Maple as a broken man, knowing that in his case the term wasn't a metaphor; and nursed him to health, watching as he sought office and then fame.

Most of this time his two sisters were in Russell, tending to business (one was a hairdresser, the other in real estate), tending to their families, tending to the flame. It was in their mother's house that they found the Dole letters, organized in books, as if she expected someone to look for them someday.

"Mom was very good about keeping things," Gloria Dole Nelson said last week. "Almost nothing got away from her."

This was the same mom who, in the tough years, worked as a seamstress and sold sewing machines and whose fried chicken and cream gravy made such an impression that people still raved about them long after she died. The mother who, in maybe the most revealing story of Dole's 39-month recuperation, held a cigarette on her son's lips. It was the only way he could smoke.

"One thing that never changes is that it's your mother who stands by you," Dole said. "I know this is true, because I've been down to Walter Reed (Medical Center) and seen amputees working on a machine and always beside them are their mothers. It's the mothers who quietly plug away and take care of people who were hurt."

So Bina Dole kept her son's letters, and then, a bit over a year ago, the former senator and 1996 Republican presidential nominee started to go through them. He worked with a writer and used them in a new memoir, "One Soldier's Story."

Now for the irony part. A few months ago Dole had hip replacement surgery. Shortly afterward, he tried to move a suitcase. He fell. Blood poured from his left arm (the better one, as he calls it) and from his eye. There were the inevitable complications. In the end he spent 41 days in the hospital.

"I felt a bit like I did 60 years ago," he said. Now he feels better. He's up and around. He's still getting therapy on his left arm, but he can comb his hair and go to the bathroom without someone standing there with him.

I seem to be improving every day, and there isn't any reason why I shouldn't be as good as new before long.

Dole wrote that letter more than a half-century ago. He says in his book that his war -- his struggle -- took place long after armistice and peace treaty. It is still going on, even if the man, a few months short of 82, is finally at peace. No need to send candy or gum or cookies.