Ollie Manninen is 79 now, a former ski instructor and Olympic marathoner who leans heavily on a cane, the effects of diabetes having cost him some toes. There is a waver in his voice, but no longer in his mind. He is at peace with his war and his memories.
Ollie Manninen is the man who saved Bob Dole.
Beset by the lingering effects of shell shock, troubled by nightmares and reluctant to dispute the accepted account of Dole’s tragic wounding during World War II, Manninen stayed in the shadows as his former platoon-mate’s political career burst into the glare of public renown.
The other men in the platoon knew. For years, they would talk about it quietly at their reunions - gatherings that Manninen shunned.
“I didn’t want to go to any meetings,” he said. “I had nightmares.”
But things have changed. Most dramatically, the fact that Manninen pulled the young second lieutenant from Kansas out of harm’s way is now supported by his platoon sergeant, the man who previously was credited with saving Dole from further injury.
“Ollie was the first one to push Dole into the hole,” said Edward F. Carafa of New Rochelle, N.Y., in a telephone interview last week. “I got to him later. He was calling my name, but I was afraid to go out there.”
Speaking by telephone from his home in Westminster, Mass., Manninen described how he lived in a state of denial about the war, including his collision with fate and the soon-to-be-famous Robert J. Dole.
How his story emerged finds partial explanations in the horror and confusion of battle, in the myth-making machinery that drives the engine of fame - and in the reticence of a hero scarred by too many memories.
The lore about Dole’s crippling wound and his rehabilitation, a subject once shunned by the candidate himself, is now used to underscore Dole’s courage and determination as part of the politically charged character issue.
But asked about it, Dole, understandably, is uncertain about the precise sequence of events and has been giving credit to everyone. “Ollie and Carafa dragged me back,” Dole said in an interview with Manninen’s hometown newspaper last year. “I really can’t remember much; I was nearly unconscious … “
The incident occurred April 14, 1945, in the mountains of northern Italy, where Dole, a second lieutenant, had been assigned as a replacement officer to lead a platoon of seasoned troops of the 10th Mountain Division. During the Allied offensive against the Germans, Dole’s platoon was ordered to take Hill 913 overlooking the Po Valley.
Dole led his troops up a craggy mountainside covered with tree stumps, rocky outcrops and shell craters. Intermittent shell and machine gun fire claimed several casualties, among them Dole’s radioman. When Dole attempted to reach the injured radioman, he was struck in the right shoulder by a shell or a bullet.
Dole’s cries of agony were finally answered by someone who dragged him to the relative safety of a shell crater.
Dole lay in the hole, paralyzed and blood-for nearly nine hours before he could be evacuated. No one thought he would survive.
The war ended three weeks later.
An oft-quoted account appeared in journalist Richard Ben Cramer’s 1992 book, “What It Takes,” about the candidates in the 1988 presidential race. The dramatic reconstruction suggested that Carafa had saved Dole.
For years, Carafa did not dispute that account and was a key source of the official campaign version.
Privately, other members of the platoon chafed at the official story.
“I think Carafa was getting a lot of publicity that he probably shouldn’t have got,” said Anthony Sileo of Bristol, Conn., the company clerk. “This is very touchy. Ollie is not going to blow his own horn. He didn’t come forward for a long time.”
“Ollie was undoubtedly our best soldier,” Sileo said.
Manninen, whose parents emigrated from Helsinki, Finland, and settled in Massachusetts, was a perfect fit for the 10th Mountain Division. An expert skier and all-around athlete, he finished 19th in the Olympic marathon in London in 1948.
After the war Manninen worked as a ski instructor.
Manninen, who lives with his wife, Barbara, spoke haltingly when talking about the battlefield incident, and wept at times.
Dole was in the same platoon, but Manninen didn’t know him. When Dole cried out after being hit, Manninen went out to get him despite heavy enemy fire.
“He (Dole) was lying face down,” Manninen said. “I turned him over and I thought he was dead. His face was turning color … a greenish color. I dragged him into a small shell crater.
“I didn’t know who it was,” he continued. “But when I turned him over, I thought, ‘Ohmigod.’ He looked gone.”
Manninen moved on, trained to keep advancing and leave the wounded to the medics.
The enemy fire continued unabated. Carafa said he was behind a stone wall when he heard Dole call his name.
“I had no intention of going out there,” Carafa said. “My men were calling my name. In order not to lose their respect, I went to see what happened.”
Manninen’s role in Dole’s rescue went unrecognized for decades, but it was not his only show of heroism. He won a medal for events that occurred the following day.
On the wall of Manninen’s living room hangs a citation for the Silver Star “for gallantry in action” after Manninen charged a German machine gun nest that day. Undeterred by an enemy bullet that damaged the trigger of his rifle, Manninen bayoneted one German soldier and took seven others prisoner.
“Everyone wants to take credit for saving his life,” Manninen said. “I have never bragged about it. But the truth is coming out and I’ve started to feel good about it.”
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