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WWII memorial needed, says Dole's partner in history

April 05, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

by Joe Crocetta / staff photographer

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Lester Hart

In April 1945, a young Lt. Bob Dole led his platoon in the 10th Mountain Division up a well-fortified hill in Castel d'Aiano, Italy.

On the other side of that hill was Lester F. Hart, a member of the same division.

Enemy mortar fire ended the battle for both men that day.

Hart, an auto mechanic from Hagerstown, and Dole, an All-American boy from Russell, Kan., never met each other. But they served as partners in one of history's pivotal events.

More than a half-century later, the two men are again partners of a sort. Dole is chairman of a national committee that is trying to raise $100 million to build a World War II memorial and Hart would like to see it succeed.

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"It's really something that needs publicity because we have the Vietnam Memorial and memorials for World War I, but nothing for World War II," said Hart, who made a $35 donation.

Their similar battlefield experiences fused an inexorable bond for Hart ever since he learned that the former senator was wounded at that battle.

Dole got the worst of the injuries. Shrapnel blew off part of his arm and paralyzed him for a time. He spent three years recuperating in Army hospitals and nearly died.

Hart's injuries were not as long-lasting. In fact, he said he was sent back to the front line after his wounds healed. But for a green recruit fresh from basic training, it was no less dramatic.

Hart, who turns 80 on the Fourth of July, said he was digging down in a foxhole when German soldiers lobbed a mortar shell next to him. The explosion knocked him out of the foxhole and he fell to the ground, unconscious. He said he spent two weeks in a coma.

"I can remember exactly how it happened. In fact, I heard the round coming," he said. "I can still see that foxhole."

Hart, who now lives on Sherman Avenue in Halfway, was among the oldest enlisted soldiers in the Armed Forces. At 26, his wife and two daughters kept him out of the war.

But as the campaign began winding down, the nation could not afford to be as choosy about its soldiers. Sensing he would be drafted later that year, Hart said he enlisted in early 1944 hoping to be able to choose his assignment.

After training in anti-tank weapons, Hart said he was sent to Italy as an infantryman.

The 10th Mountain Division, which trained in Colorado, was designed to fight on cold, mountainous terrain. Soldiers traveled a good deal of the time on skis.

Hart, however, had none of this training. He said he had never been on skis until he arrived in Italy.

"They stuck a rifle in your hand and said, 'There you are, now go to it,'" he said.

Lester HartAfter the war, Hart returned to Hagerstown and began fixing cars again. He raised two daughters and a son.

It was not until decades later that Hart realized he shared a historical connection with Dole. He said he heard about 10 years ago that Dole addressed a reunion of the 10th Mountain Division.

Hart said that prompted him to write a letter to Dole. When Dole accepted the responsibility of raising money for the memorial, Hart said he was happy to contribute.

"Let's face it, that was a four-year war and there are a lot of people who remember it," he said.

The memorial, which will be privately funded, is planned for the Mall, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Hart said he thinks the memorial is an important tribute to the soldiers who fought in the war and a reminder of that monumental event.

Hart keeps his own reminders.

Enclosed in a glass case is his Purple Hart, combat insignias and tokens denoting perfect scores for firing rifles and anti-tank weapons. He also has the prestigious German Cross, which he said he took off a dead officer.

"I just feel I did my part," he said.

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