Remembering a Courageous War Hero From New Rochelle

Columnist Phil Reisman recounts a fateful moment in which Westchester’s Frank Carafa saved former Senator Bob Dole.

On February 3, 1995, Senator Bob Dole appeared on Late Night With David Letterman, a calculated move for a seemingly austere presidential candidate not widely known for his sense of humor. His assigned bit was to recite a Top Ten list of ways to cut the federal budget, a satirical jab at the incumbent, Bill Clinton.

After completing the list (Number One: “Arkansas? Sell it!”) Dole said, “Can I just say one word? I have a fella out in the audience named Frank Carafa, who pulled me out of a foxhole way back, about 50 years ago. He’s here tonight.”

A camera panned to a bespectacled, thickset man dressed in a brown suit, a Dole button conspicuously pinned to the lapel. Carafa hesitated at first, then rose to his feet and snapped a salute — and after a few seconds of applause and wild cheering, they cut to a commercial. Next up: Stupid Pet Tricks.

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Exactly who was this man? At a glance, he was a modest, unassuming son of New Rochelle who raised his family in the Queen City of the Sound and worked much of his adult life at the county’s wastewater treatment plant. But there was more.

There was the war.

Saluting the flag.
Photo by Adobe Stock | Canbedone

Carafa never talked about the war, about being a decorated grunt in the 10th Mountain Division or how on a damp, foggy day in war-ravaged Italy, he changed the course of history.

If not for Carafa’s courage, Dole would likely have died on a battlefield at the age of 22.

Instead, Dole lived to be 98. He lived to run for president three times, and though he came up short each time, he was nonetheless a stalwart American figure who typified the virtues of the so-called Greatest Generation. When he died in December of last year, Dole was memorialized by presidents both past and present and eulogized by an Oscar-winning movie star.

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Sergeant Frank Carafa wasn’t mentioned in the obituaries. But that doesn’t mean he was ever overlooked. Late in life, he granted several interviews — one of them a highly detailed, harrowing account that was broadcast by Frontline on PBS.

Reading the transcript, I recalled the classic Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage. In it, Stephen Crane examined the human tug of war between cowardice and heroism through the tortured thoughts of a callow, young soldier who runs from a battle but later redeems himself in another battle. Explaining the transformation from flight to fight, Crane wrote that the boy, “suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look at menacing fate.”

Carafa’s encounter with menacing fate happened on April 14, 1945. The objective: Take Hill 913, outside the town of Castel D’Aiano, in the Po Valley. Dole — a newly minted lieutenant — was ordered to assault a heavily fortified German position. At first, 23-year-old Sgt. Carafa didn’t know what to make of the inexperienced officer, and he failed to listen when the lieutenant introduced himself as “Dole, as in pineapple juice.”

Dole quickly earned his respect. Carafa was supposed to lead an attack across an open field to take out a farmhouse occupied by an enemy machine gunner, but Dole told Carafa to hang back and cover him; he would take the men himself.

If not for Carafa’s courage, Dole would likely have died on a battlefield at the age of 22.

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In the mayhem that followed, Dole was badly wounded. According to accounts told and retold, Carafa heard Dole call out his name — and here’s where Carafa was brutally honest about his thoughts and feelings.

“Well, I just ignored him,” he said in the Frontline interview. “I realized he was hit, and I was just too scared to go out there.”

Carafa’s men shouted out, “Hey Sarge… he’s calling you.” Crying and hugging the ground, he froze with fear. “But I had to do something, because if I didn’t, the men would lose all respect for me.”

Carafa had a terrible choice: risk near-certain death or live to face the scorn of his brother soldiers. But then something happened, something inexplicable. Maybe it was a miracle.

Carafa described it this way: “Guys were being blown up and wounded. Then, I don’t know what happened to me. It was like God was on my shoulder.”

Like Crane’s fictional character, he suddenly lost concern for himself. Under galling fire, he crawled to the wounded Dole and managed to drag him back to the relative safety of a foxhole.

Carafa thought he rescued a guy named Doyle. Amazingly, he didn’t find out who he really was until 1988.

When Carafa died in 2005, the news of his death appeared on the front page of the local paper.

Dole never forgot the man who saved his life — and he got it right about him.

“In my view,” he once said, “people like Frank Carafa are the real heroes.”

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