From bombardments by Nazi soldiers while attending patients in Europe to the brutality on the beaches of Iwo Jima in the Pacific, Al Exner of Wauwatosa saw a lot of the worst of World War II as a Navy medical corpsman.
Exner, 86, recounted his experiences on April 2 at the Hart Park Senior Center.
Graduating from Washington Park High School in Racine at 17, Exner's fondness for the sciences was instrumental in larger aspirations of becoming a wartime physician.
Presented with two options after graduation in 1943, of either enlisting or soon being drafted, Exner found his new home in the Navy, much to his mother’s dismay.
“She didn’t want me to go,” Exner said. “But I said, if I were drafted, I wouldn’t have a choice of what I wanted to do.”
Reluctantly signing the young man’s papers to enlist, Exner’s mother bid him farewell and released him into the world’s largest conflict.
Rushed into his nation's service
Surprised by how quickly he climbed the ladder – and hurried on by a boot camp shortened by a month – Exner began his journey with a first assignment in the meningitis unit at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital.
"Every kid in there was in a coma," Exner said. "I didn't know how to take a temperature."
The initial experience of learning to treat severely ill patients would soon become a trial by fire; he was sent aboard a battleship filled with 7,000 soliders to reinforce the European war effort.
Docking in Glasgow and taking war-torn trains to South Hampton Hospital in Britain, Exner was assigned to a hospital built to accommodate 1,000 patients in wards a quarter-mile long. Exner would perform his duties there in exhausting 21-hour workdays.
“In two weeks, I lost 22 pounds,” Exner recalled. “I sent a picture to my mother and she didn’t know who I was.”
Young man introduced to a wider world
Joining the staff as a surgical technician, Exner dealt with numerous instances of treating both sides in the conflict, and Allies from many other nations.
One powerfully built patient from India had an extraordinary ability to lift gas tanks into fighter planes, but he was growing mysteriously debilitated.
Mentored by George Novak from Harvard, Exner sought to find out what was wrong with the man and decided to perform exploratory surgery.
The patient's constitution proved to still be strong. He was sedated, and Exner began making an incision into his abdomen.
"The patient sat up on the table," Exner said, "and said, 'You're cutting me open!'"
Love in a time of war
Returning home on leave after his stay in Britain, Exner had the opportunity to see famous drummer Gene Krupa play live in his hometown.
Acquiring two tickets to the show, Exner began to search for a date to accompany him. Fate took a hand when he called a local nursing school and spoke to a young nurse named Norma.
"The light then went on," Exner said with a smile. "How would she like to go to the dance?"
After a pause, Norma gave one condition.
"I gotta make curfew," Norma said.
Norma made it back on time, and so began a lasting relationship. In November, they will be celebrating 65 years together.
Into the fire of the Pacific Theater
While love had come into Exner's life, a new journey would take him into the ferocious heart of war. His next deployment would be to the Pacific island of Iwo Jima.
On Feb. 19, 1945, the invasion began, a day Exner remembered as cold and dismal, with every inch of the advance critical and costly.
“It took the Marines four days to go two football fields,” Exner said. “That is 600 feet to put a flag on Mt. Suribachi.”
Emotionally wrenching recollections of the men who returned to the ship for treatment included a landing boat operator who had been hit by mortar fire while approaching the beach and subsequently lost both his hands.
"This kid had real pretty, curly hair," Exner remembered. "He couldn't scratch the sand out of his hair, so the crewman tried to get the sand out of his hair for him."
Iwo Jima was expected by the Allies to serve as the eventual launch point for culminating attacks on the Japanese homeland, and it was essential to the war effort to secure it at any cost.
The Japanese defenders knew this just as well, and fought to the death to keep the island out of Allied hands.
Taking care of the wounded on a battleship, Exner would see the consequences firsthand.
"One Marine we brought in had become eviscerated," Exner said. "If you don't know what that means – your intestines are outside of your body."
Recounting the terrifying experience, Exner still remembers the man screaming and cursing to his death, with sulfurous volcanic sand filling his wounds.
Memories of conflict brought home
These haunting memories are many and, he said, to this day are still very much part of his daily life.
"I remember them every day," Exner said. “How couldn’t you?”
Audience member Betty Semrad shared the pain left on the beaches of Iwo Jima, understanding through personal loss.
“I lost my brother,” Semrad said with tears welling in her eyes. “He had a family he left behind.”
Today, Exner wants to maintain the memory of the men he treated, while also illuminating the hardships endured, by speaking to students in history classes around the area and educating them on great sacrifices made for their country.
While so many lives where taken during the war, Exner did something that was more rare. He saved them.