When Al Exner looks back at his grandkids today, he’s shocked at how different their experience as 18-year-olds is from what he experienced when he was their age.
Exner grew up and graduated high school in Racine, WI. After graduating at age 17, he planned on attending medical school. However, World War II interrupted that dream. Exner enlisted in the Navy's Medicals Corps to feed his curiosity about medicine and to get as much experience as possible. After nine weeks at boot camp and 30 days worth of hospital experience at the Great Lakes Hospital in the meningitis ward, Exner was shipped off to Europe to be a medical technician at Normandy.
“(The Navy) just threw us into it and (we) better pick up on it, because within two weeks we were assisting,” explains Exner about his time in Normandy.
According to the Service, over 68,000 procedures were performed in total. For Exner, most of his education on procedures came from mentors such as Dr. George Novak, a neurosurgeon from Harvard University.
But Normandy was just the start for Al Exner. Months later, he was sent off for medical technician work at Iwo Jima and shortly after went to work in Okinawa.
Exner reflects daily on the insufficient treatment of soldiers during the war. “You know, we don’t forget these things. I think of some of these guys every day of my life, what they went through and what they suffered,” he explains.
According to Exner, the sadness and loss was something that constantly surrounded the men. It was hard for him as an 18 year old to have to face it at times, but he found that people often never talked about it and tended to focus on the few good things. “We matured rapidly as 17, 18, 19 year olds…we took on responsibility,” he says. “When I look back at my grandkids…I think my gosh, I was doing this stuff when I was 18 years old.”
In 2006, 61 years after he had last been to Iwo Jima, Al Exner had the opportunity to go back to revisit the island. The moment he got there, a flood of memories overcame him. One in particular was when the soldiers would receive mail, often with disheartening news.
“You saw a lot of sad things, you saw kids that had broken heart syndrome... because they got a ‘Dear John’ letter that their girlfriend back home found somebody else," explains Exner. “You know, too many sad things to go along with the good things."
Yet amongst all of the horrible and sad things that veterans saw during their time, Exner observes that current veterans are becoming more open about telling their story. “If somebody says, ‘my Grandfather never talks about it or my uncle...they never talk about it.' I say that’s kind of sad," explains Exner. "If he’s still living, please question him. He did a lot of wonderful things and sacrificed a lot for all of us and you should know what he did.”
Al Exner’s stories are among those from Wisconsin WWII veterans that were chronicled by Howie Magner in the July issue of Milwaukee Magazine. You can read an excerpt of Exner's story in "War Wounds," and, with a subscription, can read full veteran profiles in "Profiles of Courage."