The mesmerizing stories of local veterans of World War II, some of the 16,000 Wisconsinites still living and carrying tales of incomparable potency, are told in “Profiles in Courage,” a feature story in the new issue of Milwaukee Magazine. What follows is one of those stories told by World War II veteran Al Exner to Managing Editor Howie Magner.
Exner and Magner join host Mitch Teich for a special full-hour interview 10 a.m. Thursday, July 2, on WUWM-FM 89.7’s “Lake Effect.” Listen to it here.
The Marine came aboard the USS Lubbock with his intestines hanging from his abdomen. It was one of the more gruesome wounds Al Exner had faced, but by February 1945, near the end of the war, he’d seen a lifetime’s worth. Before his duty as a Navy surgical tech took him to this invasion of Iwo Jima, it put him in an English hospital, where he’d once gone three days without sleep, so fast were the wounded coming from D-Day at Normandy.
“You’re trying to help somebody, and a lot of times, it was unsuccessful,” Exner says. “A guy would bleed out, and he was gone. Not a good experience, but we all matured so fast.” He was 18 when he saw his first war wound.
So it’s not the Marine’s blood that still fixates Exner, nor how the 2 1/2-pound shell fragment remained in the large man’s body, but what else was inside of him. “They called it the black sands of Iwo Jima, but that’s kind of a misnomer. It’s actually volcanic ash,” Exner says. It doesn’t pack down, and when it’s wet, it’s like quicksand. “This guy was full of the stuff.”
He’d seen its insidious effects before. A Navy coxswain had both hands blown off from a mortar, and he came aboard the Lubbock covered in the ash, which had burrowed into his black, curly hair. This made him desperate to scratch at it, but he had no hands to do so, and so was at the mercy of corpsmen who tried to alleviate the torment.
Now, the ash complicated every effort to save the Marine. Whenever Exner and the ship’s doctor tried cleaning and mending the wound, the man would start to crash. The grim cycle repeated for 24 hours, and no amount of blood or plasma or saline could break it. He and nearly 7,000 of his Marine brethren died in the 36-day battle. Exner assisted with his burial at sea, sending his body over the rail in a blue canvas shroud, a shell from the ship’s 5-inch guns sewn in as a weight. “Very few times,” the 89-year-old Exner says, “do I get through that story without shedding a tear. How that guy suffered. And he’s just one of many.”
Not all of his Iwo Jima memories aboard the Lubbock are so bleak. He watched both of Iwo Jima’s famed flag raisings on Feb. 23. The Lubbock, a Haskell Class amphibious personnel attack transport, was positioned just offshore from Mt. Suribachi, upon whose hard-won peak the flags were planted.
The Lubbock survived Iwo Jima, where its biggest threat may have been shore-based mortar fire, to face a far more daunting threat at the invasion of Okinawa. “It was kamikazes all the time,” Exner says, suicidal pilots whose sole duty was to take a ship down with them.
One morning, the Lubbock was second from the rear in a line of four ships positioned bow to stern, when a kamikaze plane attacked out of the sun. Every gun in range opened up, but the kamikaze cleared the trailing ship and bore down on the Lubbock. “He exploded right off our fantail,” Exner says, “or I wouldn’t be talking today.”
He made it to his discharge date unscathed, and mustered out of the Navy as a petty officer second class on April 21, 1946. It was Easter Sunday, and he went home to Milwaukee, to the woman whose letters had chased him throughout the Pacific. He married Norma Mae in 1947, and they’re still together.
The war was behind him and life took over. Exner and his wife raised four kids, but something still nagged at him. “I didn’t know why,” Exner says, “but I wanted to go back to Iwo Jima.” The Japanese allow visitors one day a year, and in 2006, Exner returned. Both American and Japanese personnel attended the ceremony, including the grandson of Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the Japanese commander who turned the island into a bastion of the Pacific.
“I shook his hand,” Exner says, “and said in English, ‘Your grandfather was a very brave man.’ He knew he’d never get off that island.”
Exner left Iwo Jima a second time, this time with a handful of its black sand.