About 3.4% of WWII veterans are still alive in the United States today. As that number continues to decline with each year, sharing the stories of those who served becomes increasingly important.
Karl Zimmerman, best-known today for his handmade wooden pens he gives to the community and politicians, is one WWII veteran residing in Mason City today.
Zimmerman went to Iowa State college shortly after graduating high school at 16 years old. He only went to college for one year, and was in ROTC with the Army as well.
Zimmerman didn’t like the Army. His father fought in the Navy in WWI, shoveling coal for naval ships. Wanting to follow in his footsteps, Zimmerman was able to get his parents to reluctantly sign his papers to join the Navy at 17 years old.
From there, Zimmerman went to boot camp at the Great Lakes in Michigan for six weeks. The bootcamp trained people as firemen and seamen. Zimmerman was trained on diesel and steam engines.
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While Zimmerman was on the naval base, he remembered an outbreak of scarlet fever. Back then penicillin hadn’t been invented yet, and the pills all the men were given to help combat the illness ended up causing water blisters on many of the men.
Zimmerman stayed healthy though. He remembered taking the same pills when he had gotten sick a while back, and doctors told him to be careful with the medicine, as it was hard on the kidneys and required a lot of water.
The men on base hadn’t been told that though, and were taking the pills for days. Zimmerman had started tossing the pills after the first few days, and when everybody around him started getting sick from the medicine, he was spared.
“There was a store room packed with thousands of dollars worth of pills that were useless” he remembered.
After training, Zimmerman was sent to San Francisco to board the ship he’d call home until the end of WWII.
“The ships were all steam, superheated steam. So hot you can’t even see it, and you don’t want to run your hand along the pipes to check for leaks because it could cut your fingers clean off.” Zimmerman remembered his time on the ship.
Zimmerman was stationed on a landing ship dock, or LSD. His was either the first or second ever made. It wasn’t meant to last but a few battles, but this ship had been in major beachheads in Africa, spent time in the England harbor and Normandy.
This was all before Zimmerman boarded, as it was sent back to the US after a bomb had damaged the ship. When Zimmerman boarded, the ship made its way to the Pacific.
Zimmerman remembered how thin the ship was, just half-inch steel holding it together. He said it was thin enough that it didn’t stop bullets, and remembered leaks in the seams that had to be welded shut.
During Zimmerman’s time on the LSD, they traveled to New Caledonia to pick up supplies. Then the ship traveled to an atoll in the pacific, a coral reef which created a natural barrier against enemies. They’d stay there for a while, Zimmerman working with the engine, preparing for an invasion on Japan.
“A cruise ship would come in every three days and we’d get a case of beer. They treated us good before the slaughter” Zimmerman joked.
But Zimmerman never saw action. The entire crew had been there, waiting, when the atomic bomb was dropped.
“We didn’t know what it was going to be. They said they had an atomic bomb and saved us. They figured they’d lose a million of us without it.” Zimmerman said.
Karl Zimmerman went home after that, making his way back through the Pacific and home to Iowa, eventually settling by Aredale to become a farmer and craftsman.
Today, Karl Zimmerman shares his stories, crafts handmade wood pens and spends time with his friends and family. He’ll be making a trip to Hawaii soon to reunite with the surviving crew members he became friends with during his service. The first time he saw Hawaii was on his way home from WWII.
“I never did fly first class. I figured I’ve got to this time.”
Rae Burnette is a GA and Crime & Courts Reporter at the Globe Gazette. You can reach her by phone at 641.421.0523 or at Rae.Burnette@GlobeGazette.com