Honoring those who served

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By Calen McKinney

He may not have wanted to do it, but he says it would have been wrong not to.

Sam Brenner, who turns 83 today, was attending college in Fort Wayne, Ind. when he was drafted into the United States Army more than six decades ago.

He was studying to become an engineer, and the college told him all he needed to do to avoid the draft was to simply ask to stay at school and continue his education. He didn't ask, however, because he thought it wasn't right.

"It would have looked inappropriate to [have] tried and stayed out," he said. "It was the proper thing to do, to serve your country. I wanted to go."

Brenner's Army service began April 25, 1944, at Fort Harrison in Indiana. From there, he was sent to Camp Fanning in Tyler, Texas for basic training.

After basic training, he was sent to Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Miss. and assigned to the 69th Infantry Division. He was a member of the headquarters company of the 1st Battalion 271st Infantry Regiment.

After a few weeks of training, Brenner and his fellow soldiers were told they were going to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey to board a ship to Europe.

Brenner was stationed in England when his company learned that the German army opened fire at 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 16, 1944, in an attack that would later become known as the famous Battle of the Bulge.

"That was where I went in the combat zone," he said.

Brenner worked in intelligence and later in engineering, he said, spying on the enemies and trying to find out their locations. He was also involved in building a bridge to allow soldiers to cross an area that had been destroyed.

"We couldn't cross the river until we built a bridge," he said. "The British soldiers fell in the river."

While crossing the English Channel to get to the battle, Brenner's ship met an enemy submarine, which was then sunk by the Royal Air Force.

"We could see the debris and oil coming to the surface of the ocean," he said.

Brenner and his fellow soldiers ultimately landed in France and then boarded a train to Belgium, arriving at the Ardennes Forest, the site of the Battle of the Bulge.

"It was a very disheartening sight," he said. "There were approximately 81,000 [injured] and more than 19,000 dead.

"There were 19,000 dead people I had to walk over ... I never saw so many dead people at one time. That part of it is pretty hard to swallow."

Fighting would continue for several weeks, Brenner said, until late January 1945.

Brenner's company went on the offensive until they were told to stop in Berlin and wait for Russian soldiers.

"We were told to let the Russians have the honor of killing [Adolf] Hitler."

Four months after the Battle of the Bulge, Brenner said, Hitler was dead and his soldiers had surrendered. Brenner said his company had a large celebration before his discharge a few months later at Camp Atterbury in Indiana.

When Brenner's service in the war was over, he said, he was offered a promotion in exchange for his agreement to stay in the Army.

"I said, 'No, I believe you can keep that lieutenant [position].'"

Brenner said he was concerned that if he stayed in the Army, he would have to head right back into combat.

"I lived through the battle. It worked out pretty good," he said. "I didn't want to take the chance on going through two different wars."

Though many lost their lives in the war, Brenner finished his service uninjured.

"I was just glad I didn't have to go to Japan," he said.

Brenner said he remembers walking through the snow with his fellow soldiers and attempting to take control of some concrete bunkers.

"For days and days we walked in the snow," he said. "We tried and we tried and we got nowhere."

On one day, he said, the day the company was told they were going to finally take control of the bunkers, he remembers seeing the airplanes flying so closely together that they completely blocked out the sun.

"We went over and they came out and surrendered," he said. "We [were] on the move constantly from that day on."

Brenner said he wasn't exactly in favor of the war, but he was glad it wasn't fought on United States soil.

"We didn't want people here at home to have their homes destroyed, and their babies and children killed ... We didn't start World War II.

"I'm not a lover of war. But I see where a lot of mistakes were made. Things don't always work out like they hoped for."

After leaving the Army, Brenner owned a grocery store in Mississippi for a couple of years and then moved back to Kentucky and operated a few clothing stores, some of which were in Campbellsville.

He then traveled for a manufacturing/wholesale clothing company selling men's and women's clothing before deciding to live in Campbellsville, which was the center of his sales area. He eventually closed his stores and began working for Wal-Mart in the clothing department and as a greeter. He left Wal-Mart in 2000 after an injury.

About three years ago, Brenner's daughter-in-law, Margie Leigh, arranged for him to receive a United States flag that was flown over the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. in honor of his birthday. Brenner is still considering where and how to display the flag. He has three children and nine grandchildren.

For Brenner's service in the war, he received several medals, some of which include a Theater Ribbon with two Bronze Stars, a Good Conduct Medal, a Victory Medal and an Army Occupation Medal.

Since he left the army, Brenner said he has been a member of a few veterans' groups but isn't involved much today.

"I went in and did what I was supposed to," Brenner said. "I was lucky enough to get out."

u Staff Writer Calen McKinney can be reached at 465-8111 Ext. 235 or by e-mail at reporter@cknj.com. Comment on this story at www.cknj.com.