Sy Brenner, recipient of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, lives in an assisted living residence in San Diego.
As a medic providing first aid to American soldiers on the WWII battlefield, the 91-year-old Jewish vet endured the hardships of a German POW camp.
Separated from his unit, he wandered with another soldier through the wooded terrain of the French mountains. German tanks confronted them in a clearing. Brenner remembers the flash from a tank before going unconscious.
H for Hebrew
A US soldier lying next to him broke his dog tags and buried them to hide his Jewish identity – H for Hebrew. The Germans would have immediately killed him. As Brenner lay unconscious, his fellow soldier fabricated a story. Brenner’s tags displayed the wrong blood type for battle transfusions. Replacements were in transit from the US.
The Germans were satisfied with the deception. The POWs marched for 13 days into Germany. Many died of battle wounds, exposure, or were shot if they tried to escape. Their ultimate destination was a prison camp. “We spent several days on a dirty hay floor infested with lice,” said Brenner. “Rats ran over my face while I slept.”
His captors noticed his Red Cross arm band and put him in charge of wounded prisoners. Despite scant medical training he performed major amputations with assistance of British medics. He was released in 1945. “I don’t know the exact date,” he said. “As a POW I never even knew the time of day. I only had some notion of the month.”
Post Traumatic Stress - Nightmares
Back home after the war, Brenner experiences flashes of post traumatic stress – PTS – especially nightmares.
As a battlefield medic he tried to assist a young German soldier. “He looked about 16-years-old,” said Brenner. “He was leaning over and I thought he was wounded.” Brenner touched him and the German soldier toppled. “His skull split open and I vomited.” The incident has given him flashbacks for many years.
He recalls the first three days in prison camp sleeping on a dusty floor with rats running over his face. He still experiences abnormal fears. “Even seeing pictures of rats frighten me.” He dreams of the messy amputations that he and other untrained medics performed on POWs.
PTS Advocacy Years
Today, as a PTS advocate, he sits on VA hospital council meetings, helping veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan War. He speaks at schools, universities, Rotary Clubs, and Kiwanis Clubs. He’s addressed leadership classes at Camp Pendleton Marine Base in Southern California.
He’s written a book documenting his warfare experience – The Night I Got Killed – which can be found at SyBrenner.com.