In the Presence of Our Enemies
Barbara Presnell

In the Presence of Our Enemies

We climb into his car—Ellen, her husband David, and my husband Bill in the back, and I in front—and drive just a few yards down the road. To the left, he tells us, is the Baugnez Crossroads where the seventy-five American POWs were found buried in a shallow grave.

I first learned of the Malmedy massacre from my father’s war journal:

Jan. 13 [1945]—Co. moves into attack of Thiermont, Five Points, and Hill 551. Run across appx 75 American POW that had been shot by German S.S. Division. POW were from F.O.B. [Field Artillery Observation Battalion] outfit. All were disarmed and some were medicos. Were covered in about 2 or 3 feet of snow and had been killed for 2 or 3 weeks.

I am struck by his casual wording, “run across,” as though they’ve stumbled upon some wild deer in the woods. As horrible as the war was—every entry in his journal lists the number of men killed, wounded, missing, or taken out by battle fatigue, exposure, frostbite, trench foot and more—finding these seventy-five bodies must have been the worst. Was a hand sticking up out of the snow? A soldier’s boot grazing the surface? Did the stench of decay reveal their burial site? Did dogs or other animals start digging and find the first body?

What I know from history books is that the Malmedy massacre played an important role in re-energizing embattled American troops. Deep in the winter and after months of hard fighting, the incident fueled their desire to defeat Hitler. I also know the incident lingered in the news far beyond 1945, as Germans were put on trial, convicted, and, in the 1950’s, released after their claims of an unfair trial succeeded.

Now, the field stretches between two buildings—a house and a small cafe. Malmady’s citizens have erected a memorial that lists each soldier’s name. In a small covered walkway, we pause and read the names on plaques with the same solemnity that we did in cemeteries we’d visited earlier, in Normandy, France; in Margraten, the Netherlands; and in Henri Chappelle, Belgium. Flowers, small Bibles, and other mementos lie at the wall’s base, reminding us that these weren’t just soldiers, they were sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers. They were boys just like our father, who left their farms and their small towns, who, like him, wanted more than anything to “finish this thing” and get back home.


It’s the next day. I’m in the front seat of our five-passenger Ford van. My job is to navigate us from Kerkrade, Netherlands, to Duisburg, Germany, where Gabi, my pen pal for ten years, and her extended family expect us for dinner. I don’t tell the others that in spite of an official highway atlas, a printout of Google maps, and a GPS, I have no clue where we are. We sidetrack to the small town of Düren because I route us wrong. I keep my mouth shut. Tensions are rising in the crowded van. We’re tired from almost two weeks of constant movement, and on top of that, Edwin is driving the autobahn at speeds of 180-plus kilometers per hour. At one point, Ellen leans forward from the back seat and snaps a photo of the speedometer. “For proof,” she says.

At last, when we pull up beside Overhausen Residenz Hotel in Duisburg, I feel a sense of accomplishment as great as I’ve ever felt. With the help of the hotel clerk, we plug into our GPS the route to Gabi’s house, and within minutes we are there.

Waiting on the sidewalk to greet us are Gabi, her boyfriend Didi, his daughter Jessi, Jessi’s partner Melinda, Gabi’s daughter Steffi, and Helga, a family friend. Back at the house, Gabi’s parents and Helga’s husband Willie are waiting. It feels remarkably good to see them.

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Barbara Presnell

is the author of Piece Work, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center's First Book Prize, and Blue Star (Press 53), which traces her family's involvement in war from the Civil War to the present. She teaches writing at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and lives in Lexington, North Carolina.