In 1944, he was seven years old and living with his mother and brother Edgard, age five, in Malmedy, he writes in his first email. The Belgian town, just twelve kilometers from the German border, had been under German control since 1940. French was the traditional language of the small town, but in school Philippe and the other students studied German. His teacher was an underofficer in the German army.
Philippe resisted the language of his occupiers. His mother warned him, “You speak it!” But the seven-year-old refused. Other Belgian neighbors found ways to maintain their separation. Even his mother, he tells us, chose the name Edgard because there was no translation for the name in German.
In September 1944, Allied troops liberated Malmedy, and for a short while the town once again enjoyed independence. On December 16, German forces, in a final effort to regain control, launched an offensive campaign, taking Allied forces by surprise. The Battle of the Bulge, which Belgians call the Battle of the Ardennes, began. Allied soldiers were holed up in the woods, with temperatures remaining below zero for days, snow continuing to fall until it reached a height of thirty inches.
Meanwhile, Philippe’s mother—his father had died of typhus in 1943—accepted the offer to host a dozen GIs in her home.
“We provided them with a shelter, a family, warmth, a laundry, and a little heat,” Philippe writes in his email. “Their youth made us feel safe. . . and the K rations, the chocolate, and the Nescafe were more than welcome.”
One soldier gave Philippe the olive-colored plastic liner of his helmet, which the boy wore with delight. Inside the helmet, in red ink, the soldier had written his name: Joseph Corbeau.
Bombing by German and American forces continued. On December 23, the town itself was besieged, injuring and killing civilians as well as soldiers. “A bomb fell 30 feet in front of the house, another one at the back, just a little farther. Doors and windows were destroyed but we were safe!” writes Philippe.
His mother, though, fearing for their safety, sent the two boys to their grandmother’s house a few blocks away, where a dozen people were already sheltered in the basement.
“On December 24 at 2:30 p.m., there was another air raid and the town was targeted,” Philippe continues. “Almost the whole city was either destroyed or burnt. The house was hit by a direct blow and the two floors crumbled down onto the cellar where we were gathered.”
American soldiers, alerted by his mother, rushed in immediately, first using bulldozers and then their hands, digging through the rubble until they found the boys. Philippe was badly injured. Edgard’s skull was crushed.
Sgt. Joseph Corbeau and another soldier put both boys in a Willies jeep and drove to the US military hospital in Eupen, twenty miles away. To get there, they had to breach the German line and barely escaped capture, saved mostly likely by the chaos that was everywhere on that day.