In the Presence of Our Enemies
Barbara Presnell

In the Presence of Our Enemies

Doctors successfully treated Philippe’s injuries. Edgard died that day.

Our father’s journal tells a soldier’s side of the battle of Malmedy. On December 23, he begins, the company set up positions to defend the town from further attacks. German paratroopers in American uniforms dropped in at night in an attempt to sabotage the rear. Bombing by both sides was relentless.

On December 24, my father writes, “Town again bombed by American B-26 or A-20. Town now in ruins and burning. Casualties very heavy.”

The journal describes the day after as a much quieter scene: “Company enjoys Xmas dinner at supper time. Roast turkey with all trimmings. Red Cross stockings received by all men containing socks, candy apples, oranges, and nuts. All men gave stockings to kids of Malmedy whose families had been killed in bombing.”

“Yes, this is true,” Philippe remembers when we tell him of the journal entry. “Many children received American stockings. Many citizens, including children, died.”

In just a few short months, Hitler would be dead, the war would be over, and life in Malmedy and the world would slowly return to normal.

Philippe eventually married, had children of his own, and enjoyed a successful career. But the story of the American soldiers who saved him and tried in vain to save his brother stayed with him.

Then he remembered the plastic helmet and his rescuer’s name painted in red: Joseph Corbeau. Corbeau was a member of the 30th Infantry, 120th division, my father’s unit.

Philippe began a search, first through letters to strangers and eventually to the Internet where he found his soldier. Sgt. Corbeau, born in 1913 in Cumberland, Maine, worked after the war at the Maine Cash and Carry Wholesale Candy and Tobacco Company in Portland. He died in 1994 at age 81.

Philippe was never able to thank him in person for the valiant rescue of two Belgian boys in December 1944. He has not been able to find any other soldiers who stayed in his mother’s house.

“I have been terribly marked by this incident,” Philippe says.

His hatred of Germans is raw, and on this afternoon as he retells his story, I too am feeling an intense conflict with these people and this time long before I was born.

But a nagging, essential question goes unanswered for me. While it’s impossible to know for certain, Philippe and Edgard were probably hit by American, not German, bombs.

Records of a telephone conversation on Dec. 25, 1944, between Major General Leland S. Hobbs, commander of the 30th infantry division, and a Col. [Raymond?] Hill describe unsuccessful attempts to evacuate ten thousand citizens of Malmedy. Evacuation incomplete, the air raids escalated, and, according to Hobbs, “Our own bombers bombed the hell out of Malmedy yesterday.” He concludes, “Citizen casualties are severe.”

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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.