In mid-1944, it looked as if the war in Europe was coming to an end. Hitler was on the run. After five hard years of war, Allied soldiers were breathing easier - even stopping to enjoy dances and parties.
Hitler, however, had one final card to play. In December 1944, he struck back with a counterattack that has come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge - the single biggest and bloodiest American soldiers have ever fought - in which nearly 80,000 were killed, maimed or captured in an infernal test of courage and endurance.
It came as a total surprise when, on December 16, 1944, thirty German divisions - a quarter of a million men strong - roared across an 85-mile Allied front, from southern Belgium to the middle of Luxembourg. Secretly planned down to the detail by Hitler himself, the invasion was designed to split the American-British alliance, setting them to quarreling and permitting the Führer to negotiate a peace. The losses on the first day were massive; in some places, the Allies were outnumbered ten to one.
By Christmas, the German offensive had opened a bulge some 50 miles into the Allied lines, forcing the biggest mass surrender of American soldiers since Bataan - some 4,000 men in a single day. Across the rolling hills and dark forests of Belgium and Luxembourg, more than half a million young Allied men were thrown into battle.
The soldiers often fought in zero-temperature conditions and driving snow, which prevented them from seeing more than 10 or 20 yards in front of them. With equipment and uniforms that were designed for warmer times, frostbite became a terrible reality. Because soldiers were often cut off from their divisions in foxholes, the wounded, in some cases, literally froze to death.
"Both the enemy and the weather could kill you," says Private Bart Hagerman. "And the two of them together was a pretty deadly combination."
"It seems like you`re in this deadly struggle under miserable conditions and the whole universe is united against you," recalls Sergeant Ed Stewart.
As the battle wore on and the Americans suffered more and more casualties, men had to be found to take their places. As a result, physical standards were lowered, and training was cut short. In one the film`s most moving sections, Ben Kimmelman, a captain, describes how soldiers who had been physically wounded or disturbed by combat were given cursory treatment and shipped back to the front.
"Men who were wounded and were redeemable were in a very bad position," recalls Kimmelman."... It`s very hard to forget the expressions on their faces ... a kind of hollow-eyed, lifeless, slack-jawed expression. ... It`s almost as though they`re going to a hopeless doom."
The Battle of the Bulge ended in the last few days of January 1945, when American troops made their way back to the original lines: the ones they had held when the battle began. Sixteen thousand Americans had lost their lives and 60,000 were wounded or captured; German casualties were said to be twice that. And for many veterans, the terrible battle has never ended.
"It doesn`t go away," says Sergeant Ed Stewart. "It sleeps sometimes, but then it awakens again ... It`s an enormity of an experience. And everything after that has been a footnote."
Photo: Road between Martelange and Ettelbruck, southern edge of the bulge.