It was Christmas Eve 1944 and the Germans were sweeping across Belgium in a massive last-ditch effort to take the port of Antwerp.
Robert King, a 20-year-old cowhand from Fillmore, was crouched in a dugout near Marche in northern Belgium, firing a 105-millimeter gun into the frozen night sky.
Robert Ferguson, a 21-year-old medic who would ultimately settle in Oxnard, was marching across Belgium to the front. He was about to spend a snowy and miserable Christmas day treating hundreds of wounded in nearby Liege.
Nearly 50 years later, the two men met for the first time on Saturday in Thousand Oaks at a luncheon for survivors of the Battle of the Bulge, an event that many historians consider to be the turning point of World War II.
King, who continues to punch cattle in Piru, and Ferguson, a retired refrigeration engineer, swapped stories with about 25 other members of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, a national group dedicated to preserving the battle's memory.
In a patriotic luncheon at the Goebel Senior Center, the aging vets shed a few tears for fallen friends and listened to speaker Yvonne Files, who enthralled the group with harrowing tales of her work in the Belgian Resistance.
More than 600,000 American troops took part in the Battle of the Bulge, named for a surprise German counteroffensive through Belgium and Luxembourg in December, 1944.
In the attempt to take Antwerp, the Germans exhausted their final reserves to create a 60-mile "bulge" in Allied defenses. In late December it looked as if they might break through, but they were beaten back--at a cost of 81,000 American casualties--by Jan. 22, 1945.
Ferguson, a soft-spoken Quaker with kind eyes and a firm grip, saw some of those 81,000 casualties. "People would come back from the front all shot up, and it was our job to keep them alive and make it to the hospital," he said. "You do all those maneuvers and practice, but it doesn't prepare you for what really happens."
For King, who at 68 still works 300 head of cattle, there was one way to deal with the reality of battle: ignore it. "We didn't think much about it," he said. "You got to ignore the fear, otherwise your nerves would go."
But not all the stories were grim. At a table festooned with red and blue place mats, Ferguson told of a man who was brought to the field hospital wearing an overcoat pocked with shrapnel and bullet holes. Fearing the worst, medic Ferguson removed the pale GI's tattered coat, only to learn the man had a bad case of the flu.
Besides the gripping speech by Files, whose life as a Resistance fighter has been chronicled in several documentary films, the luncheon included a table with literature and books on the battle. Some brochures offered tours to European battlefields.
Bob Pocklington, an officer of the veterans group, implored veterans to send their memoirs to the National Archives. "Don't take your stories to the grave site," said Pocklington, now a Los Angeles contractor. "Tell it, put it out there, let history have it."
As an example, Pocklington recounted his experience as one of the 3,300 soldiers stationed at the very center of the bulge. For four days, he said, he and other GIs held six divisions of German soldiers at bay.
Only 500 men from Pocklington's division survived.
King said he attends his division's reunion every year. But this was the first meeting he had attended of Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. "It's about what I expected," King said with a chuckle. "A lot of old people, a lot of stories."
For Ferguson, who hadn't been to many veterans' meetings, the luncheon brought back powerful memories. He met two men who had been in his division and he decided to join the Bulge veterans' Southern California chapter.
"When I was a kid, I remember all those guys talking about World War I," Ferguson said. "And that was only 20 years after it. Now it's almost 50 years after WWII and we still get together to talk about it.
"I'm glad I came," he said.