As the group of old friends was getting ready to leave, Lou Dworkin, 89, turned to Charles Woodman, 91.
"You remember the two guys who were killed in the foxhole?" Dworkin asked in a sandpaper voice.
"Yeah," Woodman said wearily. "It was a direct hit. Nothing left but smoking rags and shoes. We didn't find out what happened until next morning."
For more than a decade, Long Island's aging survivors of the Battle of the Bulge have gotten together regularly for lunch, laughs and emotional support -- men bonded by hard memories.
They say the gatherings make it easier to bear memories of the titanic six-week battle fought in the bitter cold of the Belgian forest that began 70 years ago this week, on Dec. 16, 1944. Memories many say they kept hidden through the decades from wives and neighbors, from sons and daughters -- being stalked by an unseen enemy, witnessing the death of friends, killing a German soldier.
"I didn't talk about this stuff until about 10 years ago," said Felix Iannacone, 90, of East Meadow, who survived the winter of 1944-45 as a member of the 244th Engineer Combat Battalion. "The experience was not a pleasant one."
He paused. "There is a certain pleasure in coming here and talking about it," he said
But they say their ad hoc support group is dwindling. More and more of their fellow battle survivors are now reaching their 90s, and increasingly are too frail to get out of the house.
"Even Bill Mueller isn't here," Dworkin said, referring to the organization's 89-year-old president, who could not attend the group's every-other-month gathering Oct. 3 because war frostbite injuries had flared up, making it painful to walk. "He's shot. We're all shot. Gradually, we're all disappearing."
The group's October meeting, at a Marine Corps base in Garden City, drew just more than a dozen participants. Although 40 made it to a Christmas gala earlier this month, the regular meetings are attended by only 10 to 15 members, far fewer than the nearly 100 who came as recently as three years ago. "I don't know how much longer I'll be able to drive here," Iannacone said. "It's fading away."
Generation that shaped LI
Bill Mueller, who uses a walker because of the toll his injuries took on his legs, is proud of being part of a World War II generation that shaped Long Island during the second half of the 20th century.
After returning from Europe and learning aeronautical engineering at New York University on the GI Bill, Mueller joined Grumman. A professor had told him there was no need to go to California to work on planes. An aircraft industry was blooming on the potato fields east of New York City.
He put $100 down and bought a house in Levittown in 1951, and began working on projects that culminated in such aviation icons as the F-14 "Tomcat" fighter and the lunar lander.
"We shaped Long Island not only industrially, but population-wise," Mueller said of the returning war veterans.
The Battle of the Bulge was the climactic final push by a bloodied Germany to try to regain military advantage after the western Allies swept through France.
Some 500,000 American troops and 55,000 British fell back against a surprise onslaught of 600,000 German troops in the foggy, snow-clogged forests of Belgium's Ardennes region.
Initially pushed to the edge of defeat, and with ill-clothed troops suffering in what was the coldest winter on record, the Allies eventually turned the tide. They chased Nazi troops back across the Rhine River and began the final drive toward Berlin.
Less than five months later, Germany surrendered. But the cost was staggering. About 19,000 Americans were killed in six weeks. Another 70,000 were wounded or missing.
David Marshall, 90, of Baldwin, had been an infantryman then: Company M, 334th Regiment, 84th Infantry Division.
He cradled a wallet in hands withered by passing years and displayed an old photograph of himself -- shirtless and muscular, and flanked by two other soldiers with whom he had gone off to war.
"He was hit the first day," he said of the man pictured to his left, still remembering his name as Robert Privette. "I know he lost both legs, but I don't know what happened to him after that."
" 'We survived' is about all you can say," Marshall said. "There were many days like that. Not everybody came back."
He fell silent. His eyes darted away for a long moment.
"People say 'thank you for your service,' but they don't understand," Marshall said finally, softly. "The cold, the bombs, what war means. You can't understand unless you were there."