On a cold December 14, 1944, in Belgium, an escapee from behind German lines came to U.S. Army officials with puzzling news.
The Ardennes forest just over Belgium's border with Germany was jammed with German soldiers, she was saying.
The Americans hesitated to take her seriously, wrote Army historian Hugh Cole. The Allies had stormed ashore at Normandy six months earlier and driven the Germans east. Paris, Marseilles and other major cities of Western Europe were liberated.
Of the Ardennes, an intelligence report on Dec. 14 read: "It is now certain that attrition is steadily sapping the strength of German forces on the Western Front. . . . " No German force would attempt a probe in that quiet region, Allied officers believed.
But in the predawn two days later, Germany unleashed a vast armored assault into Belgium that threatened to cut the Allied line in two.
Sixty-five years ago from this Wednesday, the largest and bloodiest American battle of World War II - the Battle of the Bulge - was on.
Hitler designed the attack himself, choosing the Ardennes because an attack in the thinly guarded area would divide British from American forces. A successful thrust there also would provide a clear shot at taking the Allies' only Atlantic supply port, Antwerp. And when extreme fog and cold grounded Allied planes and hampered American troops, Hitler's troops got an unexpected break.
But determined fighting by badly outgunned U.S. troops slowed the German advance until the battle turned. In a stunning example of American resolve that first day, a single 18-man platoon with the 394th Infantry regiment stalled a tank battalion advancing toward Antwerp for 20 hours at Lanzerath before being captured.
It was a grinding, monthlong conflict. But a few months later, the triumphant Allies rolled into Berlin and joined up with advancing Russian troops. By spring, the war was over in the European theater.
The cost of the fight in the Ardennes was fiercely high. In all, 800,000 American GIs fought in the battle. Some 19,000 were killed, more than 47,000 were wounded and 23,000 were captured.