They had no idea what lay in store for them that fateful afternoon.
Near the town of Malmedy, in Belgium, Ted Paluch and about 100 other U.S. soldiers had been overwhelmed by German forces during the Battle of the Bulge and compelled to surrender.
They dropped their carbines and were herded to a field, where they expected to be taken away in trucks. What happened next turned that day into one of the darkest of World War II. The events are as vivid to Paluch now as when he lived through them nearly seven decades ago.
A shot was fired, then chattering machine guns on tanks and half-tracks unleashed a torrent of bullets that tore through stunned GIs, leaving many writhing on the ground.
"You could hear moaning and men praying out loud," said Paluch, 90, of Center City. "I got hit in the hand, dropped down, and played dead."
Eighty-four were killed.
For Paluch, among the few dozen who survived the Malmedy massacre of 1944, Dec. 17 is not just a calendar entry. It's a date - like Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor - that will live in infamy.
The terror of that afternoon is etched in his mind and has drawn him back to the killing field in 1976, 1996, and 2007.
"Nobody bothered me about it until five years ago," when an Internet article described his visit for a wreath-laying ceremony there, said Paluch, who never married and kept the experience to himself. "When my family knew what happened, that was it.
"They said, 'Why didn't you tell us?' " he said. "Now everybody wants me to give speeches at schools and veterans groups."
The Philadelphia native had tried to enlist in the Marines after the war broke out but was rejected "because of flat feet." He joined the Army at 21 in 1943, trained in the United States, then headed to Wales and England before crossing the English Channel for Normandy about three months after D-Day in 1944.
On Dec. 17, Paluch's unit - the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion - was moving to an area near St. Vith when it ran into the Nazi juggernaut in the Ardennes area of Belgium.
The convoy came under heavy German fire at the Baugnez crossroads about 1:30 p.m., forcing the GIs to dismount and seek cover in a deep ditch, about two miles southeast of Malmedy.
"We were firing back but we didn't know what we were firing at," Paluch said.
His unit - along with other U.S. soldiers near the crossroads - had been overwhelmed by advance elements of the First SS Panzer Division and found itself staring down the barrel of a German Tiger tank, supported by troops.
"After capturing us, they put us in a field," he said. "We were in a square formation and I was in the left corner in the front."
Paluch can still picture the black uniform of the German officer who searched him, and the collar emblems of the vaunted Waffen SS - the lightning strips, and a skull and crossbones.
The officers took anything of value, including watches, cigarettes, and, strangely, in Paluch's case, a pair of new socks.
"We thought we'd be put on trucks and hauled away" as prisoners of war, he said. "I had been through this before - when I was 'captured' during [training] maneuvers."
Suddenly, about 2:15, passing tanks and half-tracks opened fire with machine guns, directing most of it on the group's center. The U.S. soldiers were mowed down in cold blood. Bleeding from the right hand, Paluch dropped to the ground.
"I saw one guy who was wounded in both arms and both legs, and the blood coming from his mouth like an open spigot," Paluch said.
Still in shock, he and other survivors lay motionless as the Nazis walked among them, shooting anyone who appeared alive.
"They passed me," Paluch said. "I guess I looked dead. Someone was on my side."
Paluch and the others listened to the enemy's mechanized column move past them for hours. Then, silence.
"Now I'm thinking, 'How the hell do I get away? Which way do I go?' "
By 4:30, with the light fading and the temperature near freezing, many decided to make a run for a nearby tree line.
"Someone hollered, 'Let's go,' and I got up and ran," he said. "I didn't think about the cold. I had plenty of adrenaline."
About 10 fleeing GIs were gunned down by Germans still in the area. Paluch raced down a road where a German fired at him and missed. He ducked into a hedgerow and could hear the crackling fire engulf a cafe where some Americans had taken shelter. They were driven out by the flames, then shot.
In the dark, "I started walking north along railroad tracks," Paluch said. "I met up with three others and we made it to Malmedy."
Meeting U.S. units there, they reported what happened to stunned officers, and the news spread, stiffening the resolve of GIs never to surrender.
"Hitler issued an order of no quarter, no prisoners, and a terror campaign to instill horror and fear in the Allied armies," said Andy Waskie, a Temple University professor who is president of the Eighth Armored Division Association, made up of Battle of the Bulge veterans. "It increased the determination of our troops and made them more resolute to stop the German advance.
"There were reports of American retaliation against German prisoners of war," Waskie said. "Bad things happen in war."
The U.S. defense eventually helped defeat the German offensive.
What's the lesson of Malmedy? "Don't trust the other guy, that's for damn sure," Paluch said.
After the Third Reich's demise, he was asked - but was unable - to identify those involved in the massacre for possible prosecution.
He was stationed briefly in Southern France, where he learned about the dropping of atomic bombs in Japan, and came home on Christmas 1945.
Paluch was discharged Jan. 1, 1946, and met his family, for the first time in more than two years, at 30th Street Station.
Then it was back to civilian life in Philadelphia. Paluch was a shipper and traffic manager for a yarn company, then a shipper for a record manufacturer. He retired 25 years ago.
Now one of only a few remaining Malmedy survivors, Paluch thinks about that cold field in Belgium where he lost so many friends.
"There was a lot going on in my mind back then," he said. "You just prayed and wondered which way to turn."