It was a long time ago.

The 18 men of the 394th Infantry's Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon would have opened fire on the German command group, but a little blond girl with red ribbons in her hair (they were that close, they could see the ribbons) ran out to the Germans to warn them that the Americans were waiting up there on the hill, with the two .30-caliber machine guns and the .50 caliber mounted on the jeep. The Americans were watching the German paratroop battalion move down the road.

But the 18 held their fire until she got back to her house, and the Nazis had taken cover. The little girl was just one of the details that was lost to official history, and one of the facts that makes that day and war seem like a very long time ago indeed.

On that day, Dec. 16, 1944, the 18 were dug in on a hill overlooking two vital roads, a textbook-perfect field of fire. For 18 hours they blocked what was intended to be a crucial lightning advance by a German SS tank corps, stalling the northern thrust of what the Nazis called Operation Christrose, and we called the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler's last great gamble.

At dusk, having made it possible for the 3,000 men of the 394th Infantry to escape the surprise attack, they ran out of ammunition, were overrun and captured. Until yesterday, in ceremonies at Fort Myer that took them from oblivion to being one of the most decorated platoons in World War II, our government had virtually forgotten them.

"We were all captured and isolated. Not one of us got back to tell anybody about it," said Lyle Bouck, who was the lieutenant commanding the platoon that day. "We didn't know what we'd done, we had no idea what a big attack it was until two days later when we were prisoners and marching back, and we saw the German armor lined up bumper to bumper."

It was a classically American situation. The names, for one thing: Bouck, Slape, Melosevich, Tsakanikas, McGehee, Robinson, Silvola, Kalil . . .

For another, they were green troops, not long away from training in the heat of Fort Bliss, Tex., "Battle Babies," as their commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Walter E. Lauer, entitled his book about that sector of the Battle of the Bulge.

"We hadn't seen any combat, really," said Risto Melosevich, of Los Angeles, after he received the Distinguished Service Cross almost 37 years after the day he fired his machine gun till the barrel melted. "They kept coming and coming and coming."

Manning a defensive line wasn't their job, either -- they were supposed to gather intelligence. What's more, they had no idea that the Germans were about to launch a desperate attempt to roll back the Western Front. The day before, they'd sent two men out deer hunting, and venison was hanging at the rear of their position. The venison was to have been a welcome change to their rations, especially the "D" bars, sometimes known as "Hitler's Secret Weapon." It was cold. The snow was thigh-high.

What had alarmed them was the fact that the Army had delivered them a liquor ration the day before, along with a recent buildup of ammunition. Being wary of headquarters bearing gifts, they feared something was up. Actually, it was all routine. The Germans were thought to be whipped. American tanks were sporting the motto: "Bound for the Pacific."

Allied intelligence was wrong.

"The thing I remember most of all was that artillery," said Clifford R. Fansher, who got the Bronze Star yesterday.

"The cold, that's what I remember, how cold it was," said George H. Redmond, another Bronze Star winner. "That and the artillery coming in. The sky was lit up like there was no tomorrow. We knew it weren't no little thing. But I figured if I'd gotten that far, I'd get the rest of the way. You only have to go when your time comes."

In his book "The Bitter Woods," John S.D. Eisenhower estimates that 100 German artillery pieces bombarded the platoon.

"We had pine logs covering the foxholes, and that protected us from anything except a direct hit," said Bouck, a St. Louis chiropractor who won the Distinguished Service Cross.

After the barrage a four-man patrol went down to a little town to reconnoiter. On the second floor of a house they found a civilian facing the German side and talking on a telephone. They considered shooting him, but let him go -- it was the kind of chivalric gesture that was echoed later in the day when the Americans honored a German request to be allowed to take their wounded off the field under a flag of truce.

A long time ago: "Vietnam was so barbaric compared with World War II. There were limits, then," said Robert H. Preston, an electrician from Silver Spring.

And in contrast, perhaps, with a cross section of Vietnam veterans, there was a matter-of-factness, a calm about these men, an absence of introspection, a presence of self-definition as soldiers, patriots and citizens.

"Ours was a patriotic war, Vietnam was a political one," said James R. Silvola, of Ocala, Fla. He was awarded the Silver Star.

There were three mass attacks that day that left hundreds of Germans dead in the snow. There was no possibility of reinforcements -- even if they'd wanted to ask for them, their radio had been shot out of Bouck's hands, the way the .50- caliber machine gun had been shot out of the hands of William L. Slape, a Distinguished Service Cross winner who'd had to stand up in a jeep, exposed to enemy fire, to shoot back, this being after he killed an entire German squad, fighting his way back from an observation post.

"It was just plain hell, you get 3-400 men shooting at you, it's hell," said Jordan H. Robinson, known as "Pop" then for being the old man of the platoon at 35.

The Army had planned to hold the ceremony on Summerall Field, at Fort Myer, but rain moved it inside the Ceremonial Hall. The 3d United States Infantry, known as "The Old Guard," turned out with the Army Band, also called "Pershing's Own," a fife and drum corps in 18th-century dress, and four platoons in dress uniforms. Gen. Edward C. Meyer, Army chief of staff, presented the medals to the 13 who attended, and to three widows.

Secretary of the Army John Marsh spoke, ending with the Kipling lines:

"Lest we forget,

"Lest we forget."

Nobody was bitter -- they hadn't known enough about the significance of what they'd done to be bitter. It took a combination of magazine articles, Eisenhower's book and an act of Congress to turn them into certified heroes.

And now, of course, it's so long ago: the little girl, the venison, the radio shot out of Bouck's hands, the cold.

Additional medals included: Distinguished Service Cross: William James, Port Chester, N.Y., deceased; Silver Star: Aubrey P. McGehee Jr., McComb, Miss., Louis J. Kalil, Mishawaka, Ind., John B. Creger, Richmond; Bronze Star with valor device: James Fort Sr., Cumberland City, Tenn., William R. Dustman, Albany, Ore., deceased, Samuel L. Jenkins, El Paso, Tex., Robert J. Baasch, Clarksburg, W.Va., deceased, Robert D. Adams, Akron, Ohio, deceased, and Joseph A. McConnell, Tempe, Ariz. The platoon also received a Presidential Unit Citation.