TAMPA — At 85, Raymond VanDuzer can't shake some memories.
Landing on the beaches of Normandy, 18 years old, running fast with his head down.
Getting captured, a prisoner of war, pushing a wounded soldier in a wheelbarrow for miles.
On Sunday, more than 60 years after he served in World War II, VanDuzer stood among 12 local veterans receiving the French Legion of Honor, France's highest distinction.
"It's a real honor that they thought of us," said VanDuzer, who lives in Seminole.
Held at Sykes Chapel and Center for Faith and Values at the University of Tampa, the ceremony honored WWII veterans from west-central Florida on the 66th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, when Germany surrendered to Allied forces in 1945.
"The French will never forget the sacrifice" of American military members during the war, French Consul General Gael de Maisonneuve told the veterans.
French and American officials lauded a long-standing relationship between the two countries, from the American Revolution through WWII and to today's conflicts in the Middle East.
The French Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in the 1800s, according to de Maisonneuve.
In 2004, France made all U.S. World War II veterans who fought on French soil, in French waters or in French airspace eligible for the Legion of Honor, de Maisonneuve said.
The application process takes between six months and a year. About 250 Floridians will receive the award this year, de Maisonneuve said.
"You meet people bigger than life," said de Maisonneuve, who held another award ceremony in Orlando over the weekend. "When you listen to their stories, they're actually so amazing."
For many of these WWII veterans, the insignia of Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor added weight to already-heavy lapels, generously decorated for their service overseas.
"This shows the whole country of France appreciated my little part," said Norbert F. Swierz, 91, of Palm Harbor.
A B-17 gunner and prisoner of war, Swierz dropped bombs on Paris and got shot down off the coast of France.
Still, on Sunday, he was overwhelmed by the French gesture.
"I don't feel I've done any more than was expected for me," Swierz said.
Dozens of family members came to support their veterans, cheering and taking pictures.
The veterans stood for the national anthem, backs a little curved, balance a little unsteady and hands trembling just a bit.
A French colonel pinned a medal on each suit jacket: a green laurel wreath with white spokes, hanging from a red ribbon.
He mimed a kiss on each cheek and then stepped back, hand rising in salute.
No matter their wobbly knees, the veterans returned the salute, still sharp and strong.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.
CORRECTION: Col. Philippe Derathe presented Lee Jenks with the French Legion of Honor on Sunday. A photo caption appearing with this story in print editions and online incorrectly identified the recipient.