EAST LAKE — The World War II veterans sat in a row of gold chairs at the front of an East Lake Woodlands Country Club banquet room while a man with a heavy French accent lauded their bravery.
If you looked closely, you could see some of them had trembling hands.
But for these men in their 80s, it wasn't from fear.
Yet there was a time more than 60 years ago when fear was justified in a war-torn world as they fought against Hitler.
The French also remember and expressed their gratitude Tuesday.
"I'm always amazed how unaware you say you are of what you did,'' said Philippe Vinogradoff, Consul General of France. "You say, 'We did our job.' You simply seem unaware you saved the world 60 years ago. (You) Freed the world. You freed my country. The French people have never forgotten this. You freed my country, my people.''
In a ceremony sponsored by the French Consulate in association with the French American Business Council of West Florida and Essilor Co., each man was awarded the French Legion of Honor, the highest decoration offered by the country.
Twenty veterans from throughout West Florida were honored and 16 were in attendance. Thirteen of the honorees were from Tampa Bay, including Clearwater's Thomas Becvar and Charles C. Fritts.
"No one deserves the Legion of Honor more than these American veterans who, more than 60 years ago, fought to give my country its freedom and independence back,'' Vinogradoff said. "The freedom we enjoy today we owe to the courage, dedication and sacrifices of these young American men, so many of whom sleep forever in the French land they liberated.''
Elman Brown, 84, of Holiday, said some days he was so scared "it was hard to put one foot in front of the other, but we did it, we had to.''
He was assigned to a tank that destroyed smoke stacks and church steeples in the Belgium/Holland border, "any high observation (point) for the Germans,'' he said.
"After that, we destroyed anything and everything,'' he said. "We made rubble out of towns.''
Andrew Reeves, 84, a retired colonel in the Air Force who lives in Spring Hill, flew 30 missions in B17s, eight in direct support of the liberation of France.
On one flight, he and his crew were flying 22,000 feet over Metz, France, following a railroad line, carrying out their mission to prevent the Germans from shipping in supplies.
Suddenly, the aircraft got hit by flak.
"It knocked me out of my seat,'' Reeves said.
Flak shot through his foot and his back, the injuries earning him a Purple Heart and several scars still visible today.
He said the medal he received Tuesday represents "a lot of personal satisfaction for my crew and my family,'' especially those fliers who could not be at the event Tuesday.
"They've taken their final flight west,'' he said.
Eileen Schulte can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.