BOYNTON BEACH -- France bestowed its highest honor Thursday upon 23 men who fought World War II's most epic battles, liberated concentration camps and brought peace to generations, its latest effort to recognize the dwindling number of surviving veterans of their era.
The veterans were each made knights in the Legion of Honor in a ceremony at the Boynton Beach Civic Center, pinned with a medal and heralded as heroes.
"It's so essential for the French government to say thanks," said Gael de Maisonneuve, the consul general of France in Florida. "Your sacrifices and those of your brethren are an example for all of us."
One by one, the men -- 22 Americans and one Briton -- were recognized, with de Maisonneuve reading a description of their storied service.
All of the men fought at Normandy, Provence, Ardennes or in Northern France, the four main campaigns of the country's liberation. They already have been given some of the American military's highest honors, but being knighted by the French bore special significance for many.
"I appreciate it," said Thomas Manos, a spry 96-year-old Army veteran who choked back tears trying to explain what the medal meant.
Since 2004, the 60th anniversary of D-Day, France has been awarding the Legion of Honor to American troops who fought on French soil during World War II and have distinguished service records. Many hundreds have been given the honor. Last year, 272 men were honored in Florida alone.
The ceremony was held in a simple municipal auditorium that shortly beforehand had hosted an aerobics class.
The national anthems of the United States and France were played, bottles of French wine were given to the honorees and many of the veterans softly said "merci beaucoup" as they were given their medal.
Irving Whitman, a 91-year-old Army veteran from Miami, said memories of his wartime experience rush back to him in old age -- of landing on Utah Beach, fighting the Battle of the Bulge and helping liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp.
"It doesn't leave you," Whitman said.
Still, when Whitman received a letter in the mail informing him of the award ("We are eternally grateful," it said) he wasn't sure if it was a mistake.
"Do they have the right guy?" he wondered.
As the ceremony ended, cameras flashed, hugs and kisses were exchanged and veterans slowed by age shuffled off, some to celebratory lunches.
Robert Quillard, an 87-year-old Army veteran from Boca Raton, reflected on the honor, earned for enduring heavy enemy fire and participating in the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of the Rhine.
And he had a quick bit of direction to those who surrounded him.
"Call me sir," he joked.