MANATEE, Fla. — They gave their youth to the defense of American freedoms, hitting the beaches of Normandy, dogfighting Japanese Zeros over the Pacific, or battling their way through the Black Forest.
Some handled sensitive teletype communications, or worked as an aviation machinist stateside.
Whatever their service during World War II, they received a heart-felt thank you Friday, the 70th anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy, at a luncheon organized by owner John Horne at his Anna Maria Oyster Bar Landside.
In all, 84 World War II vets, most frail and in their 90s, gathered at the restaurant. Some wore their military decorations. All brought their memories. And their emotions bubbled just under the surface.
When the vets rose to sing the Star Spangled Banner, the tears flowed freely.
"We all had tears in our eyes," said Lucille Fox, who served with the 8th Air Force in England.
The inspiration for the gathering was Horne's uncle, Louie Senn, who landed on Normandy four days after the invasion began.
But he never talked about his experiences because he lost so many of his buddies.
"That's where the idea came from. We wanted to commemorate the Greatest Generation. We just wanted to get together as many of the World War II vets as we could," said Horne, who was moved to tears several times during the luncheon.
Ferrell W. Baker found another Iwo Jima survivor, John Wilcher, during the luncheon.
"We never thought we would survive Iwo," Baker said.
Wilcher recalled the carnage when approaching the beach at Iwo Jima.
"It was terrible. Our landing craft had to push bodies away to get to the island," Wilcher said.
The battles of World War II had a significance that has not been forgotten.
"We were standing up for everybody's freedom. We have to have good people to stand up or we won't stand long," Baker said.
Among those who stopped by to offer their thanks to the vets was U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan.
"This is the Greatest Generation. It's incredible what you have done," Buchanan said.
Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston read a proclamation, declaring Friday as D-Day Remembrance Day.
"It's because of the heroes that we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave," Poston said.
Bob Warren, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, flew the F6F Hellcat in the Pacific against Japanese fighters.
"It's just wonderful to be with other World War II veterans. It's astounding that there are still so many of us still alive," Warren said.
Al Schutter, who served in the same squadron as Warren during the battle for Okinawa, said he was surprised by Friday's program.
"I never expected anything like this. What I enjoyed most was the comradeship," Schutter said.
Barbara DeRoseau, who served as a Navy WAVE during World War II, did not see her husband for three years while he served as a tank commander for Gen. George Patton in Europe.
"I really get emotional about all this," she said.
Also serving with Patton was Delbert Keifer.
"I was the only man left out of my squad about three times," Keifer said, clutching his Bronze Star Medal. "Somebody was always looking out for me."
Edmond Maurice, a retired brick mason with a still-powerful handshake, served in the Philippines.
"I think it's very nice to honor the people who served. There aren't many of us left," Maurice said.
Many of the vets thanked Horne for the free lunch as they left.
"You guys paid a long time ago. It's our time to pay," Horne said. "I never thought it would be this awesome. You guys have made my day."