11/20/2014 01:26 EST | Updated 01/20/2015 05:59 EST

Seventeen Canadian veterans decorated with the French Legion of Honour

MONTREAL - The painful memories of the Second World War are hidden under the Royal Canadian Navy beret that Allan Bolduc proudly wore Thursday as he and 16 other veterans were awarded the French Legion of Honour.

At first, Bolduc jokes about wanting to join the French Foreign Legion at the age of 15 but his smile quickly disappears when he starts talking about enlisting and heading off to war.

"I tried to get into the army, but the army said 'you're too young and to come back in a few years'," he recalled in an interview at a ceremony attended by France's ambassador to Canada.

But Bolduc and a friend were determined to sign up and somehow he managed to join the navy before turning 18.

"We hitchhiked to Quebec City to get in right away . . . and we were shipped overseas very fast," said Bolduc, who served as a minesweeper in the Normandy landing.

A single tear then rolls down his cheek and the 91-year-old veteran can no longer talk about his wartime memories because "there were so many of them."

The oldest of the honorees to have the Legion medal pinned on their chest by Ambassador Philippe Zeller was 99-year-old John Stuart Hermon, who described the ceremony as very touching.

"It makes one think how precious families and relatives are," the former captain in the 7th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, said in an interview.

"We should all be very grateful for the efforts that have been made by all of the veterans who are not here and that their families will eventually appreciate just what sacrifices their relatives have made in the battle of Europe."

Hermon recalled that his job was to drop bombs on the enemy and avoid getting killed.

"In the moment of battle, your mind is concentrated on doing a job, the same as it is in civilian life," said Hermon, whose later accomplishments included running the Boston Marathon at the age of 78.

"There's no free pass and there's no turning back."

Clement Gosselin, an infantry signalman in 1944, was wounded twice in combat: once suffering a fractured jaw and then having his collarbone broken by an exploding shell.

He joked about receiving the medal, saying it made him heavier, but added it was an honour even after 70 years.

Gosselin, 92, remembers the day he was first injured when British, American and Canadian troops encircled a group of Germans.

"We didn't know which army injured us because it was all muddled up," he recalled. "They call it friendly fire and I was subjected to that three times."

The ambassador, who was accompanied by deputy veteran affairs minister Walt Natynczyk, described the award as an expression of France's wish to honour men who helped liberate his country during the war.

"The whole of France is grateful toward these brave veterans who, 70 years ago, fought on the beaches of Normandy, Provence or in the skies of France," Zeller said.

"These men are the last of the young heroes who put their lives on hold to fight a ruthless war against barbarism and Nazism."

The 17 live at the Ste. Anne's Hospital for veterans in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue on the western tip of the Island of Montreal. They are among some 600 Canadian veterans receiving the award this year.

Zeller said it was clearly an emotional experience for them.

"Some (veterans) were extremely moved when I gave them the medal of the Legion of Honour," he said in an interview. "I noticed that with those who could not express themselves in words, it was simply by crying that their emotions reappeared."

The ambassador recalled reliving the memories of the war through his own mother, who died just six weeks ago.

Zeller said she and other French families made sure generation after generation knew about their Canadian liberators.

"She was probably 16 or 17 when our village was really freed by some Canadian soldiers," he said in an interview.

"So, right until the end of her life she would get excited just explaining what happened to our children, to our grandchildren and to all the family."

The Legion of Honour was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.