The Armed Forces History Museum in Largo, FL is proud to have a display case dedicated to Colonel Leonard T. Schroeder with the boots, equipment and uniform Schroeder was wearing that infamous day in World War II when he became the first man to step foot on Normandy Beach. Other items are featured in additional display cases throughout the museum. The case above has a number of additional items also generously donated by Colonel Schroeder. His voice can be heard narrating his D-Day experience by visitors as they through the AFHM’s D-Day Diorama.
Leonard T. Schroeder Early Years
Born in Maryland on July 16, 1918, Leonard T. Schroeder would enter the United States Army in 1941 and serve the next 30 years – retiring as Colonel. Throughout his military
history, Schroeder would be remembered for a number of achievements, but his most infamous moment was when he made history as the first man to step foot on Normandy Beach during the D-Day Invasion.
His military interest began after high school when his full athletic scholarship took him to the University of Maryland where he enrolled in ROTC – Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Upon graduation in 1941, Schroeder was commissioned a second lieutenant of the United States Army and assigned to the 4th Infantry Division. He was stationed at Camp Gordon (close to Augusta, GA) until September of 1943, at which time, his division was sent to Florida. While in Florida, the 4th Infantry Division would begin training for assault landings using various amphibious crafts. They completed their training in January of 1944 and were then sent to the south of England. Here, they continued to practice in preparation of the Normandy Landings.
D-Day Invasion – June 6, 1944
On June 6, 1944 – the day of the D-Day Invasion – Schroeder, a 25-year old captain, was in command of 219 men in Company F – a part of the 2nd Battalion, the 8th Infantry Regiment and the 4th Infantry Division. It was the 8th Infantry Regiment that received the orders to make the first landing on Utah Beach.
The night before the landings on a ship (USS Barnett) from England to France, the men listened to General Eisenhower – Supreme Allied Commander – as he encouraged the troops in his radio address: ‘Together, we shall achieve victory.’ Later, the commanders were called together by Lt. Col. MacNeely – the 2nd Battalion commander – to the
quarters of Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. Here they received their final briefing prior to the invasion. Afterwards, the officers shook hands and wished each other well. Lt. Col. MacNeely approached Schroeder (nicknamed ‘Moose’), put his arm around his shoulder and told him to “Give ‘em hell!” Schroeder replied: “Well, colonel, I’ll see you on the beach!”
Roosevelt requested Schroeder take him in his boat and get him to the shore. At the time, Roosevelt was not in the best of health. On June 6, 1944 at 2:30 in the morning, Schroeder and his company left the USS Barnett and boarded their landing craft. Before making that journey, Schroeder wrote to his wife and told her where he was and talked about his mission. He also expressed how much he loved her. Later that morning at 6:28, Schroeder’s unit – two minutes ahead of schedule – was the first of 20 landing crafts to come ashore on Utah Beach. Schroeder and his boat of 22 men (including Roosevelt) were the first to reach the beach and Schroeder became the first American soldier to set foot on the beaches of Normandy that day. He had Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. at his side.
Due to rough waters in the English Channel, close to 80% of the men on the boat were sick and as they neared the shore, the Allies were still shelling their intended destination. As Schroeder left the landing craft, he kept his pistol above the water as he waded in the last 100 yards. The soldiers all met enemy fire, underwater mines, barbed wire and even trenches. Schroeder’s mission was to move five miles inland and liberate a local village. The march would end with half his men dead and Schroeder himself shot. The two wounds he received in his left arm required hospitalization in England and eventually in South Carolina. The severity of the wounds almost forced an amputation of Schroeder’s arm.
When later asked, Schroeder said he was too frightened to think about much of anything, let alone being the first man ashore. He would be become known as ‘the first
GI to invade Europe’. Schroeder would receive several awards and decorations as a result of his actions, including a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart as a result of his actions throughout World War II.
After the war, Schroeder stayed in the Army as a career officer. In his 30 years of active duty he saw combat – in addition to WWII – in Korea and Vietnam. His overseas assignments would take him to England, Turkey and Greece; and in the United States, he was stationed at Ft. Knox, KY and Ft. Meade, MD, which was close to his childhood home.
Life After Retirement
Schroeder retired a full colonel from the United States Army in 1971. He and his wife
Margaret (with whom he had three children) moved to Largo, FL. On June 6, 1994 – the 50 year anniversary of the D-Day Landings – Retired Colonel Schroeder was honored in Normandy. He was featured on a French television broadcast and featured on the cover of the June 2, 1994 French magazine VSD along with an article written about his life and his D-Day experience. Just prior to his May 26, 2009 death, Schroeder recollected his 30 years in the service and said he still missed the comradery and the family-like brotherhood he experienced with the US Army.
Colonel Leonard T. Schroeder will always be remembered for being the first man to step foot on Utah Beach during the D-Day Landings of World War II.