LARGO, Fla. - Col. Leonard Schroeder kept some very special boots in his Florida garage. He wore them the day he led the charge that drove the Nazis out of France.
The U.S. Department of War – now the Department of Defense – confirmed he was the first American to land on the beaches of Normandy, part of the effort to retake Europe from the Nazis.
Schroeder died in 2009 after retiring to Florida and donated those boots to the Armed Forces History Museum in Largo, though the museum has since closed. He gave his final interview to FOX 13 Tampa Bay years ago.
Col. Leonard Schroeder (U.S. Army photo)
"Well, about 80 percent of the guys on the boat were sick, upchucking," he recalled.
Schroeder said they saw the beach, then realized his own air support was still blasting it to bits.
"They were running a little late on the Air Corps side, and we were jumping a little ahead of time," he continued. "They were dropping all those bombs on the place where we were going in."
Schroeder, a 25-year-old captain at the time, grounded the boat and then dodged Nazi fire as he led the charge to seize a fort. Bullets ripped through his arm, but he kept going – he killed a Nazi machine gunner, and cleared the path to freedom.
"You break a hole in the seawall wide enough so the tanks could get through."
American troops of the 4th Infantry Division ("Famous Fourth") land on Utah Beach 06 June 1944 while Allied forces storm the Normandy beaches on D-Day. (STF/AFP via Getty Images)
The Baltimore native and University of Maryland ROTC grad said he was bullied as a child, but that drove him to fight as a man. And with that, he said, he stepped up and into the most important battle of the 20th Century.
He added that he told his men that around seven out of 10 would not return from their mission, but none of them deserted.