Leonard T. Schroeder Jr. was a North Linthicum native and a graduate of Glen Burnie High School, but 70 years ago he carved out a moment in history for himself when, on the morning of the Allied invasion of Normandy, he was credited with being the first American to step ashore in France.
In the days following the invasion that marked the beginning of the end of the war in Europe, Schroeder was cited in newspaper clippings as likely being the first American soldier to reach Europe in the amphibious invasion. In a September 1944 article in The Baltimore Sun, he said a pilot suggested that because of his accidental fame, he should "go home and start touring the country to sell war bonds."
But on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, many in Anne Arundel County where Schroeder grew up couldn't recall much about the former commander.
Russell Myers, adjutant for the Maryland headquarters of the American Legion, acknowledged last week that he didn't know the story of the Linthicum native's role in the invasion. Schroeder, who spent his later years in retirement in Largo, Fla., with his wife. Margaret, died at the age of 90 in 2009.
"That's truly an amazing thing," he said when asked about Schroeder. "You've taught me something today."
But it makes sense, Meyers said, noting that in those days of the war, personnel from Maryland and Virginia were set to be in the forefront of the invasion.
"It's not a total shocker that it'd be someone local who got there first," he said.
According to published accounts, Schroeder, a 25-year-old captain and commander of a company from the 8th Infantry Regiment, was ordered to make the landing on Utah Beach. The unit crossed the English Channel on a transport and then boarded a small landing craft for its mission to liberate a nearby small village from German control and to break up a fortified sea wall.
The graduate of Glen Burnie High School and the University of Maryland sustained shrapnel wounds in his left arm. In a 2006 interview with The Sun, Schroeder was sorrowful when recalling D-Day, June 6, 1944.
"It's a touchy time of year for a guy like me," he said at the time. "There's not many of us left."
After the war, Schroeder continued his career as an Army officer, eventually retiring as a decorated colonel. In the 1950s, he spent a stint stationed at Fort Meade.
Dave Manning, collections manager for the Fort Meade Museum, did not know much of Schroeder's D-Day moment, but offered that every soldier on that day could have been the first.
"It was certainly a significant moment in history," Manning said. "But somebody had to be first. It was probably just happenstance and dumb luck that it was him."
Schroeder, for his part, likely wouldn't have minded his diminished local legacy. In interviews with the media following the invasion, he spoke little about himself, preferring instead to focus on the other men he trained with for three years before heading to Europe.
A year before his death, Schroeder spoke with a Fox television affiliate in Tampa, Fla. about those who were in the landing craft with him on D-Day. He said "about 80 percent of the guys in there were sick," noting the miserable conditions during the channel crossing.
According to the 1944 newspaper accounts, he commanded his unit, wounded arm and all, until the time came to evacuate casualties.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun