Leonard Schroeder will never forget watching the sun rise off the coast of France the morning of June 6, 1944.
Schroeder, who was 25 and an Army company commander, spent the night before the D-day invasion with the 219 soldiers from Company F in small, flat-bottomed boats.
"We were a little nervous, hoping we were going to hit the place we were supposed to hit," said Schroeder, who is now 89 and lives in Largo.
At about 6:30 a.m., Schroeder's company began wading toward shore in waist-high water. He held up his .45-caliber pistol to keep it from getting wet.
Amid a flurry of smoke and gunfire, they stormed Utah Beach. Schroeder is believed to be the first American solider to step foot on the beach during the battle considered the turning point of World War II.
"We prayed and prayed that everyone got the right signal," said Schroeder, who retired from the Army in 1971 as a colonel.
It's been 64 years since that fateful day. But Schroeder said the images from that morning remain etched in his mind forever.
For the next eight hours, Schroeder led his men in battle. By noon, half of them were either killed or injured.
Relatives thousands of miles away in America were desperate for details.
Schroeder's wife, Margaret, 91, said she received a call from her mother-in-law that morning.
"She said, 'My son and your husband landed safely on the beach,' " Margaret said, laughing. "I thank God over and over that he made it back safely to his family."
During the fight, a machine gun round ripped open Schroeder's left forearm. The next thing he remembers, he was heading to a hospital in England.
"I lost some time after that, and don't remember what happened or how long," Schroeder said. "The decision was whether they could save my arm." Schroeder's forearm still bears the long scar from his five surgeries.
From Glen Burnie, Md., Schroeder graduated from the University of Maryland.
After World War II, he went on to fight in the Korean War and worked logistics during Vietnam.
He believes he is the only remaining survivor among his college classmates who participated in World II. Two of those classmates died last year.
Schroeder, who earned a Silver Star and a Bronze Star during World War II, now surrounds himself with memories of his Army service. Two ball caps with his unit's name are proudly displayed in his living room. In his office are framed military ribbons and certificates.
The black leather boots Schroeder wore when he landed on Utah Beach are in the garage. There is also a huge poster of him on the front of a French magazine that proclaimed him the first man to land on a beach in Normandy during D-day. He and his wife of 66 years were flown to France in 1984 in honor of D-day's 50th anniversary.
Though he turns 90 on July 16, there's another date that's just as important.
"I say that June 6 is my second birthday," he said.
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org.