TAMPA — For Howard Kanter, memories of the invasion play out like a wartime movie reel, coming back to him in flashes.
Kanter, a medic with the Army's 197th Antiaircraft Command who joined the military at 18, waited on a boat off the coast of Omaha Beach, watching as soldiers stormed the shore. It was June 6, 1944, and 160,000 Allied troops invaded the beaches of Normandy in France. People would refer to it as D-day.
Kanter remembers it as the day he saw death for the first time. Following orders, his company remained offshore, far enough away to avoid the bullets but close enough to see the carnage. Kanter, a native New Yorker, remembers feeling frightened as men scrambled in the distance.
"They looked liked miniature characters falling, running and stumbling," Kanter said. "That night we came on shore and advanced into the French countryside. I dug a foxhole to sleep in, but I couldn't really sleep. I didn't know which part of myself to cover with my helmet."
As today's 68th anniversary of D-day approached, Kanter said he is thankful to be alive. As of November 2011, about 2 million World War II veterans were alive in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Kanter, 88, plans to spend the anniversary with family in Tampa, telling tales of courage and loss. To his four children and 20 grandchildren, he is a hero. Kanter's military honors, including a Purple Heart he received for injuries sustained during the Battle of the Bulge, get passed around from generation to generation.
Kanter inspired his oldest son, Richard Kanter, to join the Air Force as a young man and become a dentist at MacDill Air Force Base.
"His (World War II) stories instilled in me a very patriotic feeling," Richard Kanter said. "He is a great storyteller. Being Jewish, I think part of him was comforted that he had a part in helping put to an end the major influences that were in Europe at the time. He was always proud of his accomplishments."
John Bolender, event coordinator for the Zephyrhills Museum of Military History, said veterans offer a glimpse into the past not found in books. On Saturday, the museum will honor the anniversary of D-day with a special event featuring re-enactors, and vehicles and aircraft from the time. Area veterans will share stories with visitors.
"Without them, we probably wouldn't be where we are today," Bolender said. "We might have lost our democracy."
Kanter, a member of the Jewish War Veterans, spent less than two active years in the military. After returning home to New York in September 1945, he married his high school girlfriend and went into the manufacturing business, ultimately retiring to Florida more than 30 years ago. Recently, Kanter's wife passed away. He now lives alone in North Tampa.
Kanter calls his war days "the time when I became a man."
"It was a different era when every man was willing to do his job for the country," he said. "We were young. We were all frightened. We did the best we could."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or [email protected]