Church in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, Normandy
It’s the birthplace of John M. Steele, the brave U.S. paratrooper whose effigy is hanging from the steeple of the 11th century church in the small village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy. Steele grew up as typical river rat kid while his father was a riverboat captain on the Mississippi. His background was similar to that of many of the young men who came from small U.S. towns and were involved in the early phase of the liberation of Europe in June 1944.
As a visit to the beautiful Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial nearby attests, more than 10,000 U.S. soldiers and thousands of others from the UK and Canada, lost their lives in the invasion and ensuring Allied push through France and beyond. The average age of the U.S. dead was 24, although many were just teenagers.
But Steele was not among those whose life was cut short. He was spared by a combination of luck and quick thinking.
At 32, Steele was the oldest soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division, Company F, 3rd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He was the company barber and known for his quick wit. On the night of June 5-6, 1944, his life changed forever when he joined two planeloads of parachutists that dropped directly over the village of Sainte-Mère-Église, instead of on the main road beyond. Their mission — one of the most important airborne operations of D-Day — was to seize this key crossroads town located between Omaha and Utah beaches and cut off the retreat of the Germans from the beach landings.
In the early morning, just hours before the Allied landings, a bomb exploded in a house just off the village square, sending the church bells into action and awaking the occupying German garrison that ordered a bucket brigade of local residents to stop the raging inferno. The fire illuminated the surrounding sky, making perfect targets of paratroopers as they floated toward the ground. German soldiers killed many of them when their chutes got tangled on utility poles or in trees, while a few were drawn into the fire. Steele’s parachute caught on the steeple of the church located in the square, and hanging there helpless, with a bullet in his foot, he watched the carnage unfold below.
As the church bells continued to ring just a few feet away, he played dead, hanging limply for nearly three hours until two German soldiers cut down his parachute, realized he was still alive and took him prisoner.
Several hours later, after Allied troops hit the invasion beaches, he was rescued by U.S. troops who seized the town. His wounds healed and he returned to battle, but it took nearly two weeks to regain his hearing.
Steele's experience became globally known after Red Buttons portrayed him in the iconic World War II film, The Longest Day, released in 1969. The effigy of Steele hanging from the steeple with the parachute flapping in the wind has become a symbol of the war in Normandy, adorning postcards and book covers and topping the must-see lists in guidebooks.
Before his death in 1969 in North Carolina from cancer, Steele visited Sainte-Mère-Église frequently, usually during commemoration services on June 6, and his story is explained at the Airborne Museum, built on the site of the house fire. He is a local hero, an honorary town citizen and has a restaurant named after him that contains photos and mementos, called L’Auberge John Steele.
Sainte-Mère-Église, like many other towns throughout Normandy, is planning special events to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day on June 6.
If you take this pilgrimage, don't miss a stop here. This is a very friendly area of France, where you will see U.S. flags flying, hamburgers on the offer, memorials thanking Allied troops in each town center, and a population that, 70 years on, has not forgotten.