Who is John Steele I hear you say. Well to be honest until recently I had never heard of him either. It’s just that I am a great WW2 movies fan I came across his name.
In the movie ” the Longest Day” about D-Day there are a few scenes which made me wonder if they really happened. Some of them are quite funny, there is one scene where a German patrol and an American patrol pass each other by not realizing they are enemies and just walk on minding their own business. Another one where a German officer puts on his boots the wrong way. However there are also some sad scenes. One is showing a paratrooper whose parachute was caught in one of the pinnacles of the church tower.
I could not find anything on the patrols or the visually impaired German officer but the story of the paratrooper is true and really happened. This Paratrooper’s name was Private John Steele. he was the American paratrooper who landed on the church tower in Sainte-Mère-Église, the first village in Normandy liberated by the Americans on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
On the night before D-Day (June 5–6, 1944), American soldiers of the 82nd Airborne parachuted into the area west of Sainte-Mère-Église in successive waves. The town had been the target of an aerial attack and a stray incendiary bomb had set fire to a house east of the town square. The church bell was rung to alert the town of the emergency and townspeople turned out in large numbers to form a bucket brigade supervised by members of the German garrison. By 0100 hours, the town square was well lit and filled with German soldiers and villagers when two sticks (planeloads of paratroopers) from the 1st and 2nd battalions were dropped in error directly over the village.
The paratroopers were easy targets, and Steele was one of only a few non-casualties. His parachute was caught in one of the pinnacles of the church tower, causing the cables on his parachute to stretch to their full length, leaving him hanging on the side of the church to witness the carnage. The wounded paratrooper hung there limply for two hours, pretending to be dead, before the Germans took him prisoner. Steele later escaped from the Germans and rejoined his division when US troops of the 3rd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment attacked the village capturing thirty Germans and killing another eleven. For these actions and his wounds, Steele was awarded the Bronze Star for valor and the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat.
Though injured, Private Steele survived his ordeal. He continued to visit the town throughout his life and was an honorary citizen of Ste. Mère Église. The tavern, Auberge John Steele, stands adjacent to the square and maintains his memory through photos, letters and articles hung on its walls. Steele died of throat cancer on May 16, 1969 in Fayetteville, NC just three weeks short of the 25th anniversary of the D-Day invasion
But his story as a brave soldier starts much earlier and continued well past the episode in Sainte Mère Église. There is much more to the story of paratrooper John Steele.
There are some inconsistencies in various stories that have been cobbled together about him, but it is clear that John Steele was a fearless and brave soldier. He had volunteered his service as a paratrooper and had earlier served in the 82nd Airborne Division in North Africa, prior to parachuting into combat in Sicily with F Company, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. On the night of 9 July 1943, John broke his left leg and was sent to a hospital in North Africa. After he recovered he returned to Italy and fought with his unit from Salerno to Naples.
During his jump into Ste. Mère Église on the night of 5-6 June 1944, John was wounded by a shell fragment and was unable to steer his parachute. As he dangled from the church spire while a battle was going on below him, he tried to cut himself free but his jump knife slipped from his hand. He dangled helplessly for more than two hours, until a German soldier named Rudolf May cut him down and took him prisoner. Despite being wounded, he escaped three days later and rejoined a nearby Allied unit. He was then transferred to a hospital in England for recovery.
After recovery from his latest wounds, he returned to action and parachuted into action nearNijmegen Netherlands where he participated in the liberation of that city. In November of 1944 he participated in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes region near Reims, France. When the Allies crossed the Rhine River into Germany in early 1945, John Steele was there, advancing with his unit from Frankfurt to the crossing of the Elbe River, when World War II ended. He finally returned to the United States in September 1945.
Today, these events are commemorated by the Airborne Forces Museum in Place du 6 June in the centre of Ste-Mère-Église and in the village church where a parachute with an effigy of Private Steele in his Airborne uniform hangs from the steeple. Bullet holes are still visible in the church’s stone walls. Inside, there are stained glass windows, with one depicting the Virgin Mary with paratroopers falling in the foreground.
This is just one of the thousands of the forgotten histories of WW2.
Thanks to brave soldiers like John Steele the people in Europe now live a prosperous life and have freedom it is important that the sacrifices which were made are never forgotten.
More and more I hear the pleas for history to be taken out of the school curriculum but it is my believe and conviction that history is now more important than it ever was. If we forget our history we will forsake our future.