By Ken Zurski
On the night of June 5, 1944, Private John Steele along with several other American soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division parachuted into an area near Sainte Mere Eglise, a small town in the Lower Normandy region of France close to Utah Beach.
The troopers were ordered to land, secure the perimeter, and cut off the road that led to the German occupied village. But two of the battalions, including Steele’s, were dropped in the wrong location and directly over the town square.
That night in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, church bells were ringing out in alarm. A stray incendiary from anti-aircraft tracers had set a hay barn on fire. The townspeople were worried more businesses and homes would be threatened. So they formed a bucket brigade to extinguish the blaze and prevent any more flare-ups. Meanwhile, the thirty or so German soldiers in town kept firing at the sound of unseen aircraft overhead. Then in the darkness, white chutes appeared. The unfortunate American paratroopers drifting into the city were easy targets. Many were riddled with bullets before they even touched the ground.
John Steele however made it. He was hit by flak, burnt his foot, and landed on a church roof. His chute caught the pinnacle of the steeple and his suspension lines stretched to full capacity. Another paratrooper named Kenneth Russell also fell on the church. He later recalled the ordeal: “While I was trying to reach my knife to get rid of the straps, another paratrooper hit the steeple and also remained suspended, not far from me. His canopy was hanging from a gargoyle of the steeple, it was my friend John Steele.” Russell was able to cut his lines, free himself, and run for cover.
Steele wasn’t so lucky. He was left dangling on the side of the church, wounded, but conscious. He watched as his buddies were picked off like ducks in a shooting gallery.
Steele’s only recourse was to wait. He hung his head and remained completely still. The Germans eventually found him and thought he was dead. They were going to leave him, but figured he might be carrying important papers. When they cut him down they found Steele alive and immediately took him prisoner. But Steele somehow manged to escape. He soon rejoined his division and helped capture the village, which became the first French town liberated by the Allied Forces after June 6, 1944, better known as D-Day.
Steele was from Metropolis, Illinois, the oldest of his troop at age 32, and the company barber too. He continued to serve in the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine River into Germany when the war ended. He returned home to Illinois in September of 1945. For his efforts, he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor and the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat.
A battle with throat cancer would end his life in 1969, at the age of 56.
To this day, in his honor, on the very same church where he fell, there is a life-sized effigy of Steele, his parachute snagged, and his body hanging forever from its straps.