Paratrooper helped liberate French town portrayed in epic film

By David Vergun, DOD NewsJune 4, 2024

Army Pvt. John Steele poses for a photo in his dress uniform during World War II.
Army Pvt. John Steele poses for a photo in his dress uniform during World War II. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

WASHINGTON — On D-Day, June 6, 1944, paratroopers of the U.S. Army's 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions landed between 1:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. near and in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France.

Among them was Army Pvt. John Steele, of the 82nd, who landed on the pinnacle of a church tower, where he hung from his parachute for about two hours before being taken prisoner by the Germans.

Steele later escaped and went on to fight for the rest of the war.

The paratroopers figure prominently in the 1962 film "The Longest Day," with Steele portrayed by actor Red Buttons, who also served in the Army during World War II. The film was adapted from Cornelius Ryan's 1959 nonfiction book of the same name. Ryan interviewed Steele and others for the book.

Spotlight: D-Day

The paratroopers had flown across the English Channel in C-47 aircraft and jumped from an altitude of just 600 feet, leaving little time to maneuver on the way down. Plus, darkness and heavy cloud cover resulted in a scattered drop.

Taking the town was of strategic importance because of its proximity to Utah Beach, and the Allies needed to capture it and move inland quickly to avoid getting pushed back to the sea, where soldiers in landing craft had come ashore.

Steele, a Metropolis, Illinois, native, enlisted in the Army in 1941, just days after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. He was 29 at the time, considerably older than most of his fellow soldiers.

In 1943, he made battle jumps into Sicily and then Naples, Italy.

Paratroopers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division fight in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France, June 7, 1944.
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Paratroopers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division fight in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France, June 7, 1944. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
Paratroopers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division in England board the C-47 aircraft that will drop them in and near the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France, in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944.
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Paratroopers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division in England board the C-47 aircraft that will drop them in and near the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France, in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
Army Pvt. John Steele, second from right, and three other soldiers pose for a photo during World War II.
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Army Pvt. John Steele, second from right, and three other soldiers pose for a photo during World War II. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

After his jump into Sainte-Mere-Eglise, Steele fought in Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, attaining the rank of staff sergeant. Steele survived the war and returned to Metropolis, but his brother was killed while fighting in Germany in April 1945, shortly before the end of the war in Europe.

In 1962, Steele attended the premier of the film, commenting that Buttons did a good job of portraying him.

Steele returned to Sainte-Mere-Eglise in 1964 for a regimental reunion and was made an honorary citizen of the town. He died in 1969.

Other paratroopers had interesting stories, as well, during their drop into Sainte-Mere-Eglise.

A mannequin depicts Army Pvt. John Steele whose parachute was entangled on a church steeple in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France, when he landed on D-Day. This photo taken May 3, 2024.
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A mannequin depicts Army Pvt. John Steele whose parachute was entangled on a church steeple in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France, when he landed on D-Day. This photo taken May 3, 2024.
(Photo Credit: DOD photo by David Vergun)
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A mannequin depicts Army Pvt. John Steele whose parachute was entangled on a church steeple in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France, when he landed on D-Day, June 6, 1944. This photo was taken May 3, 2024.
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A mannequin depicts Army Pvt. John Steele whose parachute was entangled on a church steeple in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France, when he landed on D-Day, June 6, 1944. This photo was taken May 3, 2024. (Photo Credit: DOD photo by David Vergun) VIEW ORIGINAL

Fellow paratrooper Army Pvt. Ken Russell landed on the same church roof as Steele, but never achieved the same level of fame. He, too, survived the war.

German soldiers pose for a photo in front of the Hotel de Ville in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France, sometime before June 6, 1944, when U.S. Soldiers liberated the town.
German soldiers pose for a photo in front of the Hotel de Ville in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France, sometime before June 6, 1944, when U.S. Soldiers liberated the town.
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo)
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Army Pfc. Clifford A. Maughan parachuted into the garden of a house in the town. He was taken prisoner by a German soldier billeted in the house, who then surrendered to Maughan a short time later when U.S. troops overwhelmed the German occupiers. He, too, survived the war, participating later in the invasion of the Netherlands.

A C-47 is featured in the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France. It is the same aircraft that dropped paratroopers into the town on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Photo taken May 3, 2024.
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A C-47 is featured in the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France. It is the same aircraft that dropped paratroopers into the town on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Photo taken May 3, 2024. (Photo Credit: DOD photo by David Vergun) VIEW ORIGINAL
A sign marks the entrance to the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France. Photo taken May 3, 2024.
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A sign marks the entrance to the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France. Photo taken May 3, 2024. (Photo Credit: DOD photo by David Vergun) VIEW ORIGINAL

A plaque honoring Maughan and others is in front of the garden and house, which is now a restaurant.

A bar in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France, honors U.S. soldiers who landed on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Photo taken May 3, 2024.
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A bar in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France, honors U.S. soldiers who landed on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Photo taken May 3, 2024. (Photo Credit: DOD photo by David Vergun) VIEW ORIGINAL
Army Pfc. Clifford A. Maughan parachuted into the garden of this house in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944. A plaque honoring Maughan and others is in front of the garden and house, which is now a restaurant. It reads: “This is also to perpetuate the memory of all the men of the [Army s]’2nd Platoon Mortar Squad of F Company, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, whose heroic actions that night helped to change the course of history.” Photo taken May 3, 2024.
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Army Pfc. Clifford A. Maughan parachuted into the garden of this house in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944. A plaque honoring Maughan and others is in front of the garden and house, which is now a restaurant. It reads: “This is also to perpetuate the memory of all the men of the [Army s]’2nd Platoon Mortar Squad of F Company, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, whose heroic actions that night helped to change the course of history.” Photo taken May 3, 2024.
(Photo Credit: DOD photo by David Vergun)
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