In a few days is the 76th anniversary of D-Day. There were so many compelling stories that happened on that first “day of days” that one could have gone in literally hundreds of directions to pick one to commemorate the landings:
Major John Howard’s airborne assault of “Pegasus Bridge” over the Orne River in the first few minutes of the invasion. Dick Winter’s assault on Brecourt Manor and his taking out a battery of 105mm artillery that was firing on Utah Beach. Norman “Dutch” Cota, the assistant division commander, rallying the troops on Omaha Beach. The 2nd Ranger Bn taking the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. And there are many others.
But today, we’re remembering John M. Steele, who was rendered from a participant to an observer by a strange turn of events in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944. So, who is John M. Steele? While you may or may not remember his name, you’ll instantly know who he was if you are a fan of war films.
In the epic war film “The Longest Day” Steele was portrayed by Red Buttons. Steele was the paratrooper from Company F, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry, of the 82nd Airborne Division. He is famously known for getting hung up on the church steeple in the center of the town of St. Mère Eglise.
Steele was born on November 29, 1912, in Metropolis, Illinois, the eldest of seven siblings. His father piloted boats on the Ohio River. He joined the Army just prior to the United States being thrust into World War II. He volunteered for Airborne duty, being an older volunteer at age 29, and joined the 505th Parachute Infantry in North Africa.
Steele was known as a wise-cracking character, a beer lover, and a fly fisherman, who was also fond of New Orleans jazz. Steele jumped into Sicily with the 505th and broke his leg. He recovered and joined the battalion in Italy where he broke his other leg. But he joined the remainder of the 82nd Airborne in Britain in preparation for the invasion of France.
The 2nd Battalion’s mission on D-Day was to secure the town of St. Mère Eglise. The battalion commander was LTC Ben Vandervoort who was portrayed by John Wayne in the film. Vandervoort, known as Vandy, was twice decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor beneath the Medal of Honor.
Steele’s C-47 aircraft was piloted by a green pilot. The pilot climbed high and turned on the green light for the paratroopers to jump right over the center of town. German troops in the town were alerted. They killed many paratroopers before they hit the ground. Company F suffered numerous casualties before it even touched down. It was chaos.
On the way down, Steele was wounded by flak. In trying to avoid a burning barn on his way down, Steele slipped aside and got his parachute hung up on a gargoyle sculpture at the base of a bell tower on a 12th-century church. With paratroopers and Germans shooting it out in the town square below, Steele tried to cut his way out of his chute but dropped his knife which clattered on the ground below.
Now helpless, Steele was forced to hang limply. He played dead until a few hours later, two German soldiers, Rudolf May and Rudi Escher, up in the bell tower saw him and cut him down. Steele was not mistreated, however, and shortly afterward escaped from his captors by climbing out a window. He made it back to the American troops and was evacuated to Britain.
By the autumn he had recovered and jumped into Holland with the division during the disastrous Market Garden operation. He also fought with the division during the Battle of the Bulge.
In early 1945, Steele was reassigned to the 17th Airborne and took part in its operation across the Rhine. At the war’s end, Steele was sent home and was discharged in 1946.
He became famous in the town of St. Mère Eglise and was a frequent visitor on the anniversary of the D-Day jump.
Another American paratrooper who got hung up on the steeple of the church but isn’t remembered as well as Steele was Pvt. Kenneth Russell. He recalls that fateful night:
“I was bazooka gunner in the second platoon, Company F of the 505th PIR of the 82nd Airborne Division. For the jump, I was the 5th or 6th guy just after Lieutenant Harold Cadish, our jumpmaster. We were dropped over Sainte Mère Eglise, a house fire lit up the square. I landed on the roof of the church, and I was hanging by my parachute. While I was trying to reach my knife to get rid of my 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 …”
Steele settled in North Carolina but suffered from throat cancer in 1961. That would eventually take his life in May of 1969. He was buried in his hometown of Metropolis. As Paul Harvey used to say, now you know… the rest of the story.
Editor’s note: The article has been updated to reflect that the D-Day anniversary is in a few days.