The Most Photographed Paratrooper in Normandy
Private John M. Steele was the American paratrooper who landed on the pinnacle of the church tower in Sainte-Mère-Église, the first village in Normandy liberated by the United States Army on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Monument to John Steele who was caught on the church spire during D-Day
On the night before D-Day (June 5–6, 1944), 82nd Airborne American troops parachuted into the area west of Sainte-Mère-Église in successive waves. The town had been the target of an aerial attack and an 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. By 1AM, the town square was well lit and filled with German soldiers and villagers when two planeloads of paratroopers from the 1st and 2nd battalions were dropped in error directly over the village.
The paratroopers became 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, leaving him hanging on the side of the church. The wounded paratrooper hung there limply for two hours, pretending to be dead, before the Germans took him prisoner.
He later escaped from the Germans and rejoined his division when US troops of the 3rd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment attacked the village. He was awarded the Bronze Star for valor and the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat.
He continued to visit the town throughout his life and was an honorary citizen of Ste. Mère Église. Steele died of throat cancer on May 16, 1969, in Fayetteville, NC.