Private John Steele Monument – Sainte-Mère-Église, France - Atlas Obscura
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Sainte-Mère-Église, France

Private John Steele Monument

An effigy of a trapped paratrooper dangles from a Normandy church to commemorate one remarkable D-Day event. 

If you happen to glance upward while walking by the church in the French town of Sainte-Mère-Église, you’ll notice what appears to be a white sheet wrapped around one of the spires. Look closer, and you’ll realize it’s actually a monument to a trapped paratrooper.

Early in the morning on June 6, 1944, paratroopers dropped from the sky behind the Normandy beaches to secure the area in preparation for the Allied D-Day invasion. What is now the town of Sainte-Mère-Église was near the drop zone for a large portion of the 82nd Airborne Division of the United States Army. Unfortunately, two planeloads of paratroopers were accidentally dropped all over the place and found themselves in the midst of an unforeseen D-Day disaster.

Many ended up in the town square, where the church bells were tolling, lights were glaring, and a fire was consuming nearby buildings. Most of the Allied troopers who landed in the town were quickly killed or captured by German soldiers, who were unfortunately up and about due to the fire that had been caused by a stray bomb.

Private John Steele, one of the paratroopers, landed on the roof of the church, where his parachute became snagged on the spires. He had broken his ankle during the fall but somehow still survived. Steele played dead for hours, dangling limply atop the church, until the Germans realized he was alive and cut him down and captured him. Fortunately, he later escaped and rejoined his unit. His story was told in the 1962 film The Longest Day.

Steele didn’t appear to harbor any ill-will toward the town. He even became an honorary citizen of Sainte-Mère-Église and continued to visit.

The events of the ill-fated paratroopers are commemorated in the church’s stained glass windows, as well as elsewhere in the town. An effigy of Steele dangles from a spire atop the church, though it isn’t where he had gotten stuck. Steele was actually caught up on the diagonally opposite spire, but his image is displayed where it will easily be noticed by people entering the town square. There is also a museum dedicated to the Airborne Division across the road from the church.

Know Before You Go

There is a large parking area around the church if you want to drive, and any self-respecting D-Day tour will take you there.

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