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Thoughts & Views: In Normandy, ‘Longest Day’ lives on

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That’s not a real paratrooper hanging from a church steeple. It’s a representation of one — and it’s a memorial to all the American paratroopers who liberated the French town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise on June 6, 1944.

Our p. 1 story this week acknowledges the 70th anniversary of D-Day, but there is so much, much more to tell — literally entire libraries are devoted to the Allied invasion. So we thought we’d focus on just one incident, which most Americans likely were unaware of until it was portrayed in the 1962 movie “The Longest Day.” Many still may not know about the memorial.

On June 6, 1944, that paratrooper on the steeple was real. That morning, in advance of the landings on the Normandy beaches, members of the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions parachuted into the French countryside beyond the shoreline cliffs.

Those who were dropped over German-occupied Sainte- Mere-Eglise were floating ducks for the enemy.

Instead of descending in darkness, they came down in a sky lit by the flames of burning buildings. Then, many of the parachutes caught on trees or poles, and the men were shot before they could free themselves. One of those paratoopers, John Steele of Illinois, landed atop the town’s church, his chute tangled on the steeple.

According to the Wikipedia account, “He hung there limply for two hours, pretending to be dead, before the Germans took him prisoner.” Steele escaped later that day and rejoined his division when more American paratroopers arrived and held the town until it could be liberated June 7.

The real Steele, portrayed in the movie by Red Buttons, was 32 at the time — the oldest man in his company. He fought in six World War II campaigns, in Africa, the Middle East and Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge. In 1969, in Fayetteville, N.C., he died of cancer. He was just 56.

But, to this day, the courage of Steele and his fellow Americans is remembered in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, by perhaps one of the strangest, and most moving, D-Day memorials.

“The Longest Day” is likely to be aired sometime this week, so think of Steele if you watch it.

Another D-Day viewing tip: Look for PBS’ “NOVA” special “D-Day’s Sunken Secrets.” The central focus is on new technology being used to locate and explore the underwater “archaeology” off the Normandy beaches. But it is so much more. There are incredibly moving interviews with D-Day veterans, historical perspective on the invasion, and masses of littleknown facts.

For instance, we learned that when President Dwight D. Eisenhower left the White House, he asked to be reinstated in the Army. And when he died, the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, the five-star general who had been awarded 65 U.S. and international military honors, went to his grave in an $80 soldier’s coffin and an Army uniform bearing just three ribbons.

He asked to be buried with only those three. The ones he earned at Normandy.

–Karen Zautyk 

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