Swinging in his harness, unable to veer away from the town, he dangled helplessly as his chute carried him straight toward the church steeple at the edge of the square.
Almost as soon as he left his plane, Private John Steele of the 82nd’s 505th Regiment saw that instead of landing in a lighted drop zone he was heading for the center of a town that seemed to be on fire. Then he saw German soldiers and French civilians running frantically about. Most of them, it seemed to Steele, were looking up at him. The next moment he was hit by something that felt “like the bite of a sharp knife.” A bullet had smashed into his foot. Then Steele saw something that alarmed him even more. Swinging in his harness, unable to veer away from the town, he dangled helplessly as his chute carried him straight toward the church steeple at the edge of the square. Above Steele, Private First Class Ernest Blanchard heard the church bell ringing and saw the maelstrom of fire coming up all around him. The next minute he watched horrified as a man floating down almost beside him “exploded and completely disintegrated before my eyes,” presumably a victim of the explosives he was carrying. Blanchard began desperately to swing on his risers, trying to veer away from the mob in the square below. But it was too late. He landed with a crash in one of the trees. Around him men were being machine-gunned to death. There were shouts, yells, screams and moans—sounds that Blanchard will never forget. Frantically, as the machine-gunning came closer, Blanchard sawed at his harness. Then he dropped out of the trees and ran in panic, unaware that he had also sawed off the top of his thumb.
It must have seemed to the Germans that Ste.-Mère-Église was being smothered by paratroop assault, and certainly the townspeople in the square thought that they were at the center of a major battle. Actually very few Americans—perhaps thirty—dropped into the town, and no more than twenty came down in and about the square. But they were enough to cause the German garrison of slightly less than one hundred men to panic.Reinforcements rushed to the square, which seemed to be the focal point of the attack, and there some Ger-mans, coming suddenly upon the bloody, burning scene, seemed to Renaud to lose all control.About fifteen yards from where the mayor stood in the square a paratrooper plunged into a tree and almost immediately, as he tried frantically to get out of his harness, he was spotted. As Renaud watched, “about half a dozen Germans emptied the magazines of their submachine guns into him and the boy hung there with his eyes open, as though looking down at his own bullet holes.”
Caught up in the slaughter all around them, the people in the square were now oblivious to the mighty air-borne armada that was still droning ceaselessly overhead. Thousands of men were jumping for the 82nd’s drop zones northwest of the town, and the 101st’s zones east and slightly west, between Ste.-Mère-Église and the Utah invasion area. But every now and then, because the drop was so widely scattered, stray paratroopers from almost every regiment drifted into the holocaust of the little town. One or two of these men, loaded down with ammunition, grenades and plastic explosives, actually fell into the burning house. There were brief screams and then a fusillade of shots and explosions as the ammunition went up.In all this horror and confusion one man tenaciously and precariously clung to life. Private Steele, his para- chute draped over the steeple of the church, hung just under the eaves. He heard the shouts and the screams. He saw Germans and Americans firing at each other in the square and the streets. And, almost paralyzed by terror, he saw winking red flashes of machine guns as streams of stray bullets shot past and over him. Steele had tried to cut himself down, but his knife had somehow slipped out of his hand and dropped to the square below. Steele then decided that his only hope lay in playing dead. On the roof, only a few yards away from him, German machine gunners fired at everything in sight, but not at Steele. He hung so realistically “dead” in his harness that Lieutenant Willard Young of the 82nd, who passed by during the height of the fighting, still remembers “the dead man hanging from the steeple.” In all, Steele dangled there for more than two hours before being cut down and taken captive by the Germans. Shocked and in pain from his shattered foot, he has absolutely no recollection of the tolling of the bell, only a few feet from his head.
from "The Longest Day" by Cornelius Ryan