Since I was a little boy, I have had a dream of visiting Sainte-Mère-Église. First known to me through the great World War II movie The Longest Day, I became even more fascinated with the city as I read more and more military history. Finally, at 50, I had my chance and visited the lovely town with my family — jabbering non-stop about dates, times, and people in the battle. It was everything that I wanted it to be. The locals love Americans and they have left a life-sized mannequin hanging from the church where John Steele once dangled.
The town itself goes back to the Eleventh Century and saw combat during the Hundred Years War. Most people, however, know the town from the movie. It is a symbol of the disastrous landings of our airborne troops who were spread across the flooded towns and fields of the area. Many pilots simply released the paratroops to early or, against orders, dodged flak (and thus drifted off course). In one case, a “stick” of paratrooper was dropped too low due to the antiaircraft fire and clouds. They found them later in a line on a hill with their parachutes undeployed. The result of the confusion was that members of the 82nd and 101st were intermixed into each others zones.
Yet, Sainte-Mère-Église had to be taken and held to guarantee that a critical road was not available to the Germans for a counterattack. Operation Boston proved to be an unplanned joint operation of the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Divisions. The worst scene was the initial drop of some men directly on the town. A house next to the church in the main square had caught fire and both residents and Germans were in the square as the fire was put out. The result was a disaster. At least one landed in the fire and exploded from his ammo. Most were shot down as they landed. Many were left hanging from trees and poles in a horrific scene. Of course, the most famous was John Steele of the 505th PIR, whose parachute caught on the spire of the town church and played dead as his colleagues were massacred around him. Steele was famously played by actor Red Buttons in the movie. Ultimately Steele was captured by the Germans but escaped and rejoined his unit.
After years of reading about the campaign, I felt I could navigate around the town with my eyes closed. You enter and immediately see the Steele mannequin hanging from the immediately recognizable church. The nearby Airborne Museum is quite small but really impressive. I was struck by a jeep without a sign sitting on the lawn. It has a single star for a Brigadier General and “Rough Rider” on the front. I assume that this is the jeep of Gen. Theodore D. Roosevelt, Jr. who died after the Normandy invasion. He was a much loved officer and would be the only general on D-Day to land by sea with the first wave of troops. He led the U.S. 4th Infantry Division’s 8th Infantry Regiment and 70th Tank Battalion landing at Utah Beach. He later died of a heart attack at 56. Patton and Bradley were two of his pallbearers in France. I know that he called his jeep the Rough Rider so I assume that this was his jeep despite the lack of any plaque. Frankly, I remain unsure of the basis for his Medal of Honor despite his inspiring career in North Africa and D-Day (not to mention his prior record in World War I). He often exposed himself to fire and stayed near the front line, but, given the incredible acts of bravery by others during D-Day, it is hard to place his record above others who were not so honored. However, he was a wonderful American hero and it was a thrill to see his jeep. There is also a Sherman tank, which remains a debate of ongoing debate. While capable to being produced in high numbers, it was no match for the German armor — particularly the Tiger. The Germans called the Sherman “Tommy cookers” for all of the British troops incinerated in the vehicles. Americans derisively called them “Ronsons” after the Ronson-lighter.
The museum has a great collection and a terrific film, including some touching accounts of locals burying dead American soldiers. The stain-glass windows in the church were replaced with signs of the landing American paratroopers who fell like “angels from the sky.” I was a bit surprised to hear on the film that once the Germans were forced out of the town the first time “they never returned.” The Germans did return in counteracts, particularly by the 91st Luftlande-Division.
We took the kids to the café across from the church. Les and I had some of the local Calvados apple brandy while looking at the church with the kids. It was a dream come true.
We then turned toward the landings of June 6th and our visit to Omaha Beach.