More stories from D-Day and ‘The Longest Day’

Ned Jilton • Sep 11, 2019 at 9:15 PM

After my recent column about the movie “The Longest Day,” I received several nice messages from people who were interested in learning more about their own relatives who might have fought in D-Day as well as what was happening in the region at that time.

One of the first places you might want to check for information is the Kingsport Public Library. The library has access to records and resources to help track down your family history as well as local history. And if they don’t have it, they can probably point you in the direction of someone who does.

Another place you can try is the Sullivan County Department of Archives and Tourism in Blountville. Shelia Hunt works there and can point you in the right direction to find records on family and local history.

A third place to try, especially when it come to regional history, is the Archives of Appalachia at ETSU. This place has a large collection of manuscripts, photographs and records dedicated to the region.

If you go online, you can check the Library of Congress, LOC.gov., for free.

And there are always paid sites like ancestry.com.

Getting back to D-Day and “The Longest Day.” Bob Savell wrote in with more information about Pvt. John Steele, the trooper in the 82nd Airborne from Fayetteville, North Carolina, whose parachute snagged on the church tower in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Remember Steele was played in the movie by Red Buttons.

The reason Mr. Savell has more information on the trooper is that his father, William Savell, was Steele’s platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division, 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, F Company 2nd Platoon.

According to Savell, Steele was not the only paratrooper hung on the church in Sainte-Mere-Eglise that day. He said that Ken Russell, an 18-year old native of Maryville, Tennessee, was hung up lower on the church than Steele. Both men would have been killed had it not been for Sgt. John P. Ray, a Louisiana native, who, though mortally wounded, shot and killed the German soldier who was taking aim to shoot the men hanging helplessly from the church.

Savell said, “Sgt. Ray is one of over 9,000 heroes buried in the American Cemetery above Omaha Beach.” He also said his father’s company took a lot of casualties before or shortly after landing in and around the church square. His dad’s platoon lost seven men including his second in command and best friend who jumped from the plane carrying Steele, Russell and Ray.

The stories you hear about troopers losing equipment because they had to jump as aircraft took drastic action to avoid flak are true.

“Of the three C-47’s carrying my dad’s men, only one hit the designated drop zone north of the village,” said Savell. “The pilot of the first plane which my dad was in panicked and started pulling up and away from the formation when they hit a cloud bank and begin taking heavy flak from the ground. Dad had to make a quick decision to take his men out short of the drop zone or go back to England with the spooked pilot. The shock of jumping from the plan while climbing at full throttle ripped weapons and equipment from the paratroopers, yet all of the men in my dad’s plane survived the jump although scattered over a broad area.”

Savell said his dad was one of a few who survived all four combat jumps by the 82nd Airborne in World War II.

I would like to say thank you to Bob Savell for writing in and sharing his dad’s story.

Another member of the 82nd Airborne who was portrayed in the movie was Lt. Col. Ben Vandervoort, played by John Wayne.

Vandervoort led his battalion in the fight for Sainte-Mere-Eglise, even though he broke his ankle on landing (which is in the movie, by the way). Only a few months later, he would led the assault on the Waal Bridge at Nijmegen during Operation Market Garden.

Gen. Matthew B. Ridgeway said that Vandervoort was one of the bravest and toughest battle commanders he ever knew. In the early 1990s, Vandervoort was selected as the outstanding ground battle commander for World War II by the United States Army Center for Leadership at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

One note about the movie, Charlton Heston wanted the role of Vandervoort, but Wayne got the part.

If you are interested in more information on the 82nd Airborne, Savell recommended the 2011 book “An Irresistible Force” by Phil Nordyke.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]