For much of the last 70 years, someone who fought for both America and Russia might bring to mind some Cold War espionage, a double agent or a defecting citizen. But in World War II, for the only American to have fought in both the U.S. Army and that of the U.S.S.R., the story is one of diligence, endurance, luck, and a journey home.
Joseph Beyrle was a paratrooper from Muskegon, Michigan. He was born in 1923, graduated high school in 1942, and turned down a baseball scholarship to the University of Notre Dame and instead joined the army to serve in the parachute infantry.
Beyrle served in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Division, also called the Screaming Eagles. He specialized in radio communications and demolition.
Stationed in Ramsbury, England before the D-Day landings in 1944, Beyrle ran missions behind enemy lines. Twice, he was flown into German-occupied France and parachuted down with gold for the French Resistance.
Then came D-Day and Operation Overlord. Before more than 5,000 ships landed the Allied troops on the beaches of Normandy in the morning hours of June 6, 1944, some 1,200 planes flew over that land to drop thousands of paratroopers over the Germans. The casualties in this first wave were heartbreakingly high.
Remarkably, Beyrle survived the drop. He was flying in a Douglas C-47 Skytrain in the night lit up by German searchlights and anti-aircraft fire when the plane was hit. Beyrle jumped out at the altitude of 120 meters for a hard landing on a church roof in St. Come-du-Mont.
He never met up with the rest of his scattered troop, but managed to complete several sabotage operations, including blowing up a power station, before stumbling into a German machine gun nest several days after his landing.
The German soldiers captured Beyrle, who spent the next seven months as a POW. He was moved through seven different camps and escaped twice, unsuccessfully. On the second of these attempts, Beyrle, and his fellow soldiers boarded a train that they thought was headed for Poland, so they could meet up with the Red Army, hoping that mutual interest with the Americans would lead to cooperation and then, with any luck, to freedom.
The train, instead, delivered them to Berlin. There, they were reported and captured. Beyrle was beaten and tortured by the Gestapo, who insisted that he was an American spy that had parachuted into Berlin. “Luckily,” the German army intervened, enforcing their jurisdiction over POWs, which the Gestapo did not have.
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