War sometimes creates strange circumstances. The following story is about a soldier who became a hero of two nations.
Joseph Robert Beyrle was born on August 25, 1923, in Muskegon, Michigan. In 1942, he graduated from high school with a scholarship to the University of Notre Dame. Instead, Beyrle enlisted as a paratrooper with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne’s “Screaming Eagles” division.
There he earned him the nickname, “Jumpin’ Joe as he would often take the place of his fellow paratroopers and do their jump for them.
Beyrle specialized in radio communications and demolition. Prior to the invasion of France, he was stationed in Ramsbury, England where he undertook further training. Having completed two covert jumps into Nazi-occupied France to deliver gold to the French Resistance, he then participated in the D-Day Landings on June 6, 1944.
Beyrle’s airplane came under heavy enemy fire over the Normandy coast, and they were forced to bail out. Landing in Saint-Côme-du-Mont, he became separated from his regiment but nevertheless succeeded in blowing up his target, a power station. He continued his sabotage operations until he was captured by German soldiers several days later.
Meanwhile, as Beyrle’s dog tags had been found his family was informed he had been killed in action. Back in Muskegon, the papers listed the date of his death as June 10, 1944, and a funeral mass was held in his honor.
Sent to a POW camp, Beyrle was eventually allowed in October to send his parents a postcard to let them know he was alive and well, albeit in a German prison. Beyrle was sent to seven different prisons over the following months. He escaped twice but was recaptured each time.
On his second escape attempt, he and several others accidentally boarded a train headed for Berlin. They were caught and handed over to the Gestapo – the German Secret State Police.
The Gestapo decided the best way to deal with Beyrle was to shoot him as a spy. Surprisingly, German officers intervened claiming the Gestapo had no jurisdiction over POWs. He was then sent to Stalag III-C POW camp in Alt Drewitz (now) in Poland.
Again escaping in early January 1945 he headed east to where, according to prison rumor, the Soviets were advancing deeper into Poland. Fortunately, the rumors were correct.
Beyrle came upon a tank brigade under the command of Captain Aleksandra Grigoryevna Samusenko of the 1st Guards Tank Army. She was the first female Soviet tank commander and a decorated veteran of the Battle of Kursk (July 1943) and the Lvov-Sandomierz Offensive (July – August 1944).
Beryle raised his hands waving a packet of Lucky Strike cigarettes and shouted, “Amerikansky tovarishch” American comrade. Thankfully, the political commissar spoke English, and Beyrle asked if he could join them in the fight to defeat Hitler. Beyrle spent the next three weeks with a Soviet tank battalion where his demolition expertise made him valuable and appreciated.
In the last week of January, the 1st Guards liberated Beyrle’s former prison – the Stalag III-C camp. In combat in February Beyrle was injured during a raid by German Stuka dive bombers and he was sent to a Soviet hospital for treatment.
There Beyrle came to the attention of Soviet Chief of General Staff Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov who provided him with papers enabling him to travel to Moscow and present himself to the American embassy. It took the officials a while to believe him, but once his fingerprints confirmed his identity, he returned home to Michigan in April 1945. Two years later, he was married in the same church and by the priest who had performed his funeral mass.
His son, John Ross Beyrle was born on February 11, 1954, and became the US ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2008 until 2012. In 2010, he attended an exhibit in Moscow’s Stroganov Palace called “A Hero for Two Nations” which honored his father.