This is the extraordinary story of one man who fought for 2 armies and cheated death in the most unexpected way. Joseph Beyrle, a young man from Muskegon Michigan, enlisted to fight from the air as a paratrooper. He became part of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne… a unit also known as the “Screaming Eagles”.
In 1944 Operation Overlord saw Beyrle and his comrades undertake a dangerous mission. He was in a C-47 Skytrain over Normandy, with orders to shut down an electrical substation at Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.
His arrival in the village was dramatic – the plane was hit by enemy fire and he wound up parachuting onto the roof of a church at low altitude!
Operating alone, he took down the substation and would have done a lot more, had German forces not caught up with him.
The next 7 months were spent in 7 different prisons. Beyrle wasn’t going to let the Nazis hold him for long. He tried escaping twice. One attempt led to him accidentally jumping on a train to Berlin.
Here he was tortured by the Gestapo, who believed him to be a spy. Beyrle held his nerve and was eventually transferred to the Stalag III-C concentration camp in Poland. Beyrle managed to break out, though he did have to go back.
Why? Well it wasn’t with a German gun to his head. When Beyrle returned to Stalag III-C it was in order to liberate it.
Following his escape, he spent a couple of weeks on the run before coming face to face with a Red Army tank battalion. After proving his identity to the Russians, he then made a surprise request – to join their ranks and keep fighting. Climbing aboard an M4 Sherman tank, he and his new friends rolled back into Stalag III-C.
He was hospitalized after being struck by a bomb fragment. There he received a special visitor – Marshal Zhukov, who was impressed by his story. Zhukov helped him get to Moscow and the American embassy, where he learned some eye-opening news… everyone thought he was dead!
Beyrle cheated the Grim Reaper a few times, but this was on a whole other level. His family and friends in Muskegon had mourned his passing. He was about to travel home and give them all a shock.
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Joseph Beyrle passed away in 2004. His wartime experience was a fascinating one, having served both the Americans and Russians on the Eastern and Western Fronts.
His Russian bond continued through son John, who became US Ambassador from 2008 – 12.