Joseph "Jumpin' Joe" Beyrle, the only World War II soldier to fight for both the Americans and the Soviets, died on Sunday a hero for two nations. He was 81.
The wartime feats of Beyrle, a member of the 101st Airborne's "Screamin' Eagles," still seem improbable.
After parachuting into Normandy on D-Day in June 1944, he was captured by the Germans. Battered and starved, Beyrle escaped from a Nazi prison camp and found Soviet troops advancing toward Berlin. He joined their ranks and fought for weeks, then was injured and taken to Moscow, from whence he eventually made his way home to Muskegon, Mich.
A place in history
Beyrle didn’t talk widely about his remarkable journey until later in life, and was moved to do so partly by his son’s interest in Russia. John Beyrle, a career diplomat, is the deputy U.S. ambassador to Moscow. He was instrumental in reconnecting his father to the events that swept him up in history more than six decades ago.
"My dad always said, ‘When I go, I want to drop and skid along the ground,’" John Beyrle wrote in an e-mail reflecting on his father’s death. "He came pretty close. His great fear was the slow slide into oblivion, a nursing home, or worse."
Beyrle died in his sleep in Toccoa, Ga. He was on a visit to the town where he trained with the 506th Regiment in 1942 before shipping out to Britain in preparation for D-Day. In Toccoa, Beyrle gave several talks about his experiences before passing away Sunday morning.
"Only Normandy would have been more appropriate," John Beyrle said.
Captured by Nazis
By D-Day, on June 6, 1944, Beyrle had already parachuted into France twice, delivering gold to the French resistance. On the eve of D-Day, he landed on a church in St. Come-du-Mont with a mission to destroy small power stations, a task he carried out in part before being captured.
Moved through seven Nazi prison camps, Beyrle was tortured and interrogated. American troops found his dog tags on another body on Utah Beach, presumably a Nazi spy. The War Department registered Beyrle as killed in action. His parents held a memorial service in Muskegon.
But four months later, they received a post card. Beyrle, with the help of the Red Cross, sent a short note that he was a POW and "fine." In reality, he was anything but well. He did not give in to the Gestapo’s torture.
"I told him that he was an S.O.B., and I woke up in a German hospital with the German nurses working on me," Beyrle recounted in an interview in May. "And I knew I wasn't dead, because angels don't speak German."
Third escape succeeds
Beyrle lost a third of his body weight. He staged two escapes. The third time he got lucky and ran from the Stalag 3-C POW camp in Alt Drewitz in January 1945. After running for a day, he oriented himself and figured his best chance was to search out Soviet troops, the only U.S. ally fighting in the area.
"I knew two words of Russian, ‘Americanski tovarish’" — American comrade. With his hands in the air, Beyrle called out to the Soviet troops. He won their trust by using his demolition skills to blow up trees hindering the advance of the Soviet tank brigade.
Wounded after three weeks of battle, Beyrle was treated at a field hospital, and later sent to Moscow. He convinced his Soviet handler to help him contact the U.S. Embassy. But there was a problem. Officially, Beyrle was dead. In Moscow, no one believed he was for real. Eventually, at his suggestion, the embassy took fingerprints to confirm the identity of the scruffy and emaciated American at the gate. Finally, Beyrle headed home.
Honored by two nations
The subject of a book, "The Simple Sounds of Silence," Beyrle thoroughly enjoyed recounting his story later in life, traveling widely despite complications from his war wounds. He wore a vest filled with American medals on one side and Russian on the other. Beyrle attributed his fate to a higher being.
"There's somebody up there looking after you, and it wasn't my time to go," he said.
"The suddenness of his death is a shock, of course, but what a great life he had," John Beyrle said. "How many of us get to have two funerals?"
Beyrle will be buried in Muskegon. His remains will be transferred to Arlington National Cemetery for a military burial in the spring.
NBC’s Preston Mendenhall is based in Moscow.
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