Video: Serving two countries during WWII

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/9/2005 8:10:24 PM ET 2005-05-10T00:10:24

As thousands of Russian war heroes and a handful of invited American veterans marked the anniversary of World War II’s end in Moscow, there was a notable absence in the crowd:  Joseph Beyrle, the only U.S. soldier to fight for the Americans and the Soviets.

Beyrle died in December on a visit to Toccoa, Georgia, the legendary training ground of his celebrated 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. At 81, he was planning to attend the V-E Day celebrations on Monday in the Russian capital.

For Beyrle, known as “Jumpin’ Joe,” Russia was a country that took him into its heart and celebrated him as its own hero.

'Screamin' Eagle' taken in by Russians
As a 20-year-old from Muskegon, Mich., Beyrle was captured by the Germans several days after D-Day in June 1944. A member of the 101st Airborne Division’s “Screamin’ Eagles,” Beyrle spent months in German prison camps and endured repeated torture at the hands of Hitler’s SS before making a daring escape and joining Soviet troops advancing toward Berlin.

Several weeks later, when a German round blew him off a tank, Soviet commanders sent the wounded American paratrooper to Moscow for processing.

“He had a special bond with this country,” says Beyrle’s son, John, today. “He fought longer with the Russians than with the Americans. The Russians saved his life.”

When he was a child, John Beyrle remembers his father telling war stories. He also remembers, in his college years, when he picked up the family scrapbook and could read documents in Russian. After studying the language, Beyrle, a Russia policy expert and career diplomat, rose to become the deputy U.S. ambassador to Russia, a post he serves today.

“I feel his spirit in me, and I’m doing what he’d want me to be doing right now,” the younger Beylre says.

The Russians have never forgotten Joseph Beyrle. Over the years, with his son’s help, he made several trips to the Soviet Union and Russia. His story resonated with veterans of what Russia calls the “Great Patriotic War.” Beyrle received more medals from the Russian government than from the American military

Just doing his duty
In an interview in May 2004, during his last trip to Russia, Beyrle shied away from being called a hero.

“I did my duty. It was wartime. It was something you had to do,” he said. “The real heroes are the soldiers who didn’t make it home.”

Beyrle described his legendary journey — through France, Germany and Poland, nearly starved by his captors, and then to Russia — as a combination of luck and good training.

“I just thought that if I escaped and went east, I could link up with the Soviets. That would be the quickest way home.”

On April 22, Beyrle’s ashes were interred at Arlington National Cemetery, 60 years after he found himself wandering around wartime Moscow trying to find his way back to Muskegon.

“It's hard to put myself in the shoes of a kid who's been starved and tortured and given up for dead,” John Beyrle says. “As my dad always said, the will to survive is very strong.”

Preston Mendenhall is an NBC News correspondent based in Moscow.

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