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World War 2: Jumpin' Joe Beyrle Fought on Both the Western and Eastern Fronts
Beyrle Before D-Day
“Jumpin' Joe” Beyrle
Joseph Beyrle (BYE-early), nicknamed “Jumpin' Joe” because of his enthusiasm for jumping out of airplanes, was a US paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division. In the early hours of June 6, 1944, Staff Sergeant Beyrle and 13,000 other paratroopers jumped from their transport aircraft over the dark Normandy countryside. They were the Allied spearhead of Operation Overlord; it was their job to disrupt German communications and prevent the enemy from counterattacking the beachheads in force. Seven months later, Beyrle found himself fighting with a Soviet tank battalion pushing toward Berlin, the only American soldier known to have fought with both the US Army and the Soviet Army in World War II.
Paratroopers In Training
Joe Beyrle: US Paratrooper
June 6 wasn't Joe Beyrle's first foray into Normandy. Twice, in April and May, the twenty-year-old had parachuted into France to deliver gold coins to the French Resistance and both times managed to secretly fly back to England. The drop on D-Day, however, was not as smooth. As the planes flew over Normandy, the sky lit up with anti-aircraft fire. The paratroopers stood, waiting for the green jump light to switch to red. When Joe had first enlisted in the Airborne, he had to admit he was severely color blind. The recruiter asked him if he'd ever been ticketed for going through a red light. When Joe said he had not, he was told not to worry about it-- a dozen guys would push him out when the light turned green. The plane dropped lower to escape the flak and tracer fire and finally the green light came on. Beyrle and his fellow paratroopers jumped out at only 400 feet.
He landed on the roof of the village church in Saint-Côme-du-Mont, managed to slide down and found himself all alone in the cemetery. Joe's specialty was demolitions and while he looked for his fellow paratroopers, he found and blew up the village's power station. Over the next few days, still alone, he committed other acts of sabotage until he was finally captured by the Germans.
“Killed In Action”
Beyrle was taken to German headquarters and interrogated. At one point, his dog tags were taken and, days later, US soldiers discovered an unrecognizable body in the countryside with Joe's tags. In September, his parents in Muskegon, Michigan received the telegram informing them “Joseph R. Beyrle [had been] killed in action on June 10, 1944”. The family had a tombstone made, held a funeral and grieved for their young son. Months would pass before Joe, with the help of the Red Cross, was able to get a postcard to his parents that he was alive and a prisoner of war. Joe Beyrle was virtually back from the dead.
Joseph Beyrle After His Capture
Prisoner of War
But he was still a prisoner and would remain so for more than seven months. During that time, in which he would eventually be shuttled further and further east to various detainment camps, Joe and his fellow prisoners were shelled by American artillery. Though wounded by friendly shrapnel, Beyrle managed to escape in the confusion before being recaptured after a few hours. Later, while being transferred in enclosed boxcars, the prisoners were unknowingly strafed by US warplanes, but Joe was not hurt in that attack. At Stalag XXIIA, he was officially processed as a POW and allowed to write his family.
In late September 1944, he finally arrived at Stalag IIIC near Alt Drewitz, Germany (now Drzewice, Poland) 50 miles east of Berlin. There, while trying to steal some potatoes, Joe was shot in the arm.
Guest of the Gestapo
Later, Beyrle and two others managed to escape from the prison camp and boarded a train they thought would take them east through Poland. Unfortunately, the train took them west into Berlin and they ended up as guests of the Gestapo, the dreaded Nazi secret police. For nearly ten days they were interrogated as spies, kicked, whipped, hung by their arms twisted behind them and clubbed with rifle butts. Finally German Army officers showed up and demanded the prisoners be returned to their jurisdiction as they were POWs. The three men were taken back to Stalag IIIC and put in solitary confinement.
Beyrle's POW ID
By mid-January 1945, news had reached the prisoners that the Soviet Army was on German soil. Beyrle and his two buddies, Brewer and Quinn, once again attempted an escape. As other prisoners staged a diversionary fight, the three climbed into barrels in the back of a wagon. They managed to get past the prison gates, but the wagon hit a large stone on a downhill turn and it tipped over, spilling them from their barrels. Brewer and Quinn were shot and killed by the guards, but Beyrle managed to get away. He continued to evade capture and headed east toward the growing sounds of battle.
Finding the Red Army
Three days after his escape, Beyrle, hiding in a hayloft, finally heard soldiers speaking Russian. He carefully approached them with his hands up, shouting “Americanski tovarish”-- “American comrade”, while holding up a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Suspicious, the soldiers took him to their tank commander.
He was astonished to find himself face to face with a beautiful young woman who turned out to be Guards Captain Aleksandra Samusenko, the highest ranking woman in the 1st Tank Guards Army and captain of the 1st Battalion of the 1st Guards Tank Brigade. It was obvious her men respected her. Earlier in the war she had earned the Order of the Red Star when her T-34 had gone up against three Tiger tanks and destroyed them all. After telling her his story and asking to join them in their drive on Berlin, she agreed. He was given a submachine gun and rode on the back of one of the tanks (the battalion was equipped with American-made Shermans).
Russian Sherman Tanks
Joe Beyrle: Soviet Tank Infantryman
During the following days, Beyrle proved his worth, using his demolition skills to clear trees blocking their progress. After several battles, his unit participated in liberating Stalag IIIC-- the very POW camp he had escaped from. After storming the camp and freeing the prisoners, he was called upon to blow open the commandant's large safe. The Russians took the rubles, watches and rings while Joe was allowed to keep the dollars and pounds. He also located his POW record and photo.
During the next two weeks, the fighting was brutal as the Germans fought ferociously for their fatherland. In early February, German Stuka dive bombers attacked their tank column and Beyrle, riding on the back of a tank, was wounded and taken to a Soviet military hospital. While recovering from his wounds, the hospital was visited by Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the most famous general in the Soviet Army. Astounded at finding the wounded American, Zhukov listened to his story through an interpreter and promised to help him get back home.
Aleksandra Samusenko's Death
Sadly the twenty-two-year-old Guards Captain Aleksandra Samusenko died a month after Joe was wounded. She was apparently crushed by a tank in the dark during the East Pomeranian Offensive about 40 miles from Berlin in the village of Zulzefirz on March 3, 1945.
The Long Journey Home
Several days later he found himself at the US embassy in Moscow trying to convince US Army officers who he was. He had no dog tags and, as far as the records showed, Joe Beyrle had been killed in action on June 10, 1944. He was placed under armed guard until his fingerprints checked out with army records.
From Moscow, Joe was sent to Odessa on the Black Sea and from there to Instanbul, Turkey, then to Port Said, Egypt, to Naples, Italy and then, finally, to the United States, where, on April 21, 1945, Joe Beyrle was reunited with his family in Muskegon, Michigan.
Joseph Beyrle's Son, Ambassador to Russia
After the War
Joe settled down, got married, had a daughter and two sons and worked for Brunswick Corporation for 28 years before retiring. On June 6, 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-Day, he was invited to the White House where he received medals from both US President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Joe and his wife traveled to Russia several times and in 2004 he received an AK-47 commemorative assault rifle from General Mikhail Kalashnikov, the weapon's famous designer. Later that year, on December 12, 2004, Joe Beyrle died of heart failure at the age of 81, considered a hero in both the US and Russia. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
It is not a coincidence that one of Joe's sons, John Beyrle, went on to become US Ambassador to Russia from 2008 to 2012. He cited his father's exploits as examples of the cooperation possible between the US and Russia. In 2010, during discussions of such past cooperation, Ambassador Beyrle said his father “all his life was extremely grateful to the Russians, who saved him”.
Joe Beyrle Remembered (2004)
© 2015 David Hunt