Thursday, March 4, 2010

Joseph "Jumpin' Joe" Beyrle

Joseph Beyrle's mug shot, taken at Stalag XII-A.
I like his expression here; he seems to be saying,
"You ain't seen the last of me, Fritz. Not by a long shot."

In the news today, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, John Beyrle (“BUY-early”) returned a silver medallion that had once belonged to Czar Nicholas. The medallion had been stolen from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Ambassador Beyrle is the son of Joseph “Jumpin' Joe” Beyrle, who gained fame as the only American in World War II to serve in both the American Army and the Soviet Red Army.

On D-Day, Beyrle, a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne, was dropped miles from his intended drop point. Captured by the Nazis, he was placed in a POW camp. As the Allies pushed eastward, Beyrle was transferred to one camp after another, moving continually closer to the Russian Front. After several unsuccessful escape attempts, he could finally hear the Russian artillery in the distance and made one final, successful attempt to escape.

Joseph Beyrle's POW identification card

He reached the Russian lines and surrendered, using the only Russian he knew: “Tovarisch Amerikanski!” All of his uniform and insignia had been taken away from him by the Nazis, but the Russians found an officer who spoke a little English and they were able to establish that he was an escaped American POW.

Beyrle wanted to continue fighting the Nazis and the Russians said they needed a turret machine-gunner on one of their tanks, so Beyrle was given a Russian uniform and was shortly traveling westward to get a little payback.

It didn't last long. After about a month he was wounded in a dive-bombing attack by a Stuka and was evacuated to a field hospital. Red Army commander Zhukov made an inspection tour of the hospital, possibly to make sure that the doctors weren't wasting their time on wounded Germans, and when he heard that there was American in the hospital he asked to see him. Through an interpreter, Beyrle told Zhukov his story. Zhukov spoke to one of his subordinates, who snapped to attention and saluted. The next day Beyrle received a letter, on ornate official letterhead, signed by Zhukov. He couldn't read it, of course, but the Russians in the hospital were very impressed.

When he was well enough to travel, he asked to go home, and the best way to do that was through Moscow. So he boarded a train for the trip, which would take several days. There were KGB agents on the train, and more at each station platform. All the passengers' papers were checked at each stop. The whole area was crawling with POWs, refugees, displaced persons, collaborators, black marketeers, deserters, etc. Beyrle didn't even have a train ticket and spoke only a few words of Russian. So every time he was asked for his papers, he produced the letter from Zhukov.

The effect was electric. The KGB agents snapped to attention and saluted. They even told a Red Army colonel that he would have to give up his private stateroom for an “important passenger”. The colonel protested, and the KGB tossed him out into the train corridor and told him to go find a seat with the enlisted men.

When Beyrle reached Moscow, he was taken to the American embassy and his letter was taken from him. The U.S. Army had listed him as KIA on June 10, 1944. After establishing his identity, he was issued a new passport and set off through the Black Sea to Port Said, Egypt then Naples, Italy. He celebrated V-J day home in Chicago.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, an exhaustive search of the KGB files was made to try to find Beyrle's letter. It could not be found. One can only guess at what it might have said.

Jumpin' Joe Beyrle died in 2004.


3 comments:

D.W. Drang said...

Wow, I just finished his memoirs, The Simple Sounds of Freedom. Quite a story. Jumped into France twice before D-Day as a paymaster for the French Underground.
Captured in Normandy, his dog tags were taken by one of his captors, who subsequently was killed wearing an American uniform, but his body was so mutilated it couldn't be identified, thus the mistaken listing as KIA--which was corrected by the International Red Cross, but not every bureaucrat in the Army got the word.
After escaping, wound up catching the wrong train, and captured in Berlin by the Gestapo. Almost tortured to death, he was saved at almost the last minute by the Wehrmacht.
Escaped again, he made his way East on foot and linked up with the Red Army, in an armor battalion, commanded by a woman in a Sherman tank. Started out as an infantryman for the Russians, was promoted based on his knowledge of radios and demolitions.
Liberated the POW Camp he had escaped from.

Turk Turon said...

When I was at the State Dept., we interviewed John Beyrle for an oral history project and he spoke about his father for about ten minutes. That's where I got some of the info in this post. Quite a story!

Old NFO said...

That is one hellva story Turk! Thanks!