Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Archive for February 26, 2016

Prisoner identification photograph of U.S. Army POW Staff Sgt. Joseph R. Beyrle taken in Stalag XII-A. Beyrle is thought to be the only American soldier to have served with both the U.S. Army and Soviet Army during World War II; ca. 1944

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On 6 June 1944, D-Day, the Douglas C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft Beyrle was in came under enemy fire over the Normandy coast, and he was forced to jump from the exceedingly low altitude of 120 meters. After landing in Saint-Côme-du-Mont, he lost contact with his fellow paratroopers, but succeeded in blowing up a power station before being apprehended by the Germans a few days later. Over the next seven months, Beyrle was held in seven different German POW camps. He escaped twice, only to be recaptured each time. Beyrle was taken to the Stalag III-C POW camp in Alt Drewitz bei Küstrin in Neumark, state of Brandenburg (now Drzewice, Lubusz Voivodeship, Poland), about 50 mi (80 km) east of Berlin where he escaped in early January 1945. Knowing the Soviets were advancing much quicker from the east than the Americans, British and others were from the west, Beyrle headed eastward. Encountering the Soviet 1st Guards Tank Army in the middle of January, he raised his hands, holding a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, and shouted in Russian, “Amerikansky tovarishch!” (“American comrade!”). Beyrle was eventually able to persuade the battalion’s commander, who, incidentally, was the legendary Alexandra Samusenko, possibly the only Soviet female tank officer with the rank of Guards Captain, to allow him to fight alongside the unit on its way to Berlin. Thus, Beyrle began his month-long stint in a Soviet tank battalion, where his demolitions expertise was appreciated. Beyrle’s new battalion was the one that freed one of his former camps, Stalag III-C, at the end of January. But, in the first week of February, he was wounded during an attack by German Luftwaffe Stuka (Junkers Ju 87) dive bombers. He was evacuated to a Soviet hospital in Landsberg an der Warthe (now Gorzów Wielkopolski, in Poland), where he received a visit from Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who, intrigued by the only non-Soviet in the hospital, learned his story through an interpreter, and provided Beyrle with official papers in order to rejoin the American forces. Joining a Soviet military convoy, Beyrle arrived at the U.S. embassy in Moscow in February 1945, only to learn that he had been reported by the U.S. War Department as killed in action on 10 June 1944 on French soil. A funeral mass had been held in his honor in his hometown of Muskegon, Michigan and his obituary was published in the local newspaper. Sgt. Beyrle returned home to Michigan on 21 April 1945. He would marry in 1946, coincidentally, in the same church and by the same priest who held his funeral mass two years earlier. Beyrle died in 2004 at the age of 81. His son John Beyrle would serve as the United States Ambassador to Russia from 2008 to 2012.