When Real Life Adventures Beat Hollywood
Updated: Apr 15
Joseph R. Beyrle was the first paratrooper to land in Normandy and the only soldier to fight for both the United States and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. Beyrle survived interrogation by the NAZI Gestapo and escaped from German prison camps three different times. Joe Beyrle was married in the same church that held his funeral years earlier. His life is the stuff of legends; And that life largely centered around the 101st Airborne Division. Beyrle served in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment - 101st Division, specializing in radio communications and demolition.
Before Beyrle’s journey started, he was already involved in specialized missions. Stationed in Ramsbury, England, before the D-Day landings, Beyrle ran missions behind enemy lines. Twice, he was flown into German-occupied France and parachuted down with valuables for the French Resistance.
Those risky maneuvers were soon to greatly increase on the morning of June 6, 1944. The opening of the second front in Normandy meant the 20-year-old Beyrle and 24k other troopers were being deployed over the French coastline. As luck would have it, the German anti-aircraft artillery forced Beyrle off target and landed him directly on a church rooftop in a German-held village. After some time on the run, which included the destruction of multiple German power boxes, Beyrle was captured by NAZI soldiers while trying to reconnect with captured American soldiers.
The Germans kept Beyrle in a mix of different prisons. He was viewed as being especially dangerous and inclined to disobey orders given by his captives. For nearly eight months, Joe was moved between seven different German prisons. During this time, Beyrle made two attempts to escape without success. During the second, he and his fellow escapees thought they’d boarded a train bound for Poland, but quickly learned the train was destined for Berlin. Now Joe was deep behind enemy lines.
In Berlin, German authorities captured Beyrle, turned him over to the Gestapo which immediately began interrogations. They did not believe he could simply be a prisoner. The odds of being a prisoner were extremely low from their perspective, but the odds of being a spy assigned to Berlin? That was a much more likely scenario. Beyrle was tortured without providing any information to support the Gestapo’s theory or tie Joe back to any operations. One report outlined Joe waking from a heavy “interrogation” session and saying, “Seems like I’m not in paradise yet, 'cause angels don’t speak German”. In a strange twist of fate, Beyrle was transferred to the German military due to the Gestapo's limited jurisdiction and legal basis to hold prisoners of war.
The German military moved Beyrle to POW camp Stalag-III C in Alt Drewitz, in Western Poland. Here, Joe made his third attempt at escape in January 1945. The third attempt was a charm, this time using a garbage disposal crate to make his escape. From that point, Joe managed to evade pursuit using a pocket compass as he made his way toward the sound of Soviet artillery. After spotting Russian tanks, Joe slowly raised his hands and walked towards the Russians, repeating the phrase; “Ya Amerikanskiy tovarisch!” (“I am an American comrade”). The captured American soldier, making a desperate bid to return home was now face-to-face with Soviet female tank battalion captain, Aleksandra Samusenko. Captain Samusenko’s battalion was moving towards her destroyed hometown where her husband and family were killed during a German invasion. She was open to any assistance Joe was willing to provide. Joe's son Joseph Beyrle recalls, "they gave him a rifle - the famous PPSH-41, which, as he used to say, was much better than the American ‘Thompson.". Apparently, the Tommy was often prone to jamming, while the PPSH functioned more efficiently.
In this short time, his Russian battalion managed to free Beyrle’s former prison camp Stalag-III. Soon afterwards, Joe was wounded during an air raid. His newfound comrades continued their march further into Berlin, while the American stayed behind in a hospital to recover. Samusenko, the woman who saved his life, died outside of Berlin during the assault on Berlin. Beyrle would later say she was a symbol for Russian courage and fortitude.
While being hospitalized, Joe was visited by Marshal, and future Minister of USSR Defense, Georgy Zhukov. Zhukov was curious to hear the American’s story firsthand. After hearing the story, he later helped Beyrle with his papers to return to the US. It was assuredly a balance between gratitude and eagerness to get the American out of the Soviet Union. Zhukov personally supervised the transfer of Beyrle to Moscow and later to the American embassy. When in the Russian capital, Beyrle, to his surprise, learned he was identified as KIA. Beyrle’s dog tags had reportedly been found in Normandy soon after D-Day, on what is now presumed to be a dead German soldier. His family, back in Muskegon, Michigan, had previously been informed of the death in September 1944. This led to Joe being held under arrest in the American embassy for several days while they were confirming his fingerprints. The story seemed too unbelievable and there was concern for his being an actual German impostor spy.
After returning home, the veteran of two armies led an ordinary life. He would return to visit Moscow five more times during his life. He was left with only the fondest memories of the Russian country and its people.
The next time you're watching a fantastically awful Hollywood movie preview, try to remember Joe Beyrle's story and the need for quality entertainment. We need more Joe.