The United States entered World War II on Dec. 8, 1941, after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. I was in my last year of high school in Muskegon, Michigan. I graduated on June 7, 1942, from St. Joseph High School in Muskegon and had a scholarship to attend Notre Dame University, which I did not accept.
Instead, I enlisted in the United States Army and volunteered for the Parachute Infantry. I was inducted on Sept. 17, 1942, at Fort Custer, Michigan. I went through the usual induction exams and tests and received my uniform and clothing allotment. I and 10 men who had also volunteered received orders to proceed to Camp Toccoa, Georgia, and I was put in charge of the detail and given temporary rank of corporal.
We traveled by train from Battle Creek, Michigan, to Toccoa, Georgia, arriving on the evening of the second day. We were picked up by trucks, transported on Highway 13, past a casket factory to Camp Toccoa, which was formerly known as Camp Toombs, after a Civil War general.
I was assigned to a barracks with double bunks, which was to be my home for the next three months. We were further processed for the next week, issued additional clothing, equipment and weapons. One of mine was an 8-pound Garand M-1 .30 caliber rifle with bayonet. We received basic infantry and advanced infantry training (AIT). The last month was A and B stage of parachute training. All of our training was at "double time" and push-ups were commonplace, 10 to 50 at a time.
We trained on a rifle range at Clemson, South Carolina, forced-marched 32 miles, with full field equipment to and from Clemson. Every day, we would run the mountain called "Currahee," 1½ miles up and down, three to five days a week. We ran the obstacle course back and forth over a stream between two hills, followed by 30 minutes of hard calisthenics with between one- to four-mile runs daily. I was assigned to I Co, 3rd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. I became part of I Company Headquarters as a radio operator.
Late November 1942, we were alerted to move to Fort Benning, Georgia, for C and D stage parachute training. The 1st Battalion of the Regiment entrained at Toccoa and rode to Fort Benning. The 2nd Battalion forced-marched from Camp Toccoa to Atlanta, Georgia, approximately 140 miles. The 3rd Battalion rode the train to Atlanta and forced-marched 162 miles in 72 hours to Fort Benning, Georgia, setting a world record for a forced march by a military unit, formerly held by the Japanese Army.
We were quartered, in raised huts, in the "Frying Pan area" about one quarter-mile from Lawson Field, where we took C and D stage along with the 250-foot parachute tower jumps, learning to pack parachutes, landing skids and finally five parachute jumps from an airplane in flight.
After five successful jumps, I received my jump wings from Col. Robert Sink, regimental commander. After home leave for 15 days, I returned to Fort Benning for radio, demolition and rigger training. After six weeks, I joined the regiment at Camp Mackall, North Carolina.
In April and May, we made additional parachute jumps. In June, the 506th took part in the Tennessee maneuvers, as well as additional company, battalion and regimental training exercises in July. Also, in June, the 506th PIR became part of the 101st Airborne Division. In August, the division was alerted to move overseas.
The regiment moved to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for overseas processing, shots, medical and new equipment in late August. We were transferred to Camp Shanks and then to the 42nd Street dock; on the East River, in New York City, where we boarded the RMS Samaria for the trip to England. We formed into convoys for an uneventful trip, except for several alerts and one attack.
We arrived in Liverpool, England, on Sept. 17, 1943, one year after I had entered into the United States Army. We next moved by rail to Ramsbury with the 3rd Battalion quartered in or near the town about 40 miles west of London. The next nine months were spent on further hard training.
In January 1944, I was picked to attend British jump school. After three jumps from a barrage balloon, two from an aircraft, I received my British Wings.
In April and May, I volunteered for a mission to take gold into occupied France. I was one of three picked from our regiment. We were moved to an airfield at Middle Wallop for training and briefing, from there to an airfield north of Bournemouth where we were briefed on a mission, not told where we would jump and issued heavy waist bandoliers with gold coins.
I never was told who the other two men were. We flew for one to two hours and jumped at night and were picked up by the French Underground. I turned over my bandolier and was taken to a safe house where I rested, ate and drank.
The next 7-10 days, we moved continuously. We were picked up by plane at night and returned to England. In early May, we did the same mission and were picked up and returned to England.
As my unit prepared for invasion the day after my return to my unit, we were alerted to move to a marshaling area at Exeter, England. We were locked in with no outside contact. We made a night parachute drop, assembled and went back to Ramsbury.
Two weeks later, we went back to the same marshaling area. This time, we were told it was France, issued French invasion currency and phrase books and live ammunition and other items, briefed with sand table mockups, told what our mission was in France, given final briefing and issued parachutes. The mission was delayed for a day because of the weather. On the night of June 5, 1944, we loaded into C-47s and took off.
The invasion of Normandy was on. We flew approximately 90 minutes from England when we hit the Normandy Peninsula. We started taking AA and ground fire, flying at approximately 700 feet. Several planes were hit and exploded or crashed.
We got the stand-up and hook-up, red light, green light and jumped at 400 feet, and I landed on the church roof at Ste. Come Du Mont, taking fire from the church steeple, slid down and made my way through a cemetery surrounding a church, over a wall and headed toward our objective, which was two wooden bridges over the Douave River behind Utah Beach.
The Germans had torched a house in the area where I jumped and were firing at the planes that followed us. Tracer bullets were crisscrossing the sky. Many troopers were hit before landing. I was loose for almost 20 hours, in which time I blew a power substation in Ste. Come Du Mont.
Again on Highway 13, I threw grenades into groups of Germans. As I was trying to make my way to the bridges, I crawled over a hedgerow and landed in a German machine gun position manned by 10-12 Germans and was captured.
Fortunately, I was captured by German paratroopers. I was stripped of my weapons, and I was taken to a German underground HQ in an apple orchard north of Ste. Come Du Mont for interrogation. While being interrogated, I was removed to another underground room; to my surprise, there was a young blond woman setting on the corner of the officer's desk.
I would give only my name, rank and serial number per Geneva Convention Rules of War. She proceeded to tell me that she had been in Ramsbury and had danced with, and named, many of my buddies and officers.
After this little game, I was moved to a temporary POW enclosure in another orchard and held until evening and marched along Highway 13 toward Carentan. We started taking artillery fire on the column, killing and wounding GIs and German guards.
This time, I took a piece of shrapnel in the left butt, nothing serious and was blown in the ditch along the road. After recovering from the shock, I helped bandage and put tourniquets on two GIs who had their legs blown off. After which we pulled them up on the road and after a German patrol picked them up, I and two others took off into the brush and I became separated from the other two.
After about 12-16 hours, I was recaptured almost the same way as the first capture. I was immediately moved through Carentan and loaded on a truck and taken toward St. Lo. As we entered St. Lo, our convoy was strafed by U.S. planes. On the second pass, we were able to evacuate the truck and take cover. Luckily, no one was killed or wounded. We were marched through St. Lo to a horse stable on the road to Tessy.
That night, St. Lo was bombed, and the only two things that were not hit were our stable and the church across the road. The next morning when we were marched out, St. Lo was in ruins, with very few buildings standing.
After marching 6-10 hours, we arrived at a walled monastery outside the small village of Tessy Sur Mer. This was a holding place for POWs and became known as Starvation Hill. I was removed from the monastery by the Germans and taken to an interrogation center somewhere in France. I was interrogated 20-24 hours a day. They were trying to get all the usual questions answered. "Why me, a German, was I fighting for the Jews Roosevelt and [Henry] Morganthau against my own people?"
Sometime during the questioning, I called a German officer a "SOB" and woke up several days later in a hospital with a big headache and a bashed head, and later I was taken back to the monastery.
Seven to 10 days later, a group was moved to Alencon, France, about 100-140 miles and held in a compound near a German airfield, which was bombed day and night. We were able to volunteer for work details from this camp, repairing railbeds.
After we left each evening, the U.S. planes would bomb and destroy them. After several days, this work detail was discontinued. These details gave us a chance to get food from Alencon. We were moved to Chartres, France, outside of Paris.
After two weeks in a warehouse with very little food and water, we were dirty and unshaven. We were marched into Paris for propaganda purposes, spit on and pelted with rotten food by the people lining the streets. We were then loaded into "40 and 8" box cars, 80 men to a car and locked in for seven days and nights.
With no sanitary facilities available, our health conditions became very serious. On the second day, while moving, we were strafed by planes. Our car was hit, and seven to 10 men were killed or died later, and 20-25 were wounded. The boxcars were not unlocked for five more days, until we reached Stalag XIIA at Limburg, Germany.
Those men who could walk were marched five miles to the camp and held in four big circus-type tents, and slept on the ground with straw for a bed. In this camp, we were finally registered as POWs, photographed and given our POW numbers and tags. Mine was XIIA 80213. We also were allowed to write a postcard to our families.
This was the first time since capture that we were allowed to shave and shower, and even though it was cold water and very little soap, it felt good and raised our morale.
In a week or 10 days, we were on the move again, this time to Stalag IVB, about 40-50 miles south of Berlin. We stayed about a month at IVB; only the NCOs were moved from XIIA to IVB in compliance with the Geneva Convention rules. These rules state that men are segregated by nationality and rank, officers from NCOs, and NCOs from PFCs and privates.
On Sept. 17, 1944, we were moved from IVB to IIIC at Alterdrewitz, which was outside of Krustin, Poland, and 45 miles east of Berlin on the Oder River. We were the first U.S. POWs at this camp, which had about 10,000 Russian POWs, including 200-300 Russian women POWs.
We settled in and organized the camp. The senior U.S. NCO became the commander of the Americans, approximately 1,500 men. We were grouped into battalions, companies and squads. Security, Escape, Procurement, Administration and Information committees were formed. I was a member of the Escape and Security Committees.
Sometime in early October 1944, while I was out of the compound on work detail, a horse and wagon passed us on the road. It was loaded with potatoes. We all caused confusion and started "liberating" the potatoes when the guards began shooting at us. I was hit in the upper arm, and one man fell under the wagon.
The Germans said he was killed when the wagon ran over his head. I managed to cover my wound so it didn't show, and when we were finally taken back to the compound, one of our medics treated me. It was a through-and-through bullet wound to my upper right arm.
We had a "ferret" in our compound daily. He was a German soldier, and his purpose was to roam the compound, barracks and yard and talk to the POWs to try to overhear any useful information. His name was "Schultz" and had served in World War I and was called back into the Army. He was a likable guy, and many of the men would play jokes and pranks on him.
He usually took it good, naturally. It came to the attention of the Security and Escape Committees that several escape plans were aborted late in the planning stage because of leaks somewhere in the compound. With further investigations and plants of disinformation, it was narrowed down to one person.
After further investigation, he was confronted with the accusations and isolated from the others and interrogated at length. He was charged with treason. A court-martial was convened within the compound, and after a two-day trial, he was found guilty.
As a traitor, he was sentenced to death. He was executed, his body dismembered and put down the latrines. Records were made and brought out and returned to the USA. After the war, it was determined that he had been infiltrated into the group in the move from IVB to IIIC and that he was a German national.
From the time we reached Limburg XIIA, we received a very limited number of Red Cross food parcels, which contained condensed milk, canned meat, cigarettes and chocolate. Cigarettes became money in POW camps. They were used for barter. I and two other POWs had been talking about how we could escape, and I had won 60 packs of cigarettes in a dice game.
After discussion, we came up with a plan, which we took to the Escape Committee. It was quite simple. I would offer one of the guards walking outside the barbed wire 10 packs of the cigarettes if he would let us cut the wire while he was walking post and then go through when his replacement was walking post. After several meetings through the wire with him, he agreed he would get five packs before and five packs after we escaped.
The escape was planned for early November 1944, when there was no moon. We cut the wire, as planned, and went through with no problems. There was a train rail south of the camp, with a light tree area between the camp and rail line.
Each night about the same time between 9-11 p.m., a train pulled through, which our informant told us was going to Poland. We hopped the freight train and rode it to a junction. Instead of going to Poland, it went toward Berlin.
Early the next morning, we ended up in the Berlin south rail yard. We stayed in the car most of the day. At dusk, we started east across the rail yard and went about five miles, ducking in and out of culverts and ditches. The yard was being bombed by the Brits by night and the U.S. by day. We watched as an older man was checking the wheel journal on the car.
I approached him, asking for help to get some food and water. We told him we were escaped U.S. POWs and wanted to make contact with the German underground in Berlin. I offered cigarettes for his help. After much negotiation, he agreed. Later that day, he came back with some bread, sausage and beer and said he would return later to take us to the underground safe house. Just before dark, he returned with a wagon and took us to a house in the outskirts of Berlin. We were met by several Germans, to whom we showed our POW tags. They agreed to hide us and help us move west.
The next morning, we heard loud voices and noises coming from upstairs. Then we heard shooting, and we were ordered up from the basement by five men in civilian clothes, armed with Lugers. They searched us and took us into custody. In the next 7-10 days, we found out everything we had heard about the Gestapo was true.
We were interrogated, tortured, kicked, knocked around, walked on, hung up by our arms backwards [and] hit with whips, clubs and rifle butts. When you thought they could do no more, they would think of other ways to torture you. When you would slip into semi-consciousness, they would start again.
This went on for days at a time and then they would dump you into a cold, dark cell, with no sanitary facilities and dirty from a previous occupant. We were taken to a room, after several days of beatings, where we saw four or five German Army officers. The Gestapo were in an argument with them about us.
The German officers had been informed the Gestapo had three escaped U.S. POWs and had come to get us, as we were German Army property, as escaped POWs. After further arguments and threats by the officers, the Gestapo released us, and we were taken to Stalag Luft III at Sagan, Germany. We were taken there because the Germans considered parachutists as air force personnel.
After seven days of recuperation, we were returned to Stalag IIIC and put in solitary confinement and sentenced to 30 days for escaping. Solitary confinement was in a cage-like box about six foot long, four foot wide and five foot high.
I could sit in it, but not stand or lie down. I was given a G.I. blanket, and hat and great coat in addition to the clothes I had on. My rations were German black bread and water. This cage was inside another room in a larger building.
In late November, the temperatures were always below 32 degrees F, and sometimes down to zero or below, so you had to keep in motion so you didn't freeze. We were released after a week. It happened that the Red Cross representative from Geneva was making an inspection of the camp and intervened on our behalf.
I returned to my barracks, and they had used the rest of my cigarettes I had left behind to get extra food, which I used to help build up my body and strength. I got a tongue lashing from Schultz, telling me how foolish we were because "the war will be over soon, and we will all go home to our families. Joe, you be a good boy now!" Things returned to normal life in the POW camp, and we began to think about escaping again in early January 1945.
We knew by our radios, hidden in camp, that the Russians were between 50 and 100 miles east of Krustin and advancing fast. We concocted a scheme that while in the exercise yard, we would create a scene where one man would fake a seizure and two other men would run for a stretcher.
Schultz was brought into the confusion, and we told him the man needed immediate attention at the dispensary or hospital. We loaded him on the stretcher, and I took one end and Brewer the other. We started for the gate, and Schultz alerted the guards to let us through. As we reached the gate, some of the POWs still in the yard faked a fight, and Schultz went to stop it with the other guards.
We went through the double gate toward the dispensary, and once out of sight, we dumped the stretcher and hid out until a wagon came by. It had three 50-gallon wooden barrels on it, which the old men used to bring potatoes and turnips into camp.
We hid in the barrels and rode almost out of camp. As the wagon went past the last guard post at the gate, it went down a small hill, made a right turn, hit a stone and rolled over. The three barrels upset into the ditch, and we came out running between the small trees and brush. The guards opened fire with machine guns and the two men who had escaped with me were hit and killed, but I was able to make it to a stream.
By this time, the guards had released the dogs -- German Shepherds as big as small ponies. But as I was hiding in the stream, the dogs couldn't get my scent. I stayed in the stream and traveled all night, going east, and hid in barns during the day, avoiding all people at farms.
As I traveled, I could hear artillery and small arms fire coming closer. On the third day I stayed in a hay loft in a barn, and the next morning, firing and explosions were all around, and I stayed hidden all day.
In the evening, a Russian armored unit came into the farmyard. I came out and identified myself to the Russian commander as an "Americanski Tovarish" in English and broken Polish. I told her that I was an escaped U.S. POW, and I wanted to join them and go to Berlin with them and kill Nazis.
After much consultation between the commander and the Soviet commissar, I was allowed to join them and was given a Russian sub-machine gun with a round drum. The next morning after very heavy artillery saturation of the area to our west, we left the farm and headed west. There I was, an American escaped POW on an American Sherman tank, with a woman tank commander!
I was in the seventh or eighth tank back from the front. Most of the time for the next few weeks, we continued west, getting into several heavy fire fights with the retreating Germans. About two or three days after I joined them, we were advancing west on a two-track road when the lead tanks opened fire.
I learned later that they had fired on a column of U.S. POWs being marched from the camp I had escaped from, IIIC. The Germans had several scout cars and vehicles at the head of the column, and many Germans were killed or wounded, and two to three U.S. POWs were killed and some wounded.
At that time, we went cross country northwest and then west. The next day, we came upon the camp I had escaped from. Some of the POWs hid out and did not march out with the rest. After a small fire fight with the guards, we entered the camp, and I was asked to come to the commandant's office.
The Russians had some quarter-pound blocks of U.S. nitro-starch they did not know how to explode. I blew open the big safe in the office, and the Russians were interested in the camera, watches, rings and any Russian rubles.
I was able to liberate most of the U.S. dollars and invasion currency as well as Canadian dollars, British pounds and French francs. I had a satchel as big as a three suiter filled with currency, which I tied on the back of our tank. I was also able to get my POW record and picture, which I was able to bring home.
We left the camp and headed west again. Over the next week or two, we advanced each day but were sometimes held up by strong opposition by tanks or artillery. Early one morning, just after leaving our defense area, our tank column was attacked from the rear by Stuka dive bombers. We took evasive action but not soon enough.
I came to with a Russian medic working on my right leg, in the groin area, and was in and out of consciousness much of the day. I woke up in a Russian hospital in or near Poland. After a few days, I was beginning to feel better and thinking about leaving and making my way toward Warsaw when there was much commotion in the hospital ward.
Many of the patients were trying to stand up, and I was, too, when a Russian officer came toward me. I recognized him immediately as Marshal Zhukov. He told me to lie down, through an interpreter, and asked how I was feeling, where I was wounded. When he was told I was an escaped American POW, he asked if my wounds were treated, asked about my family, where I had been captured, if there was anything he could do for me. I told him I had lost all of my army identification and could he help. He spoke to his aide and left.
The next day, I received a letter, in Russian, that I was told identified me as an American U.S. Army paratrooper and ordering help to get me to Moscow. Two days later, I started east in a Russian convoy of wounded toward Lodz, Poland.
Eventually we got to Warsaw, which was a pile of rubble. I asked for help from a Pole and was taken to a convent in the middle of Warsaw where they dressed my wounds, which were infected. I was given some hot food and rested for a couple of days, then made my way across the Vistula River on a pontoon bridge and then to Rembertow, Poland.
There I was put on a Russian hospital train and ended up in the outskirts of Moscow. A Russian colonel took me by subway to the American Embassy in the old National Hotel just off Red Square. I had showed the colonel my letter, and in the excitement of reaching the U.S. Embassy, I forgot to get it back from him.
A U.S. major took over at that point, and I was fed and had the opportunity to take a hot bath. My wounds were treated, and I was given a clean uniform. The major and another officer then interviewed me: name, rank, serial number, where captured, what outfit, date of birth and place, etc.
Late that night, the major told me I would be taken to a hotel near the embassy. Each day, I was questioned further and a third person was also in the room, an armed Marine sergeant. I asked why the armed Marine and was told there was a mix-up.
Joseph R. Beyrle had been killed in action on June 10, 1944, in France. I was to be held at the hotel until the records could be corrected. Each night, there was a Marine guard at my door. I talked to him late into the night, trying to convince him who I was, and we had long discussions.
One time, when he turned his back, I jumped him, but after a short scuffle, he pinned me. I was no match for him in my condition. The major was called, and he ordered no more action of this kind; he and the guards were convinced I was who I said I was. I had asked to be fingerprinted, and it had taken time for the Army and Washington to confirm my identity.
Later, I was taken to meet the U.S. ambassador, Averell Harriman, and Gen. [John] Deane. There were also an additional 10-15 Americans who had collected in Moscow. We were flown to Odessa, Russia. In this group were a couple of war correspondents, generals and colonels. I was the only enlisted man. I met up with other liberated POWs in Odessa, loaded onto a ship and went out through the Black Sea to Istanbul, Turkey.
The ship put into port for a short repair and then landed at Port Said, Egypt. We were given clean clothes, issued toilet articles, etc. Our wounds were treated and healing. We then transferred to the RMS Samaria, the same ship I was on when we came from America to England in 1943! But the food was much better this time. We went to Naples, Italy, where I was hospitalized and had some surgery to remove shrapnel from my wounds.
On April 1, 1945, we left from Naples for the United States. I went to Catholic Mass on Easter Sunday in the ship's dining room, said by a U.S. chaplain who had been a POW. Ten days later, we landed in Boston. We were processed and sent by train to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, for further processing.
I was given a 30-day delay in route to visit my home and family before going to Miami Beach, Florida, for rest and recuperation (R and R). I arrived home in Muskegon on April 21, 1945, to greet my family, who had had official notices that I was missing in action in France, then a prisoner of war, then killed in action and finally that I was a prisoner of war.
A funeral Mass was held for me, my parents were paid my GI insurance (which they returned) and my name was inscribed on my hometown War Memorial. After 90 days at home, courtesy of leave extensions, I left to go to Florida, via Chicago, where I was admitted to Vaughan General Military Hospital until Nov. 28, 1945, when I was honorably discharged from the Army due to disabilities.
My funeral Mass was held at St. Joseph's Church in Muskegon by Father Stratz on Sept. 17, 1944. My wife and I were married in the same church on Sept. 14, 1946, by Father Stratz. We are now the parents of a daughter and two sons and have seven grandchildren.
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