After Joseph Beyrle and other prisoners of war bribed a German guard with 10 packs of cigarettes to allow them to escape, they boarded a train supposedly headed to Poland.
The train actually was destined for Berlin, and when the Gestapo later discovered the POWs in a safe house, they suffered the harsh consequences.
"We were interrogated, tortured, kicked, knocked around, walked on, hung up by our arms backwards [and] hit with whips, clubs and rifle butts," Beyrle recalled during a recorded account of his experiences during World War II, a transcript of which was provided to Military.com by the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans. "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."
A U.S. Army paratrooper, Beyrle was captured three times by the Germans after taking part in the D-Day invasion. He also escaped three times, leading him to become what is believed to be the only soldier to fight for the both U.S. and Russian armies during the war.
While a POW, Beyrle was not only beaten, but also required to march long distances without food or water, not allowed to shower or shave, and confined alone for days. He was declared killed in action; his family was notified and a funeral was held.
Several months after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Beyrle joined the Army after graduating from high school in Michigan. He volunteered for airborne training, earning the nickname "Jumpin' Joe" and eventually was assigned to the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.
The regiment, known as the Screaming Eagles, was sent to England to prepare for Operation Overlord. On the night of June 5, 1944, some of the 506th's C-47 planes exploded or crashed after taking enemy fire. Beyrle had no choice but to jump early, and he found himself under attack after landing on a church roof in Saint-Come-du-Mont.
Separated from his regiment, Beyrle fought alone for much of D-Day, during which time he destroyed a power station, according to his recollection. He was taken prisoner for the first time after climbing over a hedgerow, right into a German machine gun nest.
When Allied planes later strafed him and other POWs as they were being transported, Beyrle saw his first chance to flee. Despite sustaining shrapnel wounds, Beyrle made a run for it. About a half-day later, he was apprehended.
Sometime during Beyrle's imprisonment, his dog tags were taken away and given to a German soldier. That soldier later was killed and the dog tags were retrieved, leading the Americans to believe Beyrle had died.
Beyrle was very much alive, but he endured unimaginable cruelty.
- He was hospitalized "with a big headache and a bashed head" after calling a German officer an "SOB" during a lengthy interrogation at a POW site dubbed Starvation Hill.
- Along with other POWs, he was forced to march through Paris in a show of propaganda, during which people flung rotten food at them and spit on them.
- He was confined in a "Forty and Eight" boxcar -- so called because they could hold 40 men or eight horses -- with about 80 other men for a week. During that span, planes strafed the convoy, leading to the deaths of several men, Beyrle's account said.
Beyrle was not registered as a POW -- or allowed to shower or shave -- until he had reached Stalag XIIA at Limburg, Germany. He did not try to escape again until after he was moved to Stalag IIIC near Krustin, Poland.
Beyrle won 60 packs of cigarettes while playing dice, giving him the collateral to barter as part of the POWs' escape plan. They were later discovered at the safe house "by five men in civilian clothes, armed with Lugers" and were tortured.
They then were sentenced to solitary confinement in "a cage-like box about six foot long, four foot wide and five foot high" for 30 days, a punishment that ended after a week -- only because a Red Cross representative advocated for them while inspecting the camp.
In early 1945, Beyrle tried again with an escape plan that involved one POW acting as if he were having a seizure while two others (one was Beyrle) ran for a stretcher. Meanwhile, other POWs were to fake a brawl.
In the confusion, Beyrle and two others hid in wooden barrels on the back of a wagon, but as the vehicle was departing, it overturned after striking a stone. The barrels -- and the men inside them -- toppled over, and the Germans opened fire, killing two of them.
Beyrle avoided capture, hiding in a stream initially and thus eluding detection by the guards' German Shepherds. He hid during the day and traveled at night before encountering Soviet tanks.
"The Soviet soldiers stopped him and pointed their guns at him as they thought he was a German fighter," according to historyofyesterday.com. "At which point, Beyrle pulled out a packet of Lucky Strike cigarettes [American cigarettes] and he shouted the only phrase he knew in Russian: 'Amerikansky tovarishch [sic; American friend]."
Beyrle identified himself as an escaped U.S. POW who wanted "[to] go to Berlin with them and kill Nazis." After some debate, he was handed a submachine gun.
While with the Red Army, Beyrle was involved in several firefights with Germans and helped blow open a safe at one of the POW camps from which he had escaped. While there, he also retrieved his POW record and picture.
When dive bombers attacked their tank column, Beyrle's right leg was injured. While recuperating in the hospital, Beyrle told a Soviet general that he had lost his military identification. At the general’s urging, Beyrle was provided a letter, in Russian, that identified him as a U.S. Army paratrooper and ordered help in getting him to Moscow.
Once Beyrle reached the U.S. Embassy there, he produced the letter. As officials had believed Beyrle had been killed in action, he was detained until the records could be fixed. Once they were, Beyrle was on his way. He arrived in the United States in April 1945.
Beyrle and his wife visited Russia at least seven times before he died in 2004 at the age of 81. One of the Beyrles' three children, John, later became the U.S. ambassador to Russia.
-- Stephen Ruiz can be reached at email@example.com.
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