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Paratrooper Joe Beyrle Dies; Fought for U.S., USSR

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2004; Page B06

Joe Beyrle, 81, a World War II paratrooper whose gung-ho zest for leaping out of planes earned him the nickname "Jumpin' Joe" and who was the only man to fight both for the United States and the Soviet Union, died Dec. 12 of congestive heart failure in a hotel room in Toccoa, Ga., the small town where he had trained. He was in Toccoa to speak to school and veterans groups and to promote a book about his life.

A member of the 101st Airborne's Screaming Eagles, Mr. Beyrle was 20 when he parachuted into Normandy for the first time; he was wearing bandoliers packed with gold for the French Resistance.

Joe Beyrle (Family Photo)

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On June 5, 1944, the night before D-Day, he again parachuted behind enemy lines into Nazi-occupied France, landing on the roof of a church in St. Come-du-Mont. Under fire, he bounced down the steep pitch of the roof into a cemetery and set out on his mission, the demolition of two bridges behind Utah Beach. Three days later, he crawled over a hedgerow and stumbled into a Nazi machine gun nest.

His captors marched Mr. Beyrle and his fellow American POWs toward a prisoner staging area, while Allied planes strafed the scraggly procession. Mr. Beyrle was hit by shrapnel but managed to escape for a few hours before running into another German unit. His dog tags were taken and ended up around the neck of a German soldier who was killed in France while wearing an American uniform. In early September 1944, Mr. Beyrle's parents in Muskegon, Mich., received the dreaded telegram about their son's "death."

Mr. Beyrle, meanwhile, was being hauled by train from one prison camp to another, where he endured interrogations, frequent beatings and near starvation. He finally managed to escape, after several attempts, in January 1945. He encountered a Russian tank unit led by a tough commander; he knew her only as "the major."

The Russian troops were hungry, desperate and barely under control. He recalled how the Russians seized the elderly German couple who owned the farm where he had been hiding, shot them and fed them to their pigs. A few days later, the troops ate the pigs.

Mr. Beyrle, looking for a way back to U.S. troops, fought alongside the unit for nearly a month, riding as a machine gunner on the back of a Sherman tank. After taking part in the destruction of his old POW camp, he was seriously wounded in an attack by German dive bombers and transported to a field hospital in what is now Poland.

He eventually made his way to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow but was placed under house arrest when he could not convince anyone that he actually was Joe Beyrle. Fingerprints finally established his identity.

On Sept. 14, 1946, he returned to Muskegon and got married in the church where his premature funeral Mass had been held two years earlier.

Joseph Robert Beyrle was born in Muskegon. He graduated from Saint Joseph High School in Muskegon, where he was voted best informed, most obvious temper, class shark and best dressed.

In June 1942, he declined a baseball scholarship to the University of Notre Dame and volunteered for what was then called the parachute infantry. Training near Toccoa at the foot of a Georgia mountain called Currahee, a Cherokee word meaning "stand alone," he and his buddies adopted "Currahee" as the regimental battle cry.

After the war, Mr. Beyrle returned to Muskegon, where he worked as a supervisor for the Brunswick Corp., maker of bowling balls and pool tables. He retired in 1981.

In retirement, he was active with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and other veterans groups.

In a 1994 ceremony at the White House, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin presented Mr. Beyrle with four medals for his service with the Red Army. "It was the proudest moment of his life," said his son John Beyrle, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

In a 1999 interview with Ron Dzwonkowski, columnist for the Detroit Free Press, Mr. Beyrle said he occasionally talked to schoolchildren about his World War II experiences.

"Some of them aren't even sure what war I'm talking about," he said. "They really don't understand that I felt it was my duty to volunteer, and what went on and what it was like. I tell them that if it wasn't for what we did, they would all be marching the goose step today, and the first question is, 'What's the goose step?' "

In 2002, author and military historian Thomas Taylor told Mr. Beyrle's story in "The Simple Sounds of Freedom: The True Story of the Only Soldier to Fight for Both America and the Soviet Union in World War II" (Random House).

This year, the designer of the AK-47 assault rifle, Lt. Gen. Mikhail Kalashnikov, presented a rifle to Mr. Beyrle in a ceremony at a Moscow Victory Day celebration.

In addition to his wife of 58 years, JoAnne Beyrle of Muskegon, and his son John, survivors include two children, Julie Schugars of Muskegon and Joe Beyrle II of Howell, Mich.; a sister; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

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