Joe Beyrle, nicknamed “Jumpin’ Joe” for heroic acts as a World War II paratrooper, and who was recognized as the only soldier to fight in that conflict for both the United States and the Soviet Union, has died. He was 81.
Beyrle, a Michigan native, died of congestive heart failure Dec. 12 in a hotel room in Toccoa, Ga., where he was scheduled to speak to community groups and promote a book about his exploits.
Few could tell a tale as full of hair-raising drama as Beyrle: He was brutalized in Nazi prisoner-of-war camps and tortured by the Gestapo, then escaped only to find that his one hope of outlasting the war was to join a Soviet armored unit. The Soviet Union was a U.S. ally in World War II.
He fought alongside Soviet soldiers as a machine gunner on a Sherman tank for almost a month, participating in an assault that destroyed one of the POW camps where he had been held. He finally made his way to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, aided by legendary Soviet marshal Georgi Zhukov, who guaranteed his safe passage.
Honored by both countries as a war hero, Beyrle seldom spoke of his wartime experiences until later years, when a book about his life, “The Simple Sounds of Freedom” by Thomas H. Taylor, was published in 2002.
When he did talk publicly of those years, it was often in front of groups of schoolchildren who had to struggle to comprehend the enormity of the risks he took and the stakes he chose to defend.
“They really don’t understand that I felt it was my duty to volunteer (for the Army), and what went on and what it was like,” he told an interviewer recently. “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?’ “
Born in Muskegon, Mich., Beyrle turned down a baseball scholarship to Notre Dame to enlist in the Army in June 1942 and joined what was then known as the parachute infantry.
On June 5, 1944, the eve of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, he parachuted behind enemy lines into Nazi-controlled France, where his mission with the 101st Airborne Division was to destroy two bridges behind Utah Beach. Three days into the invasion, the 20-year-old Army sergeant crawled over a hedgerow into a Nazi machine gun nest and was taken prisoner.
He was reported killed in action.
While his family grieved, he was plotting his escape from a succession of POW camps. He tried unsuccessfully to escape several times, often foiled by his size: At 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, he was too big to squeeze under fences and into tight spaces.
Beyrle was taken to the Stalag III-C camp in Alt-Drewitz. In January 1945, he and two fellow escapees broke out, but only Beyrle got away; the other two were killed in the attempt.
Beyrle is survived by his wife of 58 years, JoAnne; sons Joe and John, and daughter Julie; a sister; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandson.