Joseph Beyrle couldn't remember the date when the Gestapo began interrogating him. He knew it was November 1944 and that he was in Berlin. He does, however, have vivid memories of the seven to 10 days when he was Himmler's guest.
"We were interrogated, tortured, kicked, knocked around, walked on, hung up by our arms backwards, 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 slipped into semiconsciousness, they would start again. This went on for days at a time and then they would dump you in a cold, dark cell, with no sanitary facilities, still dirty from a previous occupant," wrote Beyrle, a sergeant in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, in his debriefing report.
For this descendent of Bavarian immigrants, the war began in June 1942, just days after he graduated from St Joseph High School in Muskegon, Michigan. Two years later, Sergeant Beyrle - nicknamed Jumpin' Joe - was one of the thousands of paratroopers who landed in Normandy on D-Day, 6 June 1944.
This wasn't his first time in France. While the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment trained in England, Beyrle flew across the Channel twice to deliver gold to the French Resistance. His third jump, however, marked the beginning of a series of fortunate and unfortunate events and conscious decisions - which could also be described by the rather overused term "heroism" - that made Jumpin' Joe the only soldier who fought for both the Allies and the Red Army.
From June 1944 to April 1945, the young American's life was filled with unbelievable events. As a prisoner of war, Beyrle caught the attention of Field Marshall Rommel because of his German last name, and as a wounded Soviet soldier, he also captured Marshall Zhukov's interest. "Is there anything I can do for you?" the Russian commander asked though a translator. "They took my dog tags," replied the wounded young man. In June, a German officer had removed them in spite of all laws to the contrary.
Zhukov took action. He gave Beyrle a letter that helped him travel from a field hospital somewhere in Poland to the American Embassy in Moscow. The curse of the lost dog tags continued to haunt him, however. "Sergeant Joseph Beyrle was killed in action on 10 June 1944," the Embassy informed him. While his fingerprints were sent back to the United States for identification, Jumpin' Joe was under 24-hour guard at the Metropol Hotel. The sergeant was worried. Since the army had considered him dead, what was his family going through?
Back in the United States, the Beyrle family lived through nightmarish months, alternating between hope and despair. On 7 July 1944, they had received a telegram informing them that Joe was a POW. This was contradicted by another telegram in September: Joe had been killed on 10 June.
His picture was published in the local paper, his name was inscribed on the city War Memorial and on 17 September the St Joseph Church was overflowing with people who had come to his funeral mass. On 23 October the family received a call from the War Department. "There has been a mistake. The Red Cross has reported that your son is a POW."
The confusion continued. On 16 November, the Beyrles received a letter of condolence that conferred the Purple Heart medal on Joe posthumously. On 28 November a second letter arrived from a brigadier general. He expressed his happiness that Joe was alive - and informed them that they would have to return the medal and the $861.60 cheque for financial help from the government for their lost son.
Somewhere along all the bureaucratic channels, however, Joe had remained KIA - a misunderstanding that kept him prisoner at the Metropol.
Enraged, Jumpin' Joe decided to escape from his own countrymen. However, he was too weak to overpower the marine guarding his door, who was able to subdue him effortlessly. It was his fourth escape attempt since June 1944. The first took place in France shortly after his capture. On 17 September he ended up at the POW camp Stalag III-C located 45 miles east of Berlin in Alt Drewitz, Poland, where he made his second and third escape attempts.
His third escape sounds like something out of a Hollywood thriller. Beyrle and his fellow Americans, Brewer and Quinn, created a diversion. While the guards were distracted, the three snuck out and hid in the wagon that local villagers used to transport potatoes and turnips to the camp. The wagon set out for freedom - but not for long. The fated getaway vehicle hit a stone in the road and tipped over, sending the three castaways tumbling into plain view of the camp guards. They ran. Brewer and Quinn were killed, but Beyrle got away.
Three days later he reached his goal - the advancing Red Army. Beyrle stepped out in front of a Russian tank division with his hands in the air and shouted: Amerikanski tovarish!, or American comrade. After some hesitation from the political commissar, a female major accepted him as a soldier. "There I was, an American escaped POW on an American Sherman tank, with a female tank commander!" he recalled. Days later, Jumpin' Joe liberated Stalag III-C and continued west towards Berlin. Once again, luck was on his side. Shortly before the attack on Berlin he was wounded and sent to a hospital, where he would meet Zhukov.
His Soviet comrades continued to the German capital, where they would number among the 750,000 victims who died in action. His second escape was not so fortunate. Joe, along with Brewer and Quinn, cut the barbed wire - the guard's momentary "blindness" had been bought with cigarettes saved up by the non-smoking Joe, and went to the nearby railway lines. They boarded a train they thought was going east, towards the advancing Russians. The train brought them to Berlin.
They couldn't have picked a worse moment to arrive. The Americans were bombing the city by day, the British by night. The locals were torn between despair over impending defeat and a stubborn refusal to give up. The escapees, however, were hungry. After some hesitation, they caught the attention of an elderly man. Some of Joe's cigarettes were traded for bread and sausage. The elderly man promised to put them in touch with the local resistance. A short while later Joe woke up in the hands of the Gestapo.
Himmler's boys were convinced that they had caught saboteurs. What escapee in his right mind would head toward Berlin to join the resistance? The three men's lives were hanging by a thread. The Wehrmacht saved them.
When five officers arrived to return them to Stalag III-C, the Gestapo interrogators were so disappointed that they almost started shooting at the Wehrmacht forces. Discipline prevailed, however, and the escapees were returned to the camp to serve 30 days in solitary confinement. Joe's luck finally returned. After just a week in the unheated "cage-like box" where he could "sit but not stand or lie down" surviving on a diet of bread and water, the three men were released thanks to an upcoming inspection from Red Cross representatives.
Even the finale of Joe Beyrle's military adventures sounds like a Hollywood happy ending. He returned to his homeland in April 1945 and in September 1946 he married Jo-Anne Hollowell in the same church where two years earlier his funeral had been held - led by the same priest. The couple had a daughter and two sons. One of their children, John, joined the State Department and from 2005 to 2008 served as American ambassador to Bulgaria. In 1994, for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Joe Beyrle was invited to the Rose Garden at the White House, where he received medals from Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin.
The medals, however, came at a high price. When he returned to the United States, Jumpin' Joe brought only two things with him - an extracted piece of shrapnel that had wounded him at Normandy and his memories. Horrific memories of interrogations, hunger, cold and exhaustion, memories of friends dying and the murder of a German spy who had infiltrated Stalag III-C. The other prisoners condemned him in a court martial, executed him, dismembered him and buried his remains in the latrines.
Joe buried most of this built-up stress within himself: "My father was a very reserved man," says John Beyrle. "He was very patriotic, in a way that we really only understood after the totality of his wartime experience became known to us. With us kids, he didn't talk very much about what happened during the war."
Joe returned to the places in France and Germany where he got his first terrifying taste of war as a 21-year-old soldier. In 1992 he also returned to Poland, accompanied by John. Together they found the overgrown and forgotten remains of Stalag III-C and the railway lines that had led him to the Gestapo. "I know when he stood on that spot where he was held prisoner, where he escaped twice, where he was held in solitary confinement, he wasn't thinking about any of that. He was thinking about all of the people who were buried at that site," John recalls.
Joe Beyrle died in his sleep on 12 December 2004. At that time John was serving as deputy chief of mission in Moscow. After three years in Bulgaria, he is returning to the embassy where his father's odyssey ended - this time as the American ambassador to Russia.