In World War II, He Fought For Two Armies Sixty-five years ago, American paratrooper Joseph Beyrle escaped from a German POW camp and joined the Red Army, serving in a Soviet tank regiment. The story's final twist: Joseph Beyrle's son John is now the U.S. ambassador to Moscow.
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In World War II, He Fought For Two Armies

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In World War II, He Fought For Two Armies

In World War II, He Fought For Two Armies

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An exhibition in Moscow tells us an amazing story from World War II. It's about an American who fought the Nazis in two different armies. Paratrooper Joseph Beyrle began his battle wearing a U.S. military uniform, but he was captured and put in a German POW camp. He escaped and then joined a tank regiment in the Soviet Red Army. Peter Van Dyk reports on the exhibit, called "A Hero of Two Countries."

(Soundbite of music, "The Star-Spangled Banner")

PETER VAN DYK: The Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War is dedicated to the Soviet victory in World War II. But on a recent afternoon, American military musicians made up half the band playing the national anthem at the opening of an exhibit telling the story of Joseph Beyrle.

Mr. JOSEPH BEYRLE (Former U.S. Army Paratrooper, World War II): We took off and run through the scrub pines. And then the guard opened up. And these two guys escaped with me - were killed, and I made it to the stream. And I went downstream because they turned the dogs loose at that time.

VAN DYK: U.S. paratrooper Joseph Beyrle spent much of the last quarter of his life telling his story, including in this interview recorded before his death in 2004. Parachuted into France in 1944, he spent six months in a German prison camp before he escaped.

A week later, he found a Soviet tank regiment. The only Russian he knew was Amerikansky tovarishch - American comrade. But the political commissar spoke a bit of English, and it was enough.

Mr. BEYRLE: And I told him I was an American, escaped prisoner of war, and I want to go with him and defeat Hitler. And he says, no, that I couldn't do it. And the battalion commander came up and he explained to her, and she says da, da.

VAN DYK: Beyrle was soon wounded in the fierce fighting on the Eastern Front, and found himself in a Soviet military hospital with no papers and little hope of returning home. But then he met one of the Soviet Union's top generals.

Mr. BEYRLE: Marshal�Zhukov visited the hospital, and he came to my bed and through an interpreter, wanted to know my name and how I got there. And the last thing he said: Is there anything I can do for you? And I said: Yes. I do not have any identification to prove I am an American. He didn't say anything.

The next day, the interpreter came back and handed me an envelope, letter all in Russian. And I says, what does it say? He says, you don't have to know what it says. He says, that'll get you anyplace you want to go.

VAN DYK: The letter got him to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and then back home to Michigan. He settled down, had a family. And it was years later, when his son John first went to Moscow as part of a U.S. government delegation, that the whole story came out.

Mr. JOHN BEYRLE (U.S. Ambassador to Moscow): I teased a bit more of that story out of him, and we eventually found out enough to get him a visa to come here in 1979. And he actually met with the Soviet Veterans of the War Committee.

VAN DYK: Joseph Beyrle became a symbol of U.S.-Soviet detente, ending up with a chest full of medals from both sides and becoming known in Russia as the hero of two nations. In the final twist of the story, Joseph's son John is now the U.S. ambassador to Moscow.

Mr. BEYRLE: My father's story, the fact that he fought with the Red Army - even for a short time at the end of the war - has opened a lot of doors for me. It gives me a much stronger basis to make that appeal to Russian people, many of whom are still very suspicious about the United States.

(Soundbite of music, "Notre Dame Victory March")

VAN DYK: Back in 1945, Joseph Beyrle taught the "Notre Dame Victory March" to his Red Army comrades. And the joint U.S.-Russian band had his son, Ambassador John Beyrle, smiling at their unexpected rendition of the song of the Fighting Irish.

For NPR News, I'm Peter Van Dyk, in Moscow.

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