Joseph Beyrle had an adventure, that’s really the only way to put it, the sort of fantastic thing that if they made a movie out of it, and prepended it with “based on a true story”, you would thoroughly dismiss every single event that happened afterwards as being so entirely unbelievable that the screenwriters should be disposed of quietly but not painlessly.
What follows is an entirely true story that should be adapted precisely as it happened, with no embellishment, no changes to the plot, and for the love of all that is holy, don’t let Tarantino anywhere near it. The man has his talents, but some stories should be told straight, no revisionist chaser.
So the second World War was happening, you may have heard of it. Notre Dame offered Beyrle a scholarship, but with a war on, he went to the enlistment office instead. No anonymous infantry assignment for this son of Michigan, no, it was the 101st Airborne, those paratroopers destined to drop behind German lines in the early hours of D-Day. The month before D-Day, he dropped into France and delivered a shipment of gold to the resistance, and on D-Day itself had to jump from only a few hundred feet when anti-aircraft guns found his aircraft. Surviving that jump was a stroke of luck all by itself.
Dropped on his own, landing on top of a French church, alone behind enemy lines, hiding from Germans links and recht, Beyrle did the only logical thing for a demolition expert. He started single-handedly blowing up German power stations.
Now the Germans captured Beyrle within a couple of days, but that’s when his story starts to turn truly sublime. His dog tags were planted on a body on Utah Beach, leading the American Army to declare him dead. Beyrle’s first funeral was held in his absence in his home town of Muskegon. The Germans shipped Beyrle through seven different prisoner of war camps, the Gestapo torturing and interrogating him as a captured spy rather than a POW proper. Said Beyrle in a 2003 interview about being tortured to unconsciousness by a Gestapo agent: “I told him that he was an S.O.B., and I woke up in a German hospital with the German nurses working on me. And I knew I wasn’t dead, because angels don’t speak German.”
Once Beyrle escaped, but was recaptured quickly. A second time he escaped, but not being able to read German ended up on the train towards Berlin instead of away from it. The third time was the charm, and he fled east towards the Red Army. Miraculously, he managed to hike the miles, avoid the searching Germans, and slip through the German lines. He found a Soviet tank crew, and yelled the only Russian words that he knew: “Amerikanski tovarish”.
Now, most individuals would have called that a war, and tried to get transport back to Russia proper and eventually America, but Beyrle was not most individuals. Instead, he joined the Soviet tank crew, and started fighting the Germans all over again, this time driving west instead of east. The Soviet tank commander whom Beyrle convinced of his bona fides by demonstrating that he knew how to use explosives? Aleksandra Samusenko, one of the only female tank commanders in the Soviet Army, and at age 22 had already won the Order of the Red Star for destroying three German Tigers in the Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history.
Beyrle fought with the Russians for three weeks, even helping liberate Stalag III-C, which was the very POW camp that he had escaped from not a month before. His luck ran out then, and he was wounded in a German strafing run.
Evacuated to a hospital, the Russians realized that he wasn’t, you know, Russian, and Beyrle was subsequently visited by General Zhukov, the commander of the entire Red Army who had heard stories about the American. Beyrle’s request? To be allowed to rejoin the American forces still fighting. So Zhukov sent him to Moscow where the story took another turn.
Beyrle showed up at the American embassy and was promptly put under guard in a hotel since he had been officially dead for nine months, and they had no evidence to the contrary. They waited for fingerprint confirmation, by which point they decided to ship him home to Michigan rather than risking him in the last month of fighting. He reached home in time to celebrate VE Day, and the next year was married in his home town, to the woman he’d spend the rest of his life with. Naturally, they were married by the same priest in the same church that had hosted his funeral.
Beyrle’s eldest son joined the 101st Airborne like his father, and his second son eventually became the American ambassador to Russia during Obama’s first term.
Some stories are better than any fiction.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.