"Jumpin' Joe" Beyrle was the only American soldier to fight for both the United States and the Soviet Union during World War II. It's a rarity that has made his story an incredible one.
In an interview with NPR's Scott Simon in 2004, Beyrle's biographer, Thomas Hunter Taylor, explained that It's a story many of us know little or nothing about.
"You didn't ever hear of Joe Beyrle until you read his obit in the (Washington) Post," Taylor pointed out. "But in Russia, they know him, invite to every May Day celebration. He often goes, and he went this last year."
Prior to the interview, the WWII hero had died in his sleep at the age of 81. As Taylor suggested, Beyrle's story had been treated very differently in Russia than in his home country, but maybe that has started to change.
Fast-forward to present day. The story of "Jumpin' Joe" Beyrle is being celebrated with an exhibit at the Strategic Air and Space Museum in Ashland. It features more than 260 artifacts from Beyrle and WWII.
Those on hand to launch the exhibit in late October included Beyrle's son, John, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia. John Beyrle said that his father's experiences have directly affected his role as a diplomat.
"It certainly has helped since I have been ambassador, in terms of opening a lot of doors to Russian officials," he said. "Having heard the story of my father, having understood that he fought with the Red Army at the end of the war, that he was an ally in every sense of the word - they tend to look at me in a slightly different way.
"They know a bit more about me," he continued. "It just makes it easier for me to have productive conversations with them."
But how did his father end up in the Red Army in the first place? The story began with Joe Beyrle enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1942, right out of high school, despite being offered a scholarship to Notre Dame University. Beyrle soon became a paratrooper, joining the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne's "Screaming Eagles" division. According to Taylor, the biographer, it wasn't long before Beyrle was in the thick of things, being dropped behind enemy lines in Normandy.
"Being maybe the best parachutist in the 101st Airborne division, they (the U.S. government) asked him to volunteer to jump solo to carry gold to the resistance there," Taylor said. "This he did twice, with what would today be about a quarter of a million dollars' worth of gold strapped to his body."
Those solo operations helped cement Beyrle's reputation as a skilled soldier, and it wasn't long before he was tapped for another drop into Normandy; this time, as part of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. However, his mission was cut short after his plane came under enemy fire. Beyrle was forced to parachute from the plane early. He lost contact with fellow paratroopers upon landing but proceeded to perform sabotage missions before being captured by German soldiers.
"He was captured on D Plus 2, then progressively moved eastward, toward the eastern front. He had already made two unsuccessful escapes," Taylor said. "Since he'd unsuccessfully tried to get to the allied lines to the west, he said this last one (escape) would be toward the Russians."
It wasn't long before Beyrle's last attempt proved successful, and he was discovered by the Soviet Army. Taylor explained how Beyrle managed to convince the Russian commander he was an American by brandishing his pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes:
"They overran a German position where he was hiding in a barn. The unit was a Russian armor outfit commanded by a woman major. They congratulated him, filled him with vodka and said, Now you can go home.' He replied, No, I'm going to stay with you, I've got some scores to settle in Berlin.'"
Beyrle continued to fight alongside the Russian armored unit until he was wounded in action a month later. He would eventually return home in April of 1945. The rest, as they say, is history.
Back at the Strategic Air and Space Museum, guests reminisced about the soldier's adventures. Amongst them was his daughter, who told of perhaps the ultimate surprise in a life fraught with twists and turns.
"A newspaper had done a story about the fact that my father had been killed in action. His parents had had a funeral for him. After he was wounded, they put him in a hospital, they didn't believe at the American embassy that he was who he said he was, because he had been reported killed in action at that point," she recounted. "He made his way back to Muskegon and met and married my mother. They were married by the same priest who had buried him two years before.
"It was really an amazing series of events," she continued. "Ordinary boys fought that war, and ordinary boys had extraordinary things happen to them, and this is just truly an amazing story."