SAINTE CÔME DU MONT, France (Army News Service, June 6, 2014) -- With the tricolor of French, American and British flags draped in the windows, parades of vintage military vehicles and ceremonies in villages across the region, Normandy is abuzz with celebration on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Away from much of the commotion, in the shadow of the picturesque Saint-Côme-et-Saint-Damien church here, family members and fellow veterans joined in a quiet remembrance in honor of Joseph "Jumpin' Joe" Beyrle, a World War II veteran of the liberation of northern France.
Beyrle's son John was joined in the wreath-laying ceremony by his family and D-Day veterans who had served alongside his father in Normandy, June 6, 1944.
"It's now almost exactly 70 years ago that a young man, my father, landed here, on this very spot, to being his campaign for the liberation of Europe," said John. "I'm honored to see you all here today, paying homage to his memory."
Alongside thousands of heroic stories during the days of the invasion of Normandy, Beyrle's story is considered to be unique, John said, in that he was the only known G.I. to have served in both the U.S. and Soviet Army against Hitler, during World War II.
Born in Muskegon, Mich., Beyrle enlisted the Army after his high-school graduation in 1942. With war looming on the American horizon, Beyrle chose to join the service as a paratrooper. During training, he gained his nickname "Jumpin' Joe."
"A lot of the guys were afraid they would sprain an ankle or break a shin bone before a mission," John said. "As they got closer to the jump, they would actually give him five dollars to show up and make their jump in their name. So he made many jumps under assumed names during training -- then somebody came up with the name 'Jumpin' Joe.'"
Beyrle was assigned to the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, of the 101st Airborne Division, and headed for Europe -- where even before the launch of the invasion, the radio communications and demolitions expert participated in two covert operations delivering gold to the French resistance.
On D-day, Beyrle's C-47 Skytrain quickly came under attack, forcing him and his team to abandon the aircraft at low altitude before arriving at the targeted drop zone.
"After landing on the church grounds here, (my father) carried out several operations, but got separated from his company," his son recounted. "He then was captured by the Germans and held in a house near the church here."
After falling into enemy hands after destroying a power station, Beyrle began an odyssey as a prisoner of war.
THREE TIMES THE CHARM
Refusing to be kept from the fight, Beyrle tried to escape from enemy captivity, but was recaptured twice. After several transfers from one prison camp to another, and severe maltreatment by Nazi secret police, Beyrle was transferred to a camp in the German-occupied East territories.
Here he saw another chance to escape and seek refuge with the Soviet Army troops who were fighting German forces nearby.
"In January 1945, he escaped from what is now Poland," John said. "He went east and linked up with a Russian tank unit that went toward Berlin. He fought with them for 10 days, until he was wounded."
Beyrle later was repatriated through the U.S. embassy in Moscow -- just in time to celebrate the end of the war in Europe on V-E Day, in Chicago.
"My father first came back here 20 years after D-Day," said John, who himself served as a U.S. ambassador to Russia. "He really wanted to see, in the daytime, where he had landed in the middle of the night. Here he met with veterans of his unit from which he was separated and never reunited. After that, he came back every five years on the anniversary of D-Day, until his death in 2004.
RETURN TO NORMANDY
Among the veterans in attendance were James "Pee Wee" Martin and Donald R. Burgett, who both served in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, alongside Beyrle.
"I didn't know Joe very well, but I sure know he could shoot and was one hell of a guy," Burgett said with a smile. "It's good for us and everybody, to remember the sacrifices that were made by men like him in liberating France."
At age 81, Joseph Beyrle died of heart failure in 2004, in Toccoa, Ga., the location that the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment trained at, before heading to Europe.
"(Normandy), for us, is like a second home, because of the experience my dad had in the war -- but also because of the friendships we made." John said. "We, as family, and the veterans themselves come here, because it is kind of a sacred place for them -- and by extension, all of us. My daughter is here on of her first visit, and so we hope to come here for many years (and generations) to come."