The New York Times reports (we are interested to hear reader thoughts about this fellow before we speak our own mind):
When John Beyrle, the new American ambassador to Russia, appeared on a Russian radio show shortly after Russia’s five-day war with Georgia, the questions he got were predictably in-your-face. Is it true that the United States is sneaking weapons into Georgia disguised as humanitarian aid? Can you prove that planned American missile defense sites are not aimed at Russia?
And then: Is it true that your father was a Soviet soldier?
The answer — which Mr. Beyrle (pronounced BY-er-ly) delivered on the air in flawless Russian — has to be one of the more amazing stories to come out of World War II. Yes, during the last desperate months of the war, a starving 21-year-old from Muskegon, Mich., crossed the eastern front by foot and offered his services to a Soviet tank battalion, using the three words of Russian he had learned as a German prisoner of war — Ya Amerikansky tovarishch, or “I am an American comrade!”
And, yes, he fought the Nazis alongside them, wrapping his boots with burlap and downing shots of vodka to keep from freezing. During lulls in fighting, he answered batteries of questions about capitalism and taught the battalion to sing the Notre Dame fight song. And when the war was over, and Joe Beyrle was a supervisor in a bowling-ball factory, he told the stories to his son — the future ambassador to Moscow.
“He always looked at the Russians as people who saved his life when they could just as easily have put him up against a wall and shot him,” said Mr. Beyrle, whose office looks out at the Russian White House, veiled in January by sheets of snow.
Mr. Beyrle, 54, arrived in Moscow at a difficult moment. A month after he moved into Spaso House, the ambassador’s residence, Georgia launched its offensive against South Ossetia, which was widely viewed in Moscow as an American initiative. In response, Russian troops poured over the border into Georgia, sending relations between Moscow and Washington to a post-cold-war nadir.
It is, in other words, no environment for sentimental journeys. Mr. Beyrle speaks of the August crisis with the emphatic cool of a three-decade Russia hand, as if friction between the governments is the rule, not the exception. His career in Russia has been punctuated by the invasion of Afghanistan, the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 and the destabilizing deaths of two Soviet leaders, Konstantin Chernenko and Yuri Andropov.
“I have,” he said evenly, “a sense of perspective on crisis.”
Still, there is something personal about Mr. Beyrle’s connection with Russia. His father’s memories lent the Soviet Union a human heft: In the spring of 1945, as Joe Beyrle made his way home to Michigan, he took a train east across Belarus, staring out the window at the bodies of Soviet soldiers, stacked like cordwood, his son said. Twenty-seven million Soviet citizens died during the war — including, his family believes, the entire battalion that rescued Joe Beyrle.
“He saw what the war had left behind, which was not much but ash and smoking rubble,” Mr. Beyrle said. “For most Americans, World War II is Italy and Normandy. Nobody knows what happened in Stalingrad. I had another dimension of understanding of the Soviet Union. This is a country whose self awareness has been formed by war.”
Crazy things happen in war. Joe Beyrle’s story marks the collision of a singularly mulish American P.O.W. — he risked death to escape a German camp when it was obvious he would soon be freed anyway — and the brutal chaos of the eastern front, which Joe’s biographer, Thomas H. Taylor, describes as “two tyrannosauruses going at it.”
Joe Beyrle, who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, had been terribly battered during seven months in German captivity. He managed to escape, on his third try, and fled through Polish farmland until he could hear the artillery fire of the eastern front, which sounded “like a welcome from God,” he told Mr. Taylor for his book, “The Simple Sounds of Freedom.”
HE hid in a hayloft, sucking on straw until it was soft enough to swallow, as the Red Army seized the farm, machine-gunned the German couple who lived there and fed the bodies to their pigs. He came out with his hands up, offering the Soviets a damp pack of Lucky Strikes.
When they offered him safe passage home, he said he would rather stay with the battalion. Why, they asked, dumbfounded. His answer was, “To fight the Nazis, fight them with you,” Mr. Taylor writes.
The war ended for him a few weeks later, when a German bomb blew him off a tank, and his commander — a woman he knew only as “the Major” — leaned over him and told him, Proshchai, tovarishch — Goodbye, comrade. Joe Beyrle returned to Muskegon, where everyone’s war stories were gradually papered over by ordinary life.
The feelings of fellowship between Moscow and Washington would not last long. By the 1950s, anti-Communist sentiment was so pervasive that, as John Beyrle put it, “If you were a prudent person, maybe you didn’t talk so much about the fact that you fought for the Red Army, even for a week.”
The American authorities discouraged Joe from contacting his Soviet war buddies and saw him as a “unique asset,” Mr. Taylor said. In the 1950s, the F.B.I. asked him to infiltrate a Communist cell in a labor union, and during the Vietnam War, when peace talks had stalled, the C.I.A. flew him into Laos to hand deliver a letter to a major in the Vietnamese Army.
It was his son, finally, who allowed Joe Beyrle to delve into his past. Steered toward Russian by one of his professors at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich., John Beyrle found work in Moscow as a guide for a United States government exhibit on farming techniques. He and his father began combing through archives, looking for a single survivor who might remember Joe Beyrle. The son joined the Foreign Service in 1983 and chipped away at the research during two tours in Moscow. The story began to draw attention.
In 1994, President Boris N. Yeltsin presented Joe Beyrle with four medals for service in the Red Army. It was, John Beyrle said later, “the proudest moment of his life.”
TODAY John Beyrle is married to another Foreign Service officer, Jocelyn Greene, and they have two daughters. When he was nominated as ambassador to Russia, his father had been dead for four years. But the story has been told again and again since his arrival; diplomats hope it will resonate at a moment of deep distrust of America.
On Veterans’ Day, Mr. Beyrle revived an embassy tradition of celebrating with Russian veterans. Among them was Maj. Gen. Vasily Zibarev, who, like his father, fought in a tank battalion on the eastern front.
“Maybe my father and General Zibarev never met, but they were fighting for the same thing and they celebrated a common victory,” Mr. Beyrle said. The quote was taken down by Oleg Gorupai of the Defense Ministry’s in-house newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda, or Red Star. The newspaper routinely excoriates the American role in the region. Asked about his subject matter while working in the Caucasus, Mr. Gorupai, an editor, smiled and said, “Scolding America.”
But his column about Joe Beyrle reflected a different frame of mind. “The path of confrontation — it is a step into the desert, into the unknown,” he wrote. The gathering of old soldiers at Spaso House, he said, “once more testifies to the fact that all is not lost.”