We did not consider ourselves to be heroes. We were trained to do our jobs for our country…and we did them.
Jim Martin speaks modestly concerning his military service during World War II. He’s a serious man, however, sharp as a tack, informed, and concerned about the future of his country.
During training, Jim acquired his nickname “Pee Wee”. It didn’t bother him. When he enlisted, Mr. Martin weighed 106 pounds. “Pee Wee” Martin was the smallest man in the 101st Airborne.
When you think about killing Krauts, if you have seen the Longest Day (1962), if you have seen A Bridge Too Far (1977), or watched Battleground (1949), a movie about the Battle of the Bulge, he was there. High Private Martin is one of the original Taccoa men depicted in Band of Brothers, the 506th PIR, 101st, ABN. Jim did not serve in Co. E., he fought with Co. G.
In 2006, I was invited to a reunion of Co. G held at Stan Clever’s home and met Mr. Martin after speaking to him on the phone. Mr. Clever was Jim’s squad leader.
Mr. Clever, now deceased, shared with me the story about when he was captured June 8, 1944. On a recon mission, he fell asleep and two Krauts got the drop on him. Taken behind the German lines, a cook gave him some bread. “They weren’t all bad,” the old soldier said.
During his captivity, Mr. Clever was forced to fill in craters on airfields. With the help of flirting French maidens who distracted the guards, he and others escaped. Tired and hungry, a companion decided to knock on a door and take a risk. Fortunately, the inhabitants were members of the French Underground and aided by an RAF flier shot down in 1939 and ordered to stay behind, Stan escaped and returned to the outfit.
At the beginning of the siege at Bastogne, the squad was ordered to pull back but Sgt. Clever did not get the word. He stayed on the 30 cal. and his men took bets on whether Stan would get back. When he returned to American lines and learned about it, “I got pretty sore.” What an honor to hear these stories!
Last August, I visited Jim again at his home which is nestled in the woods on a hillside. We spent a pleasant afternoon discussing current affairs, political and economic. The subject of his experience fighting in Europe was not the focus of our conversation. A passing summer shower silenced the many birds. When they began flying about again, there were cardinals, bluejays, robins, and sparrows. A woodpecker made an appearance, the first one I had ever seen in nature. That afternoon was one of the most memorable of my life.
The following letter was written in 1945 after Jim was evacuated from Bastogne with frozen feet.
Tonight I’m very lonely. I’ve never written that before and maybe it’s a shock and then again maybe you’ve read between the lines and have known it all along.
When I was on the line it didn’t bother me too much, but now I’m away from the outfit and it seems I may be away for quite some time. It’s a funny kind of feeling. It’s as if I was detached and surveying the scene through the wrong end of a telescope.
I’ve tried to drown my feelings through reading, but the stuff I read only makes me realize how much I miss good reading material. At night I lay awake and think of the time two and a half years ago, when the outfit was formed — a brand new unit with all new men straight from every street and all ends of the country and all walks of life. At first we were apt to be a little intolerant and sharp in our judgment of one another’s faults. But after a time we were drawn closer by the press of hard training and a common goal. It was no longer irritating to me when the fellow in the next bunk came in boisterous late at night. I understood it was just his way of blowing off steam.
After a time we made our first jump, and then came the day we got our wings. I remember how proud I was when I came home. Then, more training, and then England. Another period of training, parachute failures, plane crashes and serious injuries and a death here and there. Then Normandy — a nightmare of noise, mangled bodies and death. It didn’t seem to bother me at all. Then back to England — and as I walked through the barracks, I realized then how empty the place was…and those guys weren’t coming back.
Replacements, a few weeks of rest and then — Holland, another nightmare of burning planes and death. A trip to the hospital and back to the outfit. Even more empty bunks this time than the last. More replacements, a few weeks rest — and then Bastogne. Hunger, and piled up bodies. Now all I can do is think and think. Now….all the guys who started with me and who are still with me wouldn’t overcrowd the average living room. Often, I’ve knelt by the body of a pal and thought of the things we’ve done together. It’s peculiar, but there’s never any connection between the fellow in my mind and the battered shell of flesh and bone beside me.
As I look back, I think of home with an apathetic numbness. It seems so very far away that it seems impossible that I’ll ever get back. As I look forward, I can see only an endless cycle of death until my turn comes.
Mother — I want you to know that I’m not afraid to die. I’ve done very little for which I’m ashamed, and feel that God will forgive me. You now I’d love to see home once more. It would be so nice to lie on the soft grass along the Stillwater River in the summer and watch the fish slide through the cool deep pools; to see the snakes slither around in search of frogs and mice while the squirrels in the tall elms chatter at the birds that disturb their slumber. In the evening it would be nice to sit with Edith and the family, with Bing nuzzling my hand and whining for attention.
Mother, you and I have always been good pals, and you’ll remember, I always came to you with my troubles. I don’t feel bitter about my lot nor do I wish any other mother’s son was in my place. I just want you to feel I’m a little boy again, coming to you with a scratched knee or a stubbed toe. It still makes me feel better to share my thought with you. And, if I don’t get back, I hope you can make you proud of me for the part I played in the war.
To read about Jim Martin’s battalion during the Normandy Campaign, click here.
Mr. Martin’s Facebook page
Local WWII hero Joe Beyrle’s possessions part of international exhibit
Published: Tuesday, February 16, 2010, 9:41 PM Updated: Monday, February 22, 2010, 7:04 PM
By Susan Harrison Wolffis | Muskegon Chronicle
A Chronicle article in 1945 had the story when World War II hero Joe Beyrle, a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles, returned home. He was the first paratrooper to land in Normandy and the only soldier to fight for both the United States and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.
His life is the stuff of legends; his story, told around the world.
Now it’s time for the late Joseph R. Beyrle’s war artifacts to make the trip overseas — poignant, personal reminders of the unique spot Muskegon’s best-known World War II veteran holds in history.
Beyrle, who was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division’s Screaming Eagles, is thought to be the only American soldier to fight with both the U.S. and Soviet armies during World War II.
“Here’s a guy from Muskegon, and he’s a war hero in both the U.S. and Russia. What other city can claim that?” says John McGarry III, executive director of the Lakeshore Museum Center, formerly the Muskegon County Museum, where Beyrle’s artifacts are normally held.
But Beyrle’s story has always been too big to stay home.
On Thursday, a retrospective of his life — a traveling exhibit called “Jumpin’ Joe Beyrle: A Hero for Two Nations” — will open at the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. The exhibit is timed to coincide with Russia’s Defender of the Fatherland Day celebration Feb. 23, honoring that country’s war veterans.
Beyrle, who died on Dec. 12, 2004, at the age of 81, is considered one of those defenders, an American awarded a chestful of medals for his service by the Russians.
“Jumpin’ Joe’s” exhibit will open in St. Petersburg with ceremony and celebration, as well as a day-long seminar given by McGarry; Greg Guroff, president of the Foundation for International Arts and Education, which sponsored the exhibit; and Thomas H. Taylor, who wrote the book, “The Simple Sounds of Freedom,” about Beyrle’s life.
One more speaker, someone whose interest in the exhibit is more than historical in nature, will be there: John Beyrle, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, the son of the late Joe and JoAnne Beyrle.
As soon as he learned he was being named ambassador to Russia in 2008, John Beyrle and his siblings — Julie Schugars of Muskegon and Joseph Beyrle Jr. — talked to McGarry about borrowing their father’s artifacts from the local museum.
“The fact that I’m now Ambassador adds another layer of poignancy, but his story has always captivated Russians, as much as it has Americans,” says John Beyrle.
In May 2009, after delivering the Hackley Distinguished Lecture in Muskegon, John Beyrle carried the artifacts back to Russia, delivering them to Russian State Museum where the staff designed and curated the exhibit.
The international importance of the exhibit isn’t lost on the Ambassador.
“When you consider that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were once bitter ideological rivals, our wartime alliance against Hitler was a remarkable triumph of pragmatism and common interest,” John Beyrle says. “I think the exhibit will help remind Russians that they have far more in common with Americans than they sometimes think.”
Joe Beyrle’s artifacts in the exhibit are remarkably simple, but together they piece together his life — his Army boots, his high school basketball uniform, a duplicate set of his Army “dog tags” issued because his original set were stolen on D-Day when he was taken prisoner by the Germans, the telegram to his parents informing them he’d been killed in action.
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, Beyrle was captured after parachuting into French territory, ahead of the D-Day invasion in Normandy. The German soldier who took Beyrle prisoner stole his dog tags. Presumably it was the German who was later killed, and buried in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, France, among thousands of Americans who died in the war.
“Joe’s story is fascinating. It has to be told. It can’t be forgotten,” Guroff says. “The memories of the second World War are slowly disappearing. Our veterans are dying. We hope Joe’s story prompts discussion, all kinds of discussion.”
After being captured, Beyrle spent the next 10 months, shuttled through at least seven P.O.W. camps. He tried to escape once, unsuccessfully.
But in the spring of 1945, Beyrle escaped from a camp in Altdrewitz on the Oder River, intent on rejoining his fellow American soldiers. Instead, he hooked up with a Russian tank unit, serving for a month under the command of a woman officer. During that time, he helped liberate the very P.O.W. camp from which he escaped. Later, he was severely wounded in battle and sent to Moscow, where he was held at the Metropol Hotel until they could identify him — this soldier with no dog tags, no proof of citizenship — through his fingerprints.
There he met Marshal Georgi Zhukov, the Soviets’ top World War II general, who arranged for him to be sent to the U.S. Embassy — where Beyrle’s son now is the Ambassador, 65 years later.
Beyrle and his wife returned to Russia at least seven times in the years that followed. The last time was in 2004, when he was honored with a special medal and commemorative rifle from General Mikhail Kalashnikov. Earlier, he’d received medals from President Bill Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin of Russian, commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994.
The United States entered World War II on December 8, 1941 after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. I was in my last year of high school in Muskegon, Michigan. I graduated on June 7, 1942 from St. Joseph High School in Muskegon and had a scholarship to attend Notre Dame University, which I did not accept. Instead, I enlisted in the United States Army and volunteered for the Parachute Infantry.
I was inducted on September 17, 1942 at Fort Custer, Michigan. I went through the usual induction exams and tests and received my uniform and clothing allotment. I and 10 men who had also volunteered received orders’ to proceed to Camp Toccoa, Georgia, and I was put in charge of the detail and given temporary rank of Corporal. We traveled by train from Battle Creek, Michigan, to Toccoa, Georgia, arriving in the evening of the second day. We were picked up by trucks, transported on Highway 13, past a casket factory to Camp Toccoa, which was formerly known as Camp Toombs, after a Civil War General. I was assigned to a barrack with double bunks which was to be my home for the next three months. We were further processed for the next week, issued additional clothing, equipment, and weapons. One of mine was a 8 pound Garand M-1 30 caliber rifle with bayonet. We received basic infantry, advanced infantry training (AIT). The last month was A and B stage of parachute training. All of our training was at “double time” and pushups were common place, 10 to 50 at a time. We trained on a rifle range at Clemson, South Carolina, forced marched 32 miles, with full-field equipment to and from Clemson. Everyday we would run the mountain called “Currahee”, one and a half miles up and down, three to five days a week. We ran the obstacle course back and forth over a stream between two hills; followed by 30 minutes of hard calisthenics with between one to four mile runs daily. I was assigned to I Company 3rd Battalion 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. I became part of I Company Headquarters as a radio operator.
Late November 1942, we were alerted to move to Fort Benning Georgia for C and D stage parachute training. The 1st Battalion of the Regiment entrained at Toccoa and rode to Fort Benning. The 2nd Battalion forced marched from Camp Toccoa to Atlanta Georgia, approximately 140 miles. The 3rd Battalion rode the train to Atlanta and forced marched 162 miles in 72 hours to Fort Benning, Georgia, setting a world record for a forced march by a military unit, formerly held by the Japanese Army. We were quartered, in raised huts, in the “Frying Pan area” about one-quarter mile from Lawson Field, where we took C and D Stage along with the 250 foot parachute tower jumps, learning to pack parachutes, landing skills, and finally 5 parachute jumps from an airplane in flight. After five successful jumps, I received my jump wings from Colonel Robert Sink, Regimental Commander. After home leave for 15 days, I returned to Fort Benning for radio, demolition, and rigger training. After six weeks, I joined the Regiment at Camp McCall, North Carolina.
In April and May we made additional parachute jumps. In June, the 506th took part in the Tennessee maneuvers, as well as additional Company, Battalion and Regimental training exercises in July. Also, in June, the 506th PIR became part of the 101st Airborne Division. In August the Division was alerted to move overseas.
The Regiment moved to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for overseas processing, shots, medical and new equipment in late August. We were transferred to Camp Shanks and then to the 42nd Street dock, on the East River, in New York City, where we boarded the HMS Samaria for the trip to England. We formed into convoys for an uneventful trip except for several alerts and one attack. We arrived in Liverpool England on September 17, 1943, one year after I had entered into the United States Army. We next moved by rail to Ramsbury with 3rd Battalion quartered in or near the town about 40 miles west of London. The next nine months were spent on further hard training. In January 1944, I was picked to attend British jump school. After three jumps from a barrage balloon, two from an aircraft, I received my British Wings. In April, and May, I volunteered for a mission to take gold into occupied France. I was one of three picked from our Regiment. We were moved to an airfield at Middle Wallop for training and briefing, from there to an airfield north of Bournemouth where we were briefed on a mission, not told where we would jump and issued heavy waist bandoliers with gold coins. I never was told who the other two men were. We flew for one to two hours and jumped at night and were picked up by French Underground, I turned over my bandolier and was taken to a safe house where I rested, ate and drank. The next 7-10 days we moved continuously. We were picked up by plane at night and returned to England. In early May we did the same mission and were picked up and returned to England.
As my unit prepared for invasion the day after my return to my unit we were alerted to move to a marshaling area at Exeter, England. We were locked in with no outside contact. We made a night parachute drop, assembled, and went back to Ramsbury. Two weeks later, we went back to the same marshaling area. This time we were told it was France, issued French invasion currency and phrase books and live ammunition and other items, briefed with sand table mockups, told what our mission was in France, given final briefing and issued parachutes. Mission was delayed for a day because of weather. On the night of June 5, 1944 we loaded into C-47s and took off.
The invasion of Normandy was on. We flew approximately 90 minutes from England when we hit the Normandy Peninsula. We started taking AA and ground fire, flying at approximately 700 feet. Several planes were hit and exploded or crashed. We got the stand-up and hook-up, redlight, greenlight, and jumped at 400 feet and I landed on the church roof at Ste Come Du Mont, taking fire from church steeple, slid down and made my way through a cemetery surrounding a church, over a wall and headed toward our objective, which was two wooden bridges over the Douave River behind Utah Beach.
The Germans had torched a house in the area where I jumped and were firing at the planes that followed us. Tracer bullets were criss-crossing the sky. Many troopers were hit before landing. I was loose for almost 20 hours in which time I blew a power substation in Ste Come Du Mont. Again on Highway 13, I threw grenades into groups of Germans. As I was trying to make my way to the bridges, I crawled over a hedgerow and landed in a German machine gun position manned by 10-12 Germans and was captured. Fortunately, I was captured by German paratroopers. I was stripped of my weapons and I was taken to a German underground HQ in an apple orchard north of Ste Come Du Mont for interrogation. While being interrogated, I was moved to another underground room, to my surprise, there was a young blond woman setting on the corner of the officer’s desk. I would give only my name, rank, and serial number per Geneva Convention Rules of War. She proceeded to tell me that she had been in Ramsbury and had danced with, and named, many of my buddies and officers.
After this little game, I was moved to a temporary POW enclosure in another orchard and held until evening and marched along Highway 13 toward Carentan. We started taking artillery fire on the column, killing and wounding GIs and German guards. This time I took a piece of shrapnel in the left butt, nothing serious and was blown in the ditch along the road. After recovering from the shock, I helped bandage and put tourniquets on two GIs who had their legs blown off. After which we pulled them up on the road and after a German patrol picked them up, I and two others took off into the brush and I became separated from the other two. After about 12-16 hours, I was recaptured almost the same way as the first capture. I was immediately moved through Carentan and loaded on truck and taken toward St. Lo. As we entered St. Lo, our convoy was strafed by US planes. On the second pass, we were able to evacuate the truck and take cover. Luckily, no one was killed or wounded. We were marched through St. Lo to a horse stable on the road to Tessy. That night, St. Lo was bombed and the only two things that were not hit were our stable and the church across the road. The next morning when we were marched out, St. Lo was in ruins, with very few buildings standing. After marching 6-10 hours, we arrived at a walled monastery outside the small village of Tessy Sur Mur. This was a holding place for POWs and became known as Starvation Hill. I was removed from the monastery by the Germans and taken to an interrogation center somewhere in France. I was interrogated 20-24 hours a day, they were trying to get all the usual questioned answered. “Why me, a German, was I fighting for the Jews Roosevelt and Morganthau against my own people?” Sometime during the questioning I called a German officer a “SOB” and woke up several days later in a hospital with a big headache and a bashed head and later I was taken back to the monastery.
Seven to ten days later, a group was moved to Alencon, France, about 100-140 miles and held in a compound near a German airfield which was bombed day and night. We were able to volunteer for work, details from this camp repairing rail beds. After we left each evening the U.S. planes would bomb and destroy them. After several days, this work detail was discontinued. These details gave us a chance to get food from Alencon. We were moved to Chartes, France, outside of Paris. After two weeks in a warehouse with very little food and water, we were dirty and unshaven. We were marched into Paris for propaganda purposes, spit on and pelted with rotten food by the people lining the streets. We were then loaded into “40 and 8″ box cars, 50 men to a car and locked in for 7 days and nights. With no sanitary facilities available, our health conditions became very serious. On the second day, while moving, we were strafed by planes. Our car was hit and seven to ten men were killed or died later and 20-25 were wounded. The boxcars were not unlocked for five more days, until we reached Stalag XIIA at Limburg, Germany. Those men who could walk were marched five miles to the camp and held in four big circus type tents, and slept on the ground with straw for a bed.
In this camp, we were finally registered as POWs, photographed and given our POW numbers and tags. Mine was XIIA 80213. We were also allowed to write a postcard to our families. This was the first time since capture that we were allowed to shave and shower, and even though it was cold water and very little soap, it felt good and raised our morale.
In a week or 10 days, we were on the move again, this time to Stalag IVB, about 40-50 miles south of Berlin. We stayed about a month at IVB – only the NCOs were moved from XIIA to IVB in compliance with the Geneva Convention rules. These rules state that men are segregated by nationality and rank, officers from NCOs and NCOs from PFCs and Privates.
On September 17, 1944, we were moved from IVB to IIIC at Alterdrewitz which was outside of Krustin, Poland and 45 miles east of Berlin on the Oder River. We were the first U.S. POWs at this camp, which had about 10,000 Russian POWs, including 200-300 Russian women POWs. We settled in and organized the camp. The senior U.S. NCO became the commander of the Americans, approximately 1,500 men. We were grouped into Battalions, Companies, and Squads. Security, Escap0e, Procurement, Administration and Information committees were formed. I was a member of the Escape and Security Committees.
Sometime in early October 1944 while I was out of the compound on work detail, a horse and wagon passed us on the road. It was loaded with potatoes. We all caused confusion and started “liberating” the potatoes when the guards began shooting at us. I was hit in the upper arm and one man fell under the wagon. The Germans said he was killed when the wagon ran over his head. I managed to cover my wound so it didn’t show and when we were finally taken back to the compound, one of our medics treated me. It was a through and through bullet wound to my upper right arm.
We had a “ferret” in our compound daily. He was a German soldier and his purpose was to roam the compound, barracks and yard and talk to the POWs to try to overhear any useful information. His name was “Schultz” and had served in World War I and was called back into the Army. He was a likable guy and many of the men would play jokes and pranks on him. He usually took it good, naturally. It came to the attention of the Security and Escape Committees that several escape plans were aborted late in the planning stage because of leaks somewhere in the compound. With further investigations and plants of disinformation it was narrowed down to one person. After further investigation, he was confronted with the accusations and isolated from the others and interrogated at length. He was charged with treason. A court martial was convened within the compound and after a two-day trail, he was found guilty. As a traitor, he was sentenced to death. He was executed, his body dismembered and put down the latrines. Records were made and brought out and returned to the U.S.A. After the war, it was determined that he had been infiltrated into the group in the move from IVB to IIC and that he was a German National.
From the time we reached Limburg XIIA, we received a very limited number of Red Cross food parcels which contained condensed milk, canned meat, cigarettes, and chocolate. Cigarettes became money in POW camps. They were used for barter. I and two other POWs had been talking about how we could escape, and I had won 60 packs of cigarettes in a dice game. After discussion we came up with a plan which we took to the Escape Committee. It was quite simple. I would offer one of the guards walking outside the barbed wire 10 packs of the cigarettes if he would let us cut the wire while he was walking post and then go through when his replacement was walking post. After several meetings through the wire with him, he agreed he would get five packs before and five packs after we escaped. The escape was planned for early November 1944, when there was no moon. We cut the wire, as planned and went through with no problems. There was a train rail south of the camp, with a light tree area between the camp and rail line. Each night about the same time between 9-11 pm a train pulled through, which our informant told us was going to Poland. We hopped the freight train and rode it to a junction. Instead of going to Poland, it went toward Berlin. Early the next morning, we ended up in the Berlin south rail yard. We stayed in the car most of the day. At dusk, we started east across the rail yard and went about five miles, ducking in and out of culverts and ditches. The yard was being bombed by the Brits by night and the U.S. by day. We watched as a older man was checking the wheel journal on the car. I approached him, asking for help to get some food and water. We told him we were escaped U.S. POWs and wanted to make contact with the German underground in Berlin. I offered cigarettes for his help. After much negotiation he agreed. Later that day he came back with some bread and sausage and beer and said he would return later to take us to the underground safe house. Just before dark he returned with a wagon and took us to a house in the outskirts of Berlin. We were met by several Germans to whom we showed our POW tags. They agreed to hide us and help us move west.
The next morning we heard loud voices and noises coming from upstairs. Then we heard shooting and we were ordered up from the basement by five men in civilian clothes, armed with Lugers. They searched us and took us into custody. In the next 7 to 10 days we found out everything we had heard about the Gestapo was true. We were interrogated, tortured, kicked, knocked around, walked on, hung up by our arms backwards, hit with whips, clubs, and rifle butts. When you thought they could do no more, they would think of other ways to torture you. When you would slip into semi-consciousness, they would start again. This went on for days at a time and then they would dump you into a cold, dark cell, with no sanitary facilities and dirty from a previous occupant. We were taken to a room, after several days of beatings, where we saw four or five German Army officers. The Gestapo were in an argument with them about us. The German officers had been informed the Gestapo had three escaped U.S. POWs and had come to get us, as we were German Army property, as escaped POWs. After further arguments and threats by the officers, the Gestapo released us and we were taken to Stalag Luft III at Sagan Germany. We were taken there because the Germans considered parachutists as air force personnel.
After seven days of recuperation, we were returned to Stalag IIIC and put in solitary confinement and sentenced to 30 days for escaping. Solitary confinement was in a cage-like box about six foot long, four foot wide, and five foot high. I could sit in it but not stand or lie down. I was given a G.I. blanket and hat and great coat in addition to the clothes I had on. My rations were German black bread and water. This cage was inside another room in a larger building. In late November the temperatures were always below 32 degrees F. and sometimes down to zero or below, so you had to keep in motion so you didn’t freeze. We were released after a week. It happened that the Red Cross representative from Geneva was making an inspection of the camp and intervened in our behalf.
I returned to my barracks and they had used the rest of my cigarettes I had left behind to get extra food, which I used to help build up my body and strength. I got a tongue-lashing from Schultz, telling me how foolish we were because “the war will be over soon and we will all go home to our families, Joe, you be a good boy now!” Things returned to normal life in the POW camp and we began to think about escaping again in early January 1945. We knew by our radios, hidden in camp, that the Russians were between 50 and 100 miles east of Krustin and advancing fast. We concocted a scheme that while in the exercise yard we would create a scene where one man would fake a seizure and two other men would run for a stretcher. Schultz was brought into the confusion and we told him the man needed immediate attention at the dispensary or hospital. We loaded him on the stretcher and I took one end and Brewer the other. We started for the gate and Schultz alerted the guards to let us through. As we reached the gate some of the POWs still in the yard faked a fight and Schultz went to stop it with the other guards.
We went through the double gate towards the dispensary and, once out of sight, we dumped the stretcher and hid out until a wagon came by. It had three 50 gallon wooden barrels on it, which the old men used to bring potatoes, and turnips into camp. We hid in the barrels and rode almost out of camp. As the wagon went past the last guard post at the gate, it went down a small hill, made a right turn, hit a stone and rolled over. The three barrels upset into the ditch and we came out running between the small trees and brush. The guards opened fire with machine guns and the two men who had escaped with me were hit and killed, but I was able to make it to a stream. By this time the guards had released the dogs, German Shepard’s as big as small ponies. But, as I was hiding in the stream, the dogs couldn’t get my scent. I stayed in the stream and traveled all night, going east and hid in barns during the day avoiding all people at farms.
As I traveled, I could hear artillery and small arms fire coming closer. On the third day I stayed in a hay loft in a barn and the next morning firing and explosions were all around and I stayed hidden all day. In the evening, a Russian armored unit came into the farm yard. I came out and identified myself to the Russian commander as an “Americanski Tovarish” in English and broken Polish. I told her that I was an escaped U.S. POW and I wanted to join them and go to Berlin with them and kill Nazis. After much consultation between the commander and the Soviet Commissar, I was allowed to join them and was given a Russian sub-machine gun with a round drum. The next morning after very heavy artillery saturation of the area to our west, we left the farm and headed west. There I was, an American escaped POW on an American Sherman tank, with a woman tank commander!
I was in the seventh or eight tank back from the front. Most of the time for the next few weeks we continued west, getting into several heavy fire fights with the retreating Germans. About two or three days after I joined them we were advancing west on a two-track road when the lead tanks opened fire. I learned later that they had fired on a column of U.S. POWs being marched from the camp I had escaped from, IIIC. The Germans had several scout cars and vehicles at the head of the column and many Germans were killed or wounded and two to three U.S. POWs were killed and some wounded. At that time, we went cross country north-west and then west. The next day we came upon the camp I had escaped from. Some of the POWs hid out and did not march out with the rest. After a small fire fight with the guards, we entered the camp and I was asked to come to the commandant’s office. The Russians had some quarter-pound blocks of U.S. nitro-starch they did not know how to explode. I blew open the big safe in the office and the Russians were interested in the camera, watches, rings and any Russian rubles. I was able to liberate most of the U.S. dollars and invasion currency as well as Canadian dollars, British pounds, and French francs. I had a satchel as big as a three-suiter filled with currency, which I tied on the back of our tank. I was also able to get my POW record and picture which I was able to bring home.
We left the camp and headed west again. Over the next week or two we advanced each day but were sometimes held up by strong opposition by tanks or artillery. Early one morning, just after leaving our defense area, our tank column was attacked from the rear by Stuka Divebombers. We took evasive action but not soon enough. I came to with a Russian medic working on my right leg, in the groin area, and was in and out of consciousness much of the day. I woke up in a Russian hospital in or near Poland. After a few days I was beginning to feel better and thinking about leaving and making my way towards Warsaw when three was much commotion in the hospital ward. Many of the patients were trying to stand up and I was too, when a Russian officer came towards me. I recognized him immediately as Marshal Zhukov. He told me to lie down, through an interpreter, and asked how I was feeling, where I was wounded. When he was told I was an American escaped POW, he asked if my wounds were treated, asked about my family, where I had been captured, if there was anything he could do for me. I told him I had lost all of my army identification and could he help. He spoke to his aide and left. The next day I received a letter, in Russian, that I was told identified me as an American U.S. Army paratrooper and ordering help to get me to Moscow. Two days later, I started east in a Russian convoy of wounded towards Lodz, Poland.
Eventually we go to Warsaw, which was a pile of rubble. I asked for help from a Pole and was taken to a convent in the middle of Warsaw where they dressed my wounds which were infected. I was given some hot food and rested for a couple of days, then made my way across the Vistula River on a pontoon bridge and then to Remberto, Poland. There I was put on a Russian hospital train and ended up in the outskirts of Moscow. A Russian colonel took me by subway to the American Embassy in the old National Hotel just off Red Square. I had showed the colonel my letter, and in the excitement of reaching the U.S. Embassy, I forgot to get it back from him.
A U.S. major took over at that point, and I was fed and had the opportunity to take a hot bath, my wounds were treated and I was given a clean uniform. The major and another officer then interviewed me; name, rank, serial number, where captured, what outfit, date of birth, and place, etc. Late that night the major told me I would be taken to a hotel near the Embassy. Each day I was questioned further and a third person was also in the room, an armed Marine Sergeant. I asked why the armed Marine and was told there was a mix-up. Joseph R. Beyrle had been killed in action on June 10, 1944, in France. I was to be held at the hotel until the records could be corrected. Each night there was a Marine guard at my door. I talked to him late into the night, trying to convince him who I was and we had long discussions. One time, when he turned his back, I jumped him, but after a short scuffle, he pinned me. I was not match for him in my condition. The major was called and he ordered no more action of this kind, he and the guards were convinced I was who I said I was. I had asked to be fingerprinted and it had taken time for the Army and Washington to confirm my identity.
Later, I was taken to meet the U.S. Ambassador Averill Harriman and General Dean. There were also an additional 10 to 15 Americans who had collected in Moscow. We were flown to Odessa, Russia. In this group were a couple of war correspondents, Generals and Colonels. I was the only enlisted man. I met up with other liberated POWs in Odessa, loaded onto a ship and went out through the Black Sea to Istanbul, Turkey.
The ship put into port for a short repair and then landed at Port Said, Egypt. We were given clean clothes, issued toilet articles, etc. Our wounds were treated and healing. We then transferred to the HMS Samaria, the same ship I was on when we came from America to England in 1943! But the food was much better this time. We went to Naples, Italy, where I was hospitalized and had some surgery to remove shrapnel from my wounds.
On April 1, 1945 we left from Naples for the United States. I went to Catholic Mass on Easter Sunday in the ship’s dining room, said by a U.S. chaplain who had been a POW. Ten days later we landed in Boston. We were processed and sent by train to Fort Sheridan, Illinois for further processing. I was given a 30-day delay in route to visit my home and family before going to Miami Beach, Florida for rest and recuperation (R and R). I arrived home in Muskegon on April 21, 1945, to greet my family who had had official notices that I was missing in action in France, then a prisoner of war, then killed in action and finally that I was a prisoner of war. A funeral Mass was held for me, my parents were paid my GI insurance (which they returned) and my name was inscribed on my hometown War Memorial. After 90 days at home, courtesy of leave extensions, I left to go to Florida, via Chicago, where I was admitted to Vaughan General Military Hospital until November 28, 1945, when I was honorably discharged from the Army due to disabilities.
My funeral Mass was held at St. Joseph’s Church in Muskegon by Father Stratz on Spetember 17, 1944. My wife and I were married in the same church on September 14, 1946, by Father Stratz. We are now the parents of a daughter and two sons and have seven grandchildren.
Jim Martin Letter 101st Airborne
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