Memories of a father help fight prejudices

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When John Beyrle, the new American ambassador to Moscow, 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 Washington planning to rearm Georgia? Is it true that the United States is sneaking weapons into Georgia disguised as humanitarian aid?

And then: Is it true that your father was a Soviet soldier?

The answer, which Beyrle 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 22-year-old from Muskegon, Michigan, 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!"

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.

In 1994, President Boris 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."

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