Arlington Burial for Swiss-Born WWII Hero

Arlington Burial for Swiss-Born WWII Hero

The glare of a powerful flashlight and bright torches illuminated the house. Four German hand grenades smashed through the windows and sailed into the room.

“We’re surrounded–let’s get out of here fast!” René Joyeuse yelled to the resistance fighters in the house as he picked up his Colt .45 lying on the table.

Over fifty SS troops engulfed the safe house from which the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) agent and his men were operating. The powerful blast from the grenades violently hurled the spy to floor. Miraculously, he wasn’t killed or injured. He got up and squeezed off three rounds, shooting his way out of the house. On his fourth shot, the gun jammed.

Bolting through the side door, Joyeuse and his two companions took off into the night, followed closely by the Germans. Separating from his friends, he charged down alleys and scaled brick walls, dodging bullets all the way. On at least two occasions, his pursuers shot at him from point-blank range with their machine guns, but Joyeuse managed to evade them.

Eventually, bleeding from multiple wounds, covered in bruises, and exhausted, he sought shelter in an apartment he happened upon.  Ironically, it belonged to a woman who was a Gestapo informant.  The injured Joyeuse lay on the floor throughout the night, gripping his pistol in one hand and his potassium cyanide L-pill in the other.  He was ready for any hand fate would deal him.

The Gestapo and SS searched the area until dawn, ignoring their informant’s apartment because they never suspected a collaborator would harbor an OSS agent. Both of of his comrades were captured and executed. But miraculously, Joyeuse not only survived, but managed to continue to relay critical information to his American OSS commanding officer.

His intelligence network, which included over 30 subagents, gathered reams of actionable intelligence, including the locations of a V-1 pulse-jet factory, an oil refinery, and units headed to the Normandy beachhead. Later, relying on this information, Allied bombers destroyed all these targets, devastating the Germans.  In a scene that could have been ripped from a Hollywood movie, the ingenious OSS agent stole an entire German jet engine and safely transported it to Allied lines.

In addition to gathering critical intelligence information that tremendously aided the Allied cause, Joyeuse saved countless Allied lives. During his time in Nazi-occupied France, He helped create an “underground railroad” of safe houses that transported to safety more than 200 downed Allied airmen who were trapped behind enemy lines.

In recognition of OSS operative René Joyeuse’s many accomplishments, General Dwight Eisenhower himself awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross.

Arguably, René Joyeuse was one of America’s greatest spies of World War II.   His work for our country was not over.  After the war, Joyeuse returned to the United States, and went on to become a national recognized medical doctor, renowned for his work in heart research and trauma care. 

It came as a complete shock to me when, in June 2012, his son, Marc Joyeuse confided in me, “They won’t let Dad into Arlington.”

Shocked and angered, I was surprised to learn that Arlington refused inurnment because Joyeuse was part of the “shadow war”–a member of the OSS instead of the U.S. Armed Forces. Also, René was also a Swiss-born foreign national who didn’t become an American citizen until immediately following the war, though he immigrated to the U.S. prior to the war.

The pre-cursor of the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), was one of the most remarkable agencies ever created by the United States. Under the incredible leadership of William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the OSS uniquely blended spy-craft and special operations. The current-day U.S. Special Forces, including the U.S. Army Green Berets and the U.S. Navy Seals, trace their true origins to this amazing agency. Joyeuse’s work for the OSS was no reason to deny him a place in Arlington, because he in fact qualified for inurnment under Arlington’s exception criteria.

After speaking with several government officials that I knew, I shared the Joyeuse’ plight with then Director of Central Intelligence, General David Petraeus, and why I believed that Joyeuse’s request for burial at Arlington warranted approval under the rules.  Acknowledging that the former spy’s request may have been unjustly refused, the general  promised to do something about it.

Working with the Joyeuse family, General Petraeus reviewed reams of evidence that supported the late spy’s request to be buried at Arlington.  He and his team helped shepherd the family through an exception process that required documentation nearly ½-inch thick, proving Joyeuse’s achievements during the war. He also sent to Secretary of the Army John McHugh a formal request that included a personal, hand-written note:

“Mr. Secretary–I would deeply appreciate your support for this request for a waiver. The situation seems very unique and the rationale quite exceptional. It would mean a great deal to the agency family and its forerunner, the OSS. Many thanks–Dave”

I also contacted the commanding officer of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), Admiral McRaven, a fellow historian and student of WWII special operations forces. After I mentioned Joyeuse’s case, he informed me that my lines of communication were already working.  General Petraeus had been in contact with him, relayed the evidence supporting Joyeuse’s request, and now SOCOM was also on the case. Like Petraeus, McRaven also wrote to the Secretary of the Army, noting,

“Dr. Joyeuse is a true American patriot who dedicated his life to serving the U.S. I offer my strongest endorsement in support of his family’s request for inurnment in Arlington National Cemetery. This is one of the greatest honors we can bestow upon our Nation’s heroes and I certainly count Dr. Joyeuse among those ranks.”

General Petraeus and his staff made an effort to see that just honors were bestowed on him, despite many other pressing demands on his time. As a soldier’s soldier, I think he understood that Joyeuse’s efforts on behalf of our country were emblematic of an entire generation’s sacrifices, and that the OSS spy was a symbol for his fellow WWII veterans, now in their twilight. The general acknowledged that recognizing this hero was the right thing to do.

The United States is honoring Joyeuse for his selfless contributions on behalf of our country.  At 3 pm on Good Friday, March 28, 2013, Rene Joyeuse’s sons and his wife, Suzanne, will see the fulfillment of his final wish: months before he died, Rene told his sons, “I will be buried at Arlington.

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a award winning historian and the bestselling author of eight books, the most recent being Dog Company: The Boys of Pointe du Hoc the Rangers Who Accomplished D-Day’s Toughest Mission and Lead the Way Across Europe. and


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