The Real Life Story Behind Saving Private Ryan

Here's what really happened.
By We Are The Mighty

The 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan” is one of the all-time great war movies. While much of the movie is a fictional account, the premise behind Capt. Miller’s mission is based on a true story. That is the story of the Niland brothers — Edward, Preston, Robert, and Frederick — from Tonawanda, New York.

Matt Damon in “Saving Private Ryan.” (Image via Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures)

The two middle brothers, Preston and Robert, had enlisted prior to the beginning of the War. After America entered the war the oldest, Edward, and youngest, Frederick, known as Fritz to his friends, joined up in November 1942.

Because of the tragedy of the Sullivan brothers aboard the USS Juneau earlier that year, the brothers were split up and sent to different units around the Army.

Edward became an enlisted pilot, with the rank of Technical Sergeant, of a B-25 Mitchell bomber flying in the Burma-India-China theatre.

Preston was commissioned into the infantry and assigned to Company C, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division.

Robert and Fritz both became paratroopers. Robert served with Company D, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. Fritz joined Company H, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.

U.S. Army paratroopers are dropped near Grave, Netherlands while livestock graze near gliders that landed earlier. This was the beginning of Operation Market Garden during World War II, which resulted in heavy Allied losses. (Photo source unknown)

As fate would have it, three of the brothers found themselves preparing for the invasion of mainland Europe.

However, before the brothers could start their “Great Crusade” to liberate Europe, Edward was shot down somewhere over Burma. He was listed as Missing in Action, but this usually carried a presumption of death at the time, especially if he had fallen into the hands of the Japanese.

Then, in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, Robert and Fritz joined over 23,000 Allied paratroopers in cracking Fortress Europe.

Although Fritz’s unit, 3rd Battalion, 501st PIR, was supposed to be the division reserve, the misdrops meant they were thrust into action in ad hoc groups. These forces were able to secure vital causeways, bridges, and locks allowing the 4th Infantry Division, and Niland brother Preston, to exit Utah beach later that day.

Elsewhere, Robert Niland had landed outside of Ste. Mere-Eglise with the rest of the 505th as part of Mission Boston. After the 3rd Battalion was able to capture the town early in the morning, the 2nd Battalion linked up with it to establish a defensive perimeter.

When a strong German counter-attack came from the south, Robert Niland and the rest of D Company’s 3rd platoon were left to guard the northern approaches to the town in a small village called Neuville.

When two companies of Germans came at their position, they fought tenaciously to hold them off to buy time for their comrades to the south. When the position became untenable, Robert Niland, along with two other paratroopers, volunteered to stay behind and cover the platoon’s retreat toward Ste. Mere-Eglise.

While manning a machine gun in the face of the German onslaught, Robert Niland was killed in action.

That very same morning, Lt. Preston Niland led his men onto the shores of Utah beach as part of the seaborne invasion of Normandy. Though casualties were relatively light for the men of the 4th Infantry Division on Utah beach, the battles beyond would be much tougher.

Despite having made if off the beaches, the men of the 4th Infantry Division still had numerous gun batteries of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall to clear. The task of capturing the Crisbecq battery, which had already sunk the destroyer USS Corry, fell to Lt. Niland and his men.

On June 7, Niland led his men against the German position. During the heavy fighting Niland fell mortally wounded. The rest of his unit was repulsed. The battery would not fall until several days later to units of the 9th Infantry Division.

The Niland brothers’ parents received all three notifications in a very short amount of time. Their only condolence was a letter from Fritz informing them that “Dad’s Spanish-American War stories are going to have to take a backseat when I get home.”

Fritz was unaware of the fate of his brothers.

Also read: 10 brothers who received the Medal of Honor

When the War Department received word of the tragedy orders were dispatched to return Fritz Niland to the United States. That task fell to the regimental Chaplin, Father Francis Sampson. Sampson located Fritz, who had been searching for his brother in the 82nd and began to paperwork to send him home.

Returning to the United States in 1944, Fritz served for the remainder of the war as an MP in New York.

Then, in May 1945, the Nilands received some rather unexpected news. Edward was found alive in a Burmese POW camp when it was liberated by British forces.

He had survived bailing out of his plane, several days in the jungle, and nearly a year as a prisoner of the Japanese. During his captivity he had lost significant weight and returned to New York at a meager 80 pounds.

The other two Niland brothers, Preston and Robert, are buried side-by-side in the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.




  1. Travis Aaron Wade June 25, 2018 at 15:25 - Reply

    Fantastic history there.
    I am currently producing a film alingside Dale Dye about the battle of La Fierre Bridge in Ste. Mere-Eglise
    Good to know these facts and possibly could honor Robert Niland in the film

  2. Noa August 25, 2019 at 04:57 - Reply


  3. James December 1, 2019 at 10:34 - Reply

    An amazing American story. I enjoyed saving private Ryan, but this was a true American heroic journey.

  4. Michael Blincoe February 2, 2020 at 23:14 - Reply

    I did NOT enjoy Saving Private Ryan. It had a typical B Movie plot, at best, that I grew up watching on TV or at matinees with a gimmick at the beginning that had been done in other, better movies already. Cross of iron and the beginning of Glory both come to mind immediately. As to other better movies I give you, in addition to the two fore named movies, Glory and Cross of Iron, Platoon, A Walk In The Sun, The Big Red One, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, The Longest Day, and The Battle of Britain. And that’s without even thinking hard. Oh yes, produced by the same director, Steven Spielberg, Band of Brothers and Pacific.
    The problem with Saving Private Ryan is that once they were off the beach with that gimmick at the beginning of that movie they were doing and saying things that you just don’t do when you’re in the military. Arguing with their Superior officer on more than one occasion and insisting on a vote about what they were going to do at one point in the movie…. Typical B-movie nonsense. NOT going to happen in real life unless there is a complete breakdown of discipline, as happened in Vietnam, especially towards the end. Also, the portrayal by Matt Damon of Fritz Niland, a member of the 101st Airborne Division, the best of the best, as a whimpering little kid while the regular Infantry under Tom Hanks saved his butt was disgusting and absolutely unrealistic.

  5. Funnel Scriber February 5, 2020 at 12:15 - Reply

    Although I feel the movie did depict away from the true story, it was still, in my opinion, an accurate reflection of the hard times that were in the war. Whilst, I wasn’t there, it gave us some insight on how families etc were affected.

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