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.

The Real Life Story Behind Saving Private Ryan
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The Real Life Story Behind Saving Private Ryan
The 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan” is one of the all-time great war movies.
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  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.

  6. Johan April 8, 2020 at 20:59 - Reply

    With all due respect, Mr. Blincoe, I believe the first twenty minutes of the movie needs to be seen by everyone over 13 yrs of age. Heroism and courage looks just the way this show started out. The seconds grind out like an eternity, much of what was planned couldn’t be obtained unless the right ratio of pain, screaming, unfruitful massacre, and the destruction of the flower of youth had taken place. This extremely high cost purchase price must at least be witnessed in the in the virtual since no one would wish this to ever happen again to young Americans to be first person witness to such a horror. I didn’t watch the first twenty minutes seeing a gimmick, but saw what so many of my dad and his veteran of the Second World would talk about in infrequent, fleeting, difficult words, in very few words.

  7. Greg Davis June 29, 2020 at 00:18 - Reply

    All respect to Michael Blincoe I will correct him on the unit Tom Hanks was in. This was no regular army unit but 2/75 Rangers. They weren’t Airborne at the time but very highly trained, in fact they had just climbed the cliff at Point du Hoc. The standing orders were to take out German machine gun nests on top of the ridge. I do however agree you’re correct in stating that the movie went to a B movie feel and that in either units that were portrayed in Saving Private Ryan would not have been so undisciplined especially arguing with NCOs and a Commander . Also you mentioned the longest day I would also include a bridge too far. Both movies had military liaisons named Jim Gavin and Chaplain ‘Chappy” Woods. Both men were very instrumental in both Overlord and Market Garden. Just FYI. You’re also correct on this the 101st and 82nd being the more recognizable units in this campaign but 2nd 75th Rangers would go on to be a much more specialized fighting force. Probably the best light infantry force in the world imo.

  8. Ed Netherton July 4, 2020 at 19:33 - Reply

    To Michael Blincoe I say. IT IS A MOVIE! Most people go for entertainment. That doesn’t mean we don’t understand the significance of the overall story. I see some of the small things you point out, but so what. IT’S A MOVE. If everything was perfect to your expectations would it have garnered the awards it has? By the very virtue of it’s popularity it has exposed millions to the bigger story of what happened in WWII. I say good job Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

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