The Incredible True Story Behind Saving Private Ryan

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Saving Private RyanParamount Pictures

Harrowing, brutal and violent, Saving Private Ryan is an unflinchingly realistic war film, which re-defined the genre.

Set during the chaotic Invasion of Normandy, the film follows United States Army Captain, John H. Miller, (Tom Hanks), and his squad as they search for Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), the last-surviving brother of four other soldiers.

The film’s renowned for its graphic portrayal of war, and director Steven Spielberg worked hard to make his depiction of one of the bloodiest conflicts of the last century, as historically accurate as possible.

His hard work paid off, with a number of World War Two veterans claiming the film was the most realistic depiction of what combat is really like.

Yet, did you know Spielberg actually based the film’s main story, the titular ‘search for Private Ryan’, on the real-life story of the Niland Brothers?

Like the Ryans, the Niland’s were four brothers from America who served in the US Army during the Second World War, and just like the brothers in the film, three of them died in the conflict.

The eldest, Sergeant Edward Niland, was shot down as he flew his plane over Burma, while the other two brothers, Lieutenant Preston Niland and Sergeant Robert ‘Bob’ Niland, both died while fighting the Germans at Normandy.

This left the youngest brother, Frederick ‘Fritz’ Niland, who like James Ryan, was a paratrooper serving in France, as the last surviving boy in the family.

Unfortunately, there was no Captain Miller character in the story as far as we know, nor was there any major search for Fritz.

Instead, he found out he was the last in his family when he went to visit Bob and was told the bad news by a chaplain.

As the sole male heir and the last of his family name, Fritz was then sent back to England – and then the US, where he served as a member of the military police in New York – until the war was over.

Here’s where things take a turn worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster though. Like Ben Affleck in Pearl Harbour, one of the brothers wasn’t really dead.

Edward, the brother shot down over Burma, had managed to eject from his plane and parachute to safety, or the relative safety of a Burmese prisoner of war camp, where he was held for a year.

Eventually, the camp was liberated towards the end of the war and Edward returned home to New York, where he lived until he died in 1984.

Fritz meanwhile was awarded a Bronze Star for his service, and following the war, he worked as a dentist in Niagara Falls before his death in 1983.

Both Fritz and Edward were buried near each other at the Normandy American Cemetery in France.

Over 16 million Americans served in the American armed forces during the Second World War, just under half a million were killed in action while over 600,000 were wounded.

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