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Pete Niland

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Niland Brothers - Story Behind 'Saving Private Ryan'
January 10, 2011

The story of my family revolves around D- Day June 6th, 1944 and our family's connection with Steven Spielberg's movie Saving Private Ryan. 

I am Preston Niland. I am called Pete named after my Uncle Preston whom I never met. I work at the University at Buffalo and have a daughter named Briana and my wife Jan.

We are from Tonawanda New York, not Iowa as the movie suggested. Our family's history of service includes my Grandfather, Michael Niland, who served in The Spanish American war with the Rough Riders. He went up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. (Photo right... Mike Niland is top right above, sitting with Teddy Roosevelt, lower left, at San Juan Hill, almost half a century before D-Day.)

In addition, my great Uncle Fred was a WWI hero.

My Grandmother, Augusta Niland, (Nicknamed Gussie) had six children. (Four sons and two daughters) All four boys joined the service and fought in WWII.

I read a letter, at the HBO taping, from my Uncle Bobby to his mom that moved the entire production crew. It revolved around the fact that all her sons would return safely which clearly was not the case. My three uncles were in the invasion of Normandy and my Dad was sent into the China Burma Theater. So, as of June 7th, 1944, all four brothers had been reported killed or missing in action.

  Michael Niland is top right above, sitting with Teddy Roosevelt, lower left, at San Juan Hill, almost half a century before D-Day.

All Brothers Reported Lost:

Edward Niland (1912-1984)Edward Niland  (My father Eddie)

Edward was my father. He was the oldest brother and served as an Army Air Force Sergeant. Two weeks before D-Day he was shot down in a B-25 over Burma. He went MIA on May 20th, 1944. He was serving as a radio operator and gunner on the bomber for the 434th Squadron, 12th Bomb Group.

Although my Grandparents never gave up hope, because of the lack of communication, he was presumed dead. My grandfather had a dream. He dreamed that he saw the plane crash and Eddie walked out of it and said, “I'm OK Dad, I'm coming home.” After that my grandmother always set a place for him at the dinner table, and true to the dream, he returned.

After my Dad was shot down over Burma, he survived, set the mayday signal and wandered through the jungle for about seven days. Eventually he wandered into an unfriendly village that turned him over to the Japanese.  He then spent almost a year of his life beaten, starved and tortured. When he finally escaped/released, he weighed 85lbs. After my Dad escaped and before his rescue, he lay down in a field to rest when he heard Preston's voice tell him,  “Move! What kind of a soldier are you?” He moved and the area was laid down with machine gun fire.

Robert Niland (1919-1944)Robert Niland (Uncle Bobby)

Bob Niland served as a Motor Sergeant with D Company 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. Bob had also seen combat in Italy before jumping on D-Day. Bobby was killed at Neuville au Plain on June 6th, 1944, north of St. Mere Eglise.

When I was in Hollywood, I met with Jim Kelly, who served as a medic and was with my Uncle when he was killed. They were best of friends. Jim Kelly with tears in his eyes told the story that after their unit moved out Kelly decided to stay with the wounded soldiers. Bob said, “If you're staying, I'm staying”.

After they ran out of ammo they decided to leave and have the Germans take care of the soldiers. They tried to make it across a hedgerow and Kelly recalled how the Germans shot the heel right off his boot, but Uncle Bob was shot in the head landing on top of Kelly, already dead.

Jim said that he never got over that.

Preston Niland (1915-1944)Preston Niland (Uncle Pete)

Preston was a Lieutenant with the 22nd Infantry Regiment 4th Division and came onshore at Utah Beach.

On June 7, 1944 D + 1 Day he was shot in the head by a sniper inland, northwest of Utah Beach.We know before D-Day he visited briefly with his first cousin, BillyAnna Niland, in Redondo Beach, California before shipping out to take his officer's training on Christmas Island.

Aside from that no one knows too much more how Uncle Pete died because most of the records at the National Archives and Records Administration located in St. Louis, Mo. were lost in a fire on July 12, 1973. 

The family story indicates that he was going after a wounded soldier.

He is sometimes referred to as the mystery brother.

Frederick Niland (1920-1983)Frederick Niland (Uncle Fritz)

Fritz served in H Company 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. He jumped into France on June 6, 1944 . . . His plane was hit and the pilot had the paratroopers jump out early of their drop zone. Typical of the miss drops they were scattered all over behind enemy lines. Uncle Fritz landing near Raffoville, southwest of Carentan.

It took him nearly a week to fight his way back to his regiment. With the help of Jean Kapitem, who was a leader in the French Underground, he rejoined his unit in time to assault Hill 30 on June 12th, 1944 near La Billonnerie.

Fritz had been told by his brother's company Commander that Bob had been killed and was buried in a cemetery near St. Mere Eglise. Fritz sought out the help of Father Francis Sampson, a Chaplain for the 101st Airborne. They drove around most of the day looking for the grave; finally at one cemetery Father Sam told Fritz what he believed was a mistake in identity. That there was no Robert Niland buried there, only a Preston. Fritz said, “That is my brother too”. In this sad way he discovered that his other brother had also been killed. The account is given in Father Sampson's book, Look Out Below!

In the late summer of 1944 Father Sampson came to see Fritz again before their jump into Holland for Operation Market Garden. He told him that his orders had arrived. The President had ordered him to return to the states as sole surviving son. His jump buddy, John Bacon, told the family that Fritz refused to come home and was ready to be taken back in handcuffs. He wanted to stay and fight. Father Sam told him that he could take it up with General Eisenhower or the President, but he was going home. A day and half later he was gone, en route back to New York. In the 1950's he told his two daughters (Cate and Mary) to always remember that it took a Presidential Congressional order to get him out of Europe.

Sixty-seven years after the real life tragedy of the Niland Brothers, the dynamics and sadness of their sacrifice has not diminished. Their story and others like them continue to embrace the courage, discipline and love of country that all men and women who serve demonstrate.

The Niland family wishes to extend our special thanks to:

Author, Mark Bando, for his friendship and historical research in telling the story of the Niland Brothers in his book... The 101st Airborne, The Screaming Eagles at Normandy

College of the Ozarks for the opportunity to tell our family's story and to commend their dedication and commitment educating this and future generations about the experiences of war.

Website links to read more about the Niland Brothers:

Wikipedia: Saving Private Ryan

By Pete Niland
Cate Remme, Pete Niland's cousin, contributed to this story
Copyright 2011
See video > Real Story About 'Saving Private Ryan'

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