Many consider the film “Saving Private Ryan” to be one of, if not the most, significant films on the violence and sacrifice of war ever made. Sadly, the story is not the product of a writer’s imagination, but an adaptation of an all too real story of unflinching duty and unfathomable loss. It is an Irish American story of the four Niland brothers and Fr. Francis Sampson.
Edward, Preston, Robert, and Frederick Niland were four brothers of Irish heritage who lived in the blue-collar town of Tonawanda, NY, a town north of Buffalo. Edward Niland was a Technical Sergeant serving with the Army Air Corps in the pacific, Preston was commissioned a Lieutenant in the 22nd Infantry Regiment. Brothers Robert and Fredrick (nicknamed “Fritz”) were both paratroopers; Robert served with the 82nd Airborne and Fredrick with the 101st. Preston, Robert, and Fredrick’s units were all selected to take part in the D-Day invasion in Normandy. As they prepared for the invasion amidst airtight security, they did not know that their Brother Edward’s B-25 had been shot down on 16 May 1945 over Burma and that he was listed as “missing, presumed dead.”
Robert’s unit was one of the first to parachute into Normandy with the 82nd, but he would not survive the longest day. Late in the morning of D-Day the 82nd is holding the French village of Neuville-au-Plain when the Germans launch a vigorous counterattack. Robert volunteered to stay behind and man a machine gun to provide covering fire to allow the rest of his company to escape; he was killed after using up several boxes of ammunition. Preston Niland was killed the following day by a German sniper as he was leading his unit to silence the German artillery of the Crisbecq Battery, which had been responsible for sinking a U.S. Navy Destroyer.
“Fritz” Nyland had been dropped behind enemy lines and would be later awarded a Bronze Star for his actions at the battle of Carenten. Hearing of his brother Robert’s death, he went to see the body at an Army morgue, where an attendant reading a list asked, “Is your brother Preston?“, the first news that his other brother was also dead. Meanwhile, back home, his parents received in a single day word that three of their sons had died.
Upon hearing of the tragedy of the three Niland brothers, the Army decided that the surviving brother “Fritz” would be repatriated home; the Niland had already sacrificed enough. The mission to find the remaining Nyland Brother went to Fr. Francis Sampson. Fr. Sampson was himself a descendant of immigrants from Cork and likewise had his own harrowing experience in Normandy. As a member of the 101st Airborne Division he had been among the first to parachute into Normandy and, like so many of his unit, was dropped far from the designated drop zone. Fr. Sampson landed into a deep stream where his close to 70lbs pack began to drag him under while his chute was pulling him downstream. Freeing himself, he then dove “five or six times” to retrieve his Mass kit and the holy oils for the last rites, items he would sadly need all too soon.
Fr. Sampson then made his way to comfort the wounded at an aid station which was subsequently overrun during a German counterattack. Two German soldiers proceeded to take the priest to a wall to execute him, when a German NCO, who was a Catholic, intervened and let him return to the wounded; saving the priest and the other wounded’s lives. Of his ordeal Fr. Sampson would later humbly dismiss any praise of his heroics saying “no pair of knees shook more than my own, nor any heart ever beat faster in times of danger.” Despite “knocking knees,” Fr. Sampson would be awarded the Distinguish Service Cross for his bravery at Normandy.
Fr. Sampson’s journey to find the last of the Niland brothers was not as dramatic as that of Tom Hank’s in Saving Private Ryan, but it had its own challenges. When Fr. Sampson found “Fritz” Niland with his unit and told him that he was to return with him for transport back to the states, Niland refused, saying, “I’m staying here with my boys.” Fr. Sampson would have none of it; “You can take that up with General Eisenhower or the president, but you’re going home.”
“Fritz” Niland returned to New York, where he served out the rest of the war as a reluctant military policeman. At the end of the war, the Niland family received the news that his brother Edward, who had been listed as killed, had been found near starvation but alive in Japanese prisoner of war camp weighing 80lbs from his original 170lbs.
“Fritz” Niland went on to earn a degree in dentistry at Georgetown University and went on to practice in his hometown of Tonawanda, NY. He would tell his daughters in later life of his wartime experience, “Girls, never forget that it took a presidential congressional order to get me out of France.” Shortly before his death, “Fritz” Niland’s last request was “Make sure to honor all the men.” At his funeral the names of all men of Company H were read.
Fr. Sampson would jump again with the 101st in Holland during the Arnhem Campaign and be captured while tending to the wounded during the Battle of the Bulge. At his request, Father Sampson was confined with the enlisted men, rather than the officers in the brutal Stalag II A in Northern Germany until the camp was liberated by the Russian in the
May of 1945. Returning, briefly to civilian life, Fr. Sampson reenlisted at the request of the Military Ordinariate, Francis Cardinal Spellman. Fr. Sampson parachuted into Korea, near Sunchon, with the 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment and endured some of the heaviest fighting of the Korean War. Fr. Sampson served in Viet Nam and was appointed the Army’s chief of chaplains in 1967, attaining the rank of major general. He would serve as an Army Chaplain for 29 years and then, after his retirement, a further two years tending his military flock as head of the USO.
As Irish Americans, let us take pride that our heritage produces individuals such as the Niland brothers and Fr. Sampson; as Americans let us honor the last request of “Fritz” Niland and “Make sure to honor all the men.”
Neil F. Cosgrove, Historian