25. The Real Paratrooper Upon Whom a Fictional Character is Based
To the relief of his parents, Frederick “Fritz” Niland made it home in one piece in 1944. Back in the US, he served out the rest of the war as an MP in New York. Then in May 1945, Michael and Augusta Niland received a bit of unexpected good news. Their son, US Army Air Forces Technical Sergeant Edward Francis Niland, who had been shot down in Burma the preceding May and listed as missing, presumed dead, was not, as it turned out, dead. Edward had managed to safely parachute from his stricken B-25. He then wandered in the Burmese jungle for days, before he was captured on May 16th, 1944, and was made a prisoner of war.
Edward survived the abuses, brutalities, and miseries of a Japanese POW camp, until it was liberated by British forces on May 4th, 1945. He had lost a lot of weight in captivity and returned to New York a skeletal 80 pounds, but what mattered is that he returned, alive. He lived in Tonawanda until his death in 1984, aged 71. As to Fritz, he went on to earn a dentistry degree from Georgetown University after the war and became a dentist. He died in San Francisco in 1983, at age 63. His and his brothers’ story was recounted in Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, and the fictional Private Ryan of Steven Spielberg’s movie is loosely based upon him.