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Michigan's John Beilein a descendant of soldiers that inspired 'Saving Private Ryan'

One night in late May 1944, some boys from Tonawanda, N.Y., convened at a pub in England. They were all in the military, all sons of steelworkers, mostly the old Buffalo Steel Co. down on the Niagara River.

They were there to prepare for the liberation of Europe, a make or break moment in World War II. The talk was mostly about back home though: the old spots, the old games, the old girlfriends; and the new ones, too. Lots of, "if I don't make it back, tell her I loved her." Only part of the time was focused on what was to come.

D-Day. Normandy. Hell.

Tommy Niland Jr. was there among the group. So too were three of his cousins: Fritz, Bobby and Preston Niland. They'd all grown up together. Tommy was one of 13 kids raised in a crowded home on Adam Street. The others part of a clan of six children a couple blocks away on Elmwood Park. All lived close enough to the steel furnace that their fathers walked to work. The kids all circled through each other's homes, one close-knit family.

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The Nilands (from left): Fritz, Bobby, Preston and Ed. (Credit Don Heupel/Tonawanda News)

Fritz, Bobby and Preston had another brother, Ed, who was a pilot in the Pacific theater. The guys in England didn't know it that night, but Ed's plane had gone down just weeks before and the military presumed he was dead. At that moment they were focused on themselves. They drank to the past and hoped for a future, and in the wee hours of the morning split up, back to their regiments and units.

Two weeks later, on June 6, the invasion began. Tommy and Fritz were dropped behind enemy lines, part of 327th glider regiment of the 101st Airborne. Bobby and Preston were sent to storm the beach, where both men were soon killed in action, two of an estimated 29,000 Americans lost in the invasion.

That very day, back in Tonawanda, their mother received a message from the military that Ed was lost in the Pacific. Suddenly three of her four sons in the war were presumed gone.

Only Fritz remained, somewhere within the chaos and killing of Normandy.

Earlier in the war, in 1942, five brothers from the Sullivan family of Waterloo, Iowa perished during the sinking of the USS Juneau. From that point on, the military decided it wasn't proper for one mother, in this case Alleta Sullivan, to lose that much, to lose all her sons in combat.

So Fritz Niland was soon identified and sent home, eventually to Tonawanda. He later became an oral surgeon and lived until 1983.

In 1992, author Stephen Ambrose featured the story of the Nilands in his best selling book, "Band of Brothers."

In 1998, filmmaker Steven Spielberg released a movie that while fictionalized, was based on the Nilands. It was called "Saving Private Ryan." Matt Damon played Private James Ryan, aka Fritz Niland. The movie won five Oscars.

In 1953, the former Josephine Niland, sister of Tommy, cousin of Bobby, Preston, Ed and Fritz, gave birth in Western New York to the eighth of her nine children.

His name is John Beilein. He is currently the men's basketball coach of the University of Michigan.

On Saturday, his team plays in the Final Four against Syracuse.

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"It's quite a story," Beilein, 60, told Yahoo! Sports Tuesday morning. "I say to my children all the time, 'we all know we came from very strong stock, we realize the sacrifices they made and we need to try to carry it on.'

"Because that is one courageous generation."


Growing up, John Beilein's generation of Nilands knew just bits and pieces of the story.

There were scrapbooks that featured pictures of Bobby and Preston, but never the full story. There were war wounds but an unwillingness to share much about how they came about. There were conversations about specific battles cut short when details were sought.

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John Beilein reacts after Michigan punched its ticket to the Final Four. (AP)

Beilein himself admits the war was just rarely discussed. Even in a family of such remarkable sacrifice, it wasn't a driving part of everyday life.

"I didn't know a whole lot about the situation until I saw the movie," he said. It was then, during a scene when a messenger went to the fictional house that it hit home. These were his people, his family.

"Even though the house was put in Iowa, it was really Tonawanda, New York," he said. "I know the house they would have gone to. I can almost see the situation. And now I'm seeing it as a parent. It's an incredible blow to a family."

Tragedy wasn't discussed much back in those days though. Grief therapy wasn't much of a concept. Life happened and you plugged on. Silently. Especially in working class Western New York.

Beilein's own grandfather worked 50 years at Buffalo Steel, from age 20 to 70, six days a week, raising all those kids, through all kinds of stuff. The same week Tommy returned from the war, seemingly a time for grateful celebration, another brother was killed in an accident at the mill.

"That generation, they all went through it," Beilein said. "Death and pain was something they dealt with. There wasn't time for anybody to feel sorry for anybody else."

There was the unexpected joy too. Long after he was thought lost and mourned dead, Ed Niland was discovered in a Japanese POW camp in Burma. He was sent back to Tonawanda and lived to the age of 72.

His time in that camp, presumed dead by the military, led to Fritz being taken out of harm's way. Ed Niland may have unwittingly saved his little brother's life.


Tommy Niland was Josephine's brother and he was an excellent basketball player. He was on the varsity at Canisius in December 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He, along with another cousin, Joe Niland, finished out the school year and enlisted.

Their war stories, now documented by others in books and articles, are legendary – heroic acts and selfless, dramatic stands. Tommy Niland, however, never forgot a Major Stubblefield, who, he said, saved his life before being killed in Normandy. Those are the razor thin margins of war.

The life of Tommy Niland was a full one. He returned to Canisius and even with one arm wrecked by German shrapnel, simply adapted his game and played two more seasons anyway. Then he got into coaching.

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In 1983 he was the athletic director at Le Moyne College, a Division II program in Syracuse. He needed a basketball coach. His nephew, John Beilein, wanted the job and boasted years of experience coaching high school, junior college and NAIA ball.

Tommy Niland saw a young coach with talent, ambition and the competitive fire of his own kid sister, Josephine.

"My mother was one of 13," Beilein said. "She competed for food on the table, who was going to eat. There were three or four in a room, three in a double bed. They were Irish/French families who came to dig the canal. Yeah, she was a tough cookie."

So too was he, at least until his second season he found himself without a quality point guard. Beilein had a handful of guards – including Dave Niland, another cousin – but none could do the job.

"We were not very athletic and teams were jumping up in passing lanes," Beilein said.

"That was probably me," Dave Niland, now the head coach at Division III Penn State Behrend, laughed. "I don't want to take all the blame, but I was in the mix."

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Tom Hanks (front) was one of the stars of "Saving Private Ryan." (AP)

Beilein said he went and complained about his terrible team to Tommy Niland, who in the sarcastic, man-up style of WWII veteran, mocked his nephew by asking if he wanted to just shut the team down. Beilein got the hint and asked for help. Tommy pulled out some wooden pieces and the two sat down at a table.

At the time, positions in basketball were strict. Your point guard handled the ball. Your shooting guard shot the ball. Your forward … Tommy decided to switch it all up, why not play with two point guards and go small.

"He took out little pieces of wood and said, why don't you run this, that way if one guy gets in trouble he can flat pass to the other," Beilein said. "I looked at it and said, 'nobody plays like that.' But it made sense."

Le Moyne tried it. Turnovers dropped. Beilein is quick to point out he soon saw a Washington Huskies game where coach Andy Russo employed a similar strategy. And he points to the input of Tom Cooney, then Le Moyne's women's basketball coach and Dick Rockwell, who led the baseball team.

It may have been a group effort but a new twist to the game was added – a two-guard offense, mostly the brainchild of one of those Nilands from Normandy.

"We've run the same thing for the last 25-26 years," Beilein said. That will include Saturday against Syracuse, this time with Trey Burke rather than Dave Niland.

Would the now late Tommy Niland – all those Nilands really – love to see that? Love to see one of their own coach a team in Final Four this weekend?

"Tommy thought John was just the best coach in the country," Dave Niland said. "But I don't think he ever told John that. He'd tell me, but those guys would never praise someone to their face. They'd tell someone else you were doing well, but never you directly.

"That's just the way that generation and that family was."


It's perhaps the most lasting regret for the kids of this branch of the Greatest Generation. How is it possible it took books by outsiders, movies from Hollywood, old stories by others, to cut through the silence in their own homes?

They've recently been passing around another book – "Glider Infantryman: Behind Enemy Lines in World War II," by Donald Rich, a member of the 101st Airborne that day in Normandy and writer Kevin Brooks.

It's full of stories about those days – the tragedy and tension, the heroes and horrors. It features a bunch of the Niland boys. Their kids and nephews and cousin's sons are continuing to learn more and more about what happened.

"It's a phenomenal book," Beilein said.

If there is one shared regret of them all, it's that they didn't coax more stories out of the survivors while they could. Part of it was a failure of communication. Part, of course, was the sheer unwillingness of that generation to share war stories.

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Tommy Niland III was a Marine who served a tour in Vietnam, which allowed him to talk some with his dad, but he acknowledges, not enough.

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Frederick "Fritz" Niland returned to Tonawanda after World War II. (Getty)

There was a family trip back to Europe in 1999. Dave Niland's team was playing a tournament in Germany, so a bunch of them plotted out a tour featuring basketball, the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and later the beaches and fields of Normandy in France.

Tommy III recalls his father explaining the chaotic month after the invasion – so much uncertainty, so much unknown, so much danger and, of course, so many dead. Tommy said one day, four weeks after the invasion, he ran into Fritz and asked for news.

"Tommy," Fritz said, "I'm going home because Bobby and Preston were both killed on the beaches and Ed is lost."

They shook hands. One cousin left. Another stayed. Now Tommy was back in Normandy, with his son, trying, despite the early stages of dementia, to make sense of it. The entire thing was overwhelming.

"I remember we were standing on top of a bluff at Omaha Beach," Tommy III said. "There are killing boxes still there and machine gun nests. And you look down at it all, where they charged up the beach, and I just kept asking, 'how did these guys do this? How did they manage to survive?' "

It's only then, through books and movies and eyewitness tours, John Beilein and all his cousins say, that this incredible family – and so many like them – has begun to be understood. Not just by outsiders, but, most importantly, from within.

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