The amazing history of an Irish American priest and the tragic World War II tale on which the Tom Hanks' smash-hit movie "Saving Private Ryan" is based on.

It was sometime around July 4th, Independence Day, when one Irish American soldier approached another.  They had stormed the beaches of France together, and in the weeks following June 6, 1944 -- D-Day -- the bloody chaos of the invasion had subsided.

Sergeant Frederick “Fritz” Niland informed Private Don Malarkey that he was headed back to the U.S.  However, rather than happy, it was clear Niland was in a bit of a daze. He moved on before Malarkey could even ask how he got so lucky.

Another soldier approached Malarkey, whose -- as one account put it -- “familiar impish Irish smile (was) replaced by a frown.”

It was then Malarkey learned about a priest named Father Francis L. Sampson, and the terrible circumstances under which Fritz Niland was headed back to the states.

Read more: The many, mighty Irish American Ryans of D-Day

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“FATHER Frank was the priest who performed my marriage,” Mike Sullivan told the Irish Voice this week, from his home in Ankeny, Iowa, north of Des Moines. 

“Father Frank” is Francis L. Sampson, who was born in Iowa and went on to become not only a military chaplain but “the Parachuting Padre,” who faced grave danger during a decades-long military career.

Sampson was also great uncle to Irish American Iowan Sullivan.

Father Frank Sampson.

Father Frank Sampson.

“The Sullivan side of my family came from County Cork,” he explains.  “I was told that two of the (Sullivan) brothers landed in Boston and were separated and never saw each other again. My great grandfather John Sullivan came to the Midwest and worked for the railroad. He settled in Worthington, Minnesota, where both my grandfather and father were born.”

Mike’s father was named Jack.  His first cousin, “Father Frank” Sampson became an unusually adventurous man of God.

Last month marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day.  Included among the deluge of remembrances was the story of Niland, the Tonawanda, New York Irish American who has come to be known as the “real-life Private Ryan.”

Read more: D-Day anniversary - Irish WWII vets remember

Niland, like the soldier in Steven Spielberg’s famous movie Saving Private Ryan, had several brothers also fighting the Nazis and imperial Japan.  As in the movie, word traveled through the military ranks that all of Niland’s brothers had perished. The family’s pain would be unimaginable.

If the remaining Niland boy could be sent home safely to their devoutly Catholic parents, Michael and Augusta, and their sisters, Margaret and Clarissa, well, perhaps that would be a small consolation.

This was, after all, just 18 months after five Irish American brothers, also from Iowa, died serving their country.

George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al Sullivan (no relation to Mike) all volunteered to join the Navy in 1942 and were stationed on the same cruiser.  On November 13, 1942, a Japanese torpedo sunk the Sullivans’ ship during the Battle of Guadalcanal, killing all five brothers.

There were only four Niland brothers, but in the wake of D-Day, their fate seemed nearly as grim.

Preston and Robert Niland joined the military even before Pearl Harbor.  Edward and Fritz volunteered in late 1942.

It was in May of 1944 that bad news began traveling from the battlefield back home to Tonawanda.

Read more: Irishman's horrific World War II experience

Edward Niland had been shot down over Burma and was missing, presumed dead.  The three remaining Niland boys all took part in the D-Day invasion, however, Robert and Preston were killed during the initial phases of the invasion.  

One account has it that Fritz scoured the French countryside looking for his brother Robert’s corpse when he came upon a hastily-constructed cemetery, where he learned his other brother, Preston, had been killed.

In the end, military officials wanted to avoid another Sullivan brothers tragedy.  

Enter Father Frank.  It was his job to find Fritz Niland and explain that, because of the high price his family had already paid, he was going home.

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“Every time I think about (Father Frank’s experiences in World War II), I am blown away by what he went through,” says Mike Sullivan. 

Indeed, both Father Frank and Fritz Niland experienced moments of full-blown peril. After joining the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, Sampson was briefly taken captive by German soldiers early in the D-Day operation, and he once wrote that "no pair of knees shook more than my own, nor any heart ever beat faster in times of danger." Fritz Niland, too, was separated from his platoon following the D-Day invasion, leaving him exposed to enemy capture and death. 

That all being said, Father Frank’s “search” for Niland was not nearly as dramatic as the one depicted in Saving Private Ryan. Once Niland had made his way back to territory held by the Allies, all Father Frank really had to do was make sure necessary paperwork was processed, and convince Niland that it was in his family’s best interest to head back home.

Which was no easy task.

“I’m staying here with my boys,” Niland is said to have declared.

Father Frank was having none of it. 

“You can bring that up with General Eisenhower or the president, but you’re going home.”

***

FROM there, not only was Fritz Niland’s life saved.  So many others were altered forever.

Niland returned to New York state, reluctantly serving as an M.P.  In May of 1945 came the astonishing news that Edward Niland -- presumed dead in Burma -- had actually managed to escape a Japanese prison camp.  He was alive and headed home.

As for Fritz, he got back in touch with an old high school classmate, Marilyn Hartnett Bart.  They married and had two daughters.

Ed Niland also had a son known as Pete -- Preston, officially -- who, in 1974, visited Normandy, and, at his father’s request, laid flowers at the burial crosses of Sergeant Robert and Lieutenant Preston Niland.

Preston Niland’s grave marker in Normandy. His brother Robert’s is next to his.

Preston Niland’s grave marker in Normandy. His brother Robert’s is next to his.

This July 4th, it is important to remember the sacrifices paid by the Nilands, Sullivans, and all those others who sacrificed so much to liberate the world from tyranny. 

But it’s also important to acknowledge whatever higher power set in motion the twists of fate that allowed Ed and Fritz Niland to make their way back home, to start new lives, raise families, change the world in less dramatic but no less powerful ways.

Fritz attended Georgetown University, became a dentist and died in 1983.  Edward died a year later.

Understandably, the Nilands tried to put their military years behind them.  Father Frank served on. He served in Korea, and through the 1950s and 1960s rose to the rank of chief of chaplains, until he retired in 1971.

This powerful legacy of service is carried forth by the likes of Father Frank’s great-nephew, Mike Sullivan, who himself recently visited the old battlefields of Europe.

“We visited Normandy and our guide was telling us about the Fritz Niland story,” Sullivan said. He added, “I had to make a few corrections to his story.”

Father Francis L. Sampson died in 1996 at the age of 83, just two years before the release of Saving Private Ryan.

Read more: How Guinness saved Ireland in World War II

Sergeant Fritz Niland.