Skip to content Skip to navigation

The Niland Boys

















The History

One of the most poignant stories of Canisius' involvement in World War II is that of the Niland family.  Edward, Preston, Robert, and Frederick were the sons of Michael and Augusta Niland.  The four brothers, who lived in Tonawanda, NY, a town north of Buffalo, all went to Canisius College except for Preston who attended the University of Buffalo.  Thomas and Joseph Niland, their cousins, also attended Canisius.  Thomas was in the same grade as Frederick while Joseph was a year ahead.

Before the United States entered the war in Europe, Preston and Robert enlisted in the service.  Edward and Fredrick (also known as "Fritz") followed after volunteering in November 1942.  Because of the famous 1942 Sullivan case in which five brothers had been killed when their ship was sunk, the new army rule mandated that immediate family members could not serve together.  As a result, each brother served in a different unit: Technical Sergeant Edward Niland as a pilot in the Army Air Force, Technical Sergeant Robert Niland with the 82nd Airborne Division (505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Company D), Lieutenant Preston Niland with the 4th Infantry Division (22nd Infantry Regiment), and Sergeant Frederick Niland as a member of the 101st Airborne's 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment.  The brothers' cousins also joined - Thomas Niland also served in the 101st Airborne Division but in a different unit than Fritz while Joseph Niland was in the 20th armored tank division.

Tragedy Strikes

On May 16, 1944, Michael and Augusta received the first bad news that their son Edward, 31 at the time, had been shot down over Burma and was missing.  Soon afterwards on June 6, 1944, the Allied forces began their costly invasion of Nazis-controlled Europe.  Preston, 29, Robert, 25, Fritz, 24, and Thomas Niland, 24, all took part in the first waves of the invasion.  Robert was killed on D-day while manning his machine-gun post in Neuville, a city not far from the beaches.  Preston was killed the next day near Omaha Beach.  Fritz, meanwhile, had been dropped between Omaha and Utah beaches while Thomas was involved in a glider unit that landed in France.  Joseph, 25, was not involved with the invasion.

When the Army heard of the tragic story, they determined that the Nilands would not suffer the death of their last child.  Fr. Francis Sampson, the chaplain of the 501st Regiment, found Fritz and began the paperwork necessary for his return home.  Fritz stayed with his men a few more days until he was shipped back to England and, finally, to the U.S. where he served as an MP in New York until the completion of the war.  

From August 1942 to April 1946, Fr. Murray, a philosophy professor, compiled a scrapbook of local newspaper articles that mentioned any of Canisius's "boys at arms."  Listed here are the articles directly related to the story of the Niland family.  

"3d Son Missing Parents Learn; All Since D-Day"  (PDF) (B.N. 7-8-44)*

"One of 3 Missing Brothers Killed"  (PDF)  (B. N. 7-31-44)

"Tonawandans Lose Second Son in France" (PDF) (C.E. 8-5-44)**

"Tonawanda Flier Freed from Japs" (PDF) (C.E.5-5-45)

"400 Prisoners in Crossfire Aided by Native: Tonawanda Lad Freed by British in Burma" (PDF)  (C.E. 8-5-45)

"Athlete Cited for Gallantry on Battlefield" (PDF) (C.E.12-12-45)

*The Buffalo News

**Courier Express, no longer in press

The Followup


Robert and Preston Niland were buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France.

After more than a year of presuming the death of their son Edward, the Nilands happily learned that he was still alive in a Burmese POW camp.  Edward had parachuted from his plane and wandered the jungles before being captured.  The POW camp had taken a severe physical toll on Edward who weighed only 80 pounds (from his original 170) when he returned to the U.S.  Edward lived in Tonawanda until his death in 1984 at the age of 72.

Fritz Niland went on to earn a degree in dentistry at Georgetown University and worked for a year at a government dental program on Guam.  Afterwards, he returned to Tonawanda and set up his own dental practice in Niagara Falls.  Fritz was awarded a Bronze Star for his service.  He died in 1983 in San Francisco at the age of 63.

Like Fritz, Tom Niland also went back to school and completed his degree at Canisius in 1947.  Tom then served as Le Moyne College's first basketball coach and athletic director until his retirement in 1990.  He was awarded a Silver Star for his actions in the Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne.  He died March 16, 2004 at the age of 83.

Joseph Niland's tank division became known as the Liberators after freeing the Dachau concentration camp.  He eventually returned to Tonawanda where he finished his degree at Canisius in 1946 and continued pursuing his love of sports as a well known and respected coach of the Canisius basketball team.  Niland posted the second-highest winning percentage in school history.  After his years at Canisius, Joseph Niland also served as a basketball coach at local high schools and as a scout for such teams as baseball's Cincinnati Reds and basketball's Buffalo Braves.  He was also an aide for the general manager of the Buffalo Bills.


The gravesites of Robert and Preston Niland in Normandy, France.


The story of the Niland family still inspires and even influenced the writing of Stephen Spielberg's 1998 movie "Saving Private Ryan."  Although a unique story in its tragedy, the Niland family was only one of many families in which several children simultaneously served for their country.  Listed here are several articles pulled from Canisius's WWII Scrapbook that recount other local Canisius families and their stories.

"One of Six Durkin Brothers Killed in Action" (PDF) (B.N. 5-7-45)

"22 Months of Uncertainty End" (PDF) (B.N. 5-18-45)

July 2006