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A RELUCTANT HERO
SELF-EFFACING
WORLD WAR II
PARATROOPER
GETS HIS MEDALS

Up until Wednesday, the day before he got his long-overdue World War II medals from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the lobby of Niagara Falls International Airport, James "Jack" Breier, 85, of Grand Island, wasn't sure he wanted to go through with it.

"He was saying, 'I don't want any attention, I'm not going,' " said his daughter Marilyn Brennan, also of Grand Island, who launched the drive to get the medals. "And then he'd say, 'Gee, it's going to be exciting to be there.' "

Brennan was holding her father's medals and ribbons in the framed display case that Clinton had presented him a few minutes earlier in a blaze of flashbulbs and television lights in front of a crowd that included his wife, Marge; their six children and their spouses; and many of their 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

His medals included the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, the Good Conduct Medal, the Presidential Unit Citation with oak leaf cluster, the American Campaign Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze service stars, the World War II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Honorable Service Lapel Button, the Sharpshooter Badge with a rifle bar and the New York State Ribbon for Merit.

"This is a long list, Jack," Clinton said, "and I want to take a little time . . . so your grandchildren can hear about what you did."

The senator noted that her father was a World War II veteran "and didn't talk much about it."

For many years, neither did Jack Breier.

Instead, after his discharge, he came home and began working as a grocer for P.J. Schmitt Co., which is where he met his wife, who was a switchboard operator there.

He and Marge had six children in seven years and he built a tennis court in their back yard. "He loves to play tennis," Marge said.

Later, he owned and operated a cafeteria at Buffalo Pipe & Foundry, then was the chief of maintenance at Niagara Nursing Home.

At Buffalo Pipe and Foundry, "everyone knew Jack," his oldest daughter, Sue Dommell of Kenmore, recalled. "He even had a back room where he supplied them with work clothes and steel-toed shoes. If somebody needed something, they'd say, 'Go see Jack.' "

It was only recently that people began to hear about what he did in the war. He talked a little about it before Clinton arrived Thursday.

He was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, and made 17 combat jumps. ("I don't appreciate a plane ride anymore," he said Thursday.) One of those jumps was during the Normandy invasion. He also fought in the Battle of the Bulge. A squad leader, he took the first patrol over the Waal River.

He was captured by the Germans and spent a day and a night as a prisoner behind the third line of Nazi defenses. Then, because he spoke German (his stepmother spoke only German when he was a child), he was taken back to the American side.

He served with and was a close friend of Sgt. Frederick W. "Fritz" Niland, whose story of being plucked from the battlefield was the basis of the film "Saving Private Ryan." During the filming, director Steven Spielberg's production team phoned him several times for consultation.

In Holland, he suffered a head wound, and surgeons put a steel plate in his head "the size of a silver dollar," he said.

One reason he didn't talk much about the war was that the head wound cost him his voice. For 58 years, he has spoken in a whisper.

"He was always very guarded about information about the war," said Charles Aronica of Grand Island, a friend of the family whose brother, Chris, helped arrange the awarding of the medals. "It was very hard for him to discuss it. He went through a lot. We picked up that he was due some medals, but the records weren't available. They were apparently in a fire.

"The beautiful thing about him," he added, "is he's a humble man. It was duty for country."

e-mail: danderson@buffnews.com

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