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Saluting 'unbelievable sacrifices'<br> Monument honors local ties to "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers"

As some area veterans know, the story lines of two epic movies about World War II - "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers" -- center on two local families.

Now the memories of those World War II soldiers will be enshrined along the banks of the Niagara River in the City of Tonawanda.

That's because the four Niland brothers, whose story helped inspire "Saving Private Ryan," and Sgt. Warren H. "Skip" Muck, a central figure in "Band of Brothers," hailed from Tonawanda.

An Amherst couple, Rick and Lisa Lewis, donated $150,000 for the multistone monument to pay special tribute to the Nilands and Muck for their sacrifices.

"There will be one stone for each family, and etched on the stones will be the stories of the Niland brothers and Skip Muck," said Rick Lewis, whose family lived nearly a century in Tonawanda and became prominent when it owned the Talking Phone Book.

In the center of the veterans memorial plaza, which will be dedicated Saturday, will be a 10-foot-tall granite replica of the Washington Monument with a tribute to all other City of Tonawanda veterans from various wars.

"This will be in Niawanda Park directly behind City Hall, and at night it will be prominently illuminated, and I believe it will become a signature landmark for the City of Tonawanda," Lewis said.

The story about the Niland brothers is well known in some veteran circles.

On June 6, 1944, at the start of the Normandy invasion, Michael I. and Augusta Niland received the first of three telegrams that three of their four sons were missing in action. Two other telegrams soon followed, notifying the parents that two more sons were missing.

Their fourth son, Sgt. Frederick W. "Fritz" Niland, an Army paratrooper, was participating in the invasion.

War Department officials wasted no time ordering Fritz Niland out of the combat zone, once his whereabouts were determined. It was that effort that inspired the basic storyline of Steven Spielberg's 1998 movie starring Tom Hanks and Matt Damon.

The other Niland brothers were not as fortunate. Tech. Sgt. Robert J. Niland perished on the day of the invasion, and the next day, Lt. Preston T. Niland died. The third missing brother, Tech. Sgt. Edward F. Niland, was shot down over Burma and captured by the Japanese. He survived 11 months as a prisoner of war.

As for Muck, he became famous posthumously, with his story told in the best-selling book, "Band of Brothers," and later in the HBO cable network movie miniseries of the same name.

Muck was a member of Company E, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, and one of about a dozen main characters. The story told of how the soldiers, first meeting in paratrooper school, became like a family.

"They banded together because they were up against so many hardships. That's why they called themselves the Band of Brothers. If any got injured, they would go to the hospital, get patched up and want to be back with their guys," said Becky Krurnowski, a 55-year-old niece of Muck.

In her City of Tonawanda home, she has a reminder of her uncle, who was killed Jan. 10, 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge.

"A million years ago, my mother gave me the American flag that had covered my uncle's coffin," Krurnowski said. "It's been in my family room for about 20 years now on display."

Adding a sense of irony, Lewis said, is the fact that Skip Muck and Fritz Niland were best friends before going off to war.

"The sacrifices made by the Muck and Niland families in Tonawanda are just unbelievable," said Thomas Beilein, a Niland family cousin and former sheriff of Niagara County who now serves as head of the State Commission on Correction.

"As children, we didn't hear stories about the sacrifices. The family never talked about it. They never held it out there for the world to see. They didn't wear it on their sleeve," said Beilein.

The monument will be officially unveiled at 11 a.m. Saturday with members of the Niland and Muck families present. Surviving members of the Band of Brothers, all around 90 years of age, are scheduled to travel here from different parts of the country to attend.

The actor who played Skip Muck, Richard Speight Jr., will also attend and speak at the dedication.

A military flyover and reception are also planned, and HBO has agreed to provide free showings of Band of Brothers after the ceremony in the nearby Riviera Theatre on Webster Street, North Tonawanda.

Pete Niland, son of the late Edward Niland, also is scheduled to speak at the ceremony.

"I'm going to especially thank Rick and Lisa Lewis, who are sponsoring this, and I'm going to make mention that this is an honor not only to our family but to all the Tonawanda families who sacrificed, and there were a number of them," said Niland.

Lewis said he and his wife have wanted to honor the two families for years and put a spotlight on the City of Tonawanda.

"The area has been very good to my family, and we're anxious to do some things for the community," said Lewis, who organized a special committee a year ago with City of Tonawanda Mayor Ronald Pilozzi and representatives from several veterans groups, including Post 264, American Legion.

Pilozzi, a Vietnam veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star with Valor and a Purple Heart, says he feels a special closeness for the monument.

"One of the reasons I'm so proud of it is I was in the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam," Pilozzi said, explaining that Muck and a Niland family member were in the 101st.

The 101st faced its toughest assignment during the Battle of Bastogne, one of the more famous encounters against the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge.

"The 101st Airborne was completely encircled and cut off by the Germans, but they made their stand and held out long enough for Gen. [George S.] Patton to come in and relieve them and basically defeat the Nazis," Pilozzi said of the division's bravery.

Describing himself as an amateur historian for the modest working-class City of Tonawanda, Lewis said the memorial will ensure that no one ever forgets the sacrifices and bravery demonstrated by the deceased relatives of the Niland and Muck families.

The City of Tonawanda has a tremendous history of which it can be very, very proud," he said. "I still have family members there and consider myself an amateur historian of the city."

The monument, Lewis explained, is designed with enough open space to add additional stones in the future, should Tonawanda want to honor other veterans.

The monument was chiseled and inscribed by Stone Art Memorial Co. of Lackawanna. The grayish colored granite was quarried in Maine.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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