SURPLUS ORDNANCE Episode 27: Saving Private Ryan

Richard Stephens
Minor on History, focusing on military history

Brief Overview of D-Day landings and drops

June 6th, 1944 the Allies launch Operation Overlord - the invasion of German-occupied Western Europe
in Normandy, France; east of Cherbourg and the Contentin Peninsula.

The primary invasion consisted of 5 beaches – from West to East – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
United States forces landed at Utah and Omaha. The British at Sword and Gold, and Canadians at Juno.
On the Western flank, U.S. paratroopers were to land behind enemy lines and prevent reinforcements
from attacking the allies on the beach, secure causeway exits, and aid in securing Carentan – a crucial
crossroads town linking Utah and Omaha beaches. Likewise, the British airborne units were to secure
the Eastern flank.

Due to intense anti-aircraft fire, the American airborne units were severely mis-dropped, and few
landed within their designated drop zone (DZ.) The lead to the formation of LGP’s, “little groups of
paratroopers.” Men from various units who coalesced into small groups and carried out some sort of
activity to disrupt the enemy. Particularly, the cutting of telegraph wires.

By June 12 th the allies had pushed far enough inland to capture several towns in the area and link the
various landing beaches into a unified beachhead.

By Scene:

The opening D-Day scene

Is known for being too real for some combat veterans to handle, with reports of some leaving
the theater rather then endure the opening scene. Visits to PTSD counselors rose in number
after the film’s release. 1

The landing craft seen in the opening are mostly LCVP’s (landing craft, vehicle, personnel.)
Usually referred to has Higgins Boats after their designer, Andrew Higgins, a New Orleans based
boat manufacturer. Dwight Eisenhower is quoted as saying, “Andrew Higgins is the man who won
the war for us. If Higgins had not designed and built the PCVP’s, we never could have landed over
an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.” (as quoted by
Stephen E. Ambrose in D-Day June 6, 1944).

Pvt. Reiben (Ed Burns) is asked “where’s your B.A.R.?” This is a reference to the Browning
Automatic Rifle, a 20 round light machine gun chambered for .30-06 caliber ammunition. This
was the only light automatic weapon issued to U.S. squads. The same role the M60 or M249
SAW would play in a squad today.

Telegraph Office

Brian Cranston’s character (with one arm) mentions that all the brothers were in the same
company, but they were split up after the Sullivan brothers died. This is a reference to the five
Sullivan brothers. All of which were on the same ship (the USS Juneau) which was sunk in
November 1942 at the battle of Guadalcanal. Prior to this, and other similar events, it was
common for friends and brothers who enlisted together to serve in the same unit. This was
changed (it varied by branch) during the war.

The general story of Saving Pvt. Ryan is inspired/based on the Niland Brothers. One was
thought killed on Burma in May 1944 (he was actually captured and liberated in 1945.) Two
were killed during the Normandy invasion. One on June 7 th with the 4 th Infantry, and one on D-
Day with the 82 nd Airborne. The fourth, Fred Niland, jumped with the 101 st Airborne into
Normandy. After fighting for a few days in Normandy he was shipped to England on to the U.S.
where he served as an MP for the duration of the war.

Dale Dye’s character points out that “there is no way of knowing exactly where he (Pvt. Ryan)
was dropped.” Alluding to the airborne mis-drops.

General Marshall reads the Bixby Letter before declaring “if that boys alive, we are going to send
somebody to find him. And get him the hell, out of there.” The Bixby letter is one of the
premier examples of Lincoln’s writings, and the circumstances surrounding it (and her sons) are
interesting. Of the five sons mentioned as killed in the letter; one actually deserted and was
found, one was captured at Gettysburg, two were KIA, and one was captured with his ultimate
fate unknown (stories range from dying in prison to deserting toe the Confederate Army.)
The character of Ms. Bixby herself is in question. Some stories claim she was a Confederate
sympathizer who hated Lincoln and tore up the letter. She did campaign for her son Edward
(the deserter) to secure his release.

Sniper Engagement

Pvt. Jackson (Berry Pepper) kills a German sniper by detecting the glint from his scope, firing,
and shooting him through the scope and killing him. While this is a movie trope, there are at
least two documented cases of this happening (if you can believe the documenting sources.)
One is from Marine Sniper Carlos Hathcock in Vietnam as accounted in Marine Sniper by Charles
Henderson. The other is attributed to Soviet sniper Vasily Zaitsev during the Battle of Stalingrad
(though there is some debate as to the veracity of his accomplishments; as Soviet propaganda
was in full swing during and after the war.)

The first “Pvt. Ryan” meeting

Tom Hanks and Ted Danson are discussing how the war should be going, strategically and
lament that “Monty is overrated.” This is a reference to Bernard Montgomery. While
Eisenhower was Supreme Allied Commander (SHAEF), Montgomery was in charge of the
invasion forces themselves.

Machine Gun nest

After the assault the squad is tending to Wade and “sulfa powder” is mentioned a few times.
Sulfa powder was simply an antibiotic powder used at the time to treat bacterial infections.

Battle of Ramelle

The town of Remelle is fictional. Though the river that runs through it – the Merderet – is real
and runs parallel to the shoreline, about 5 miles inland from Utah beach. The 82 nd Airborne was
tasked with securing the banks of the river and crossings in several areas (Mission Boston.)

  1. Wikipedia references. One article is still viewable: Basinger, Jeanine (October 1998). "Translating War: The Combat Film Genre and Saving Private Ryan". Perspectives, the Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association. Two others are either behind a paywall or no longer active links: Halton, Beau (August 15, 1998). "'Saving Private Ryan' is too real for some". The Florida Times-Union. Jacksonville, Florida. Retrieved June 12, 2011. McCrary, Lacy (August 6, 1998). "Watching 'Private Ryan,' Veterans Relive The Horrors Years From Omaha Beach, Pain Lingers". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Retrieved July 30, 2016.

Dave Feldmann
Undergrad and unofficial medievalist, current practitioner of Historical European Martial Arts.

I have some huge problems with Saving Private Ryan.

I don't know whether or not this will impact the recording in any way, but the opening battle scene's famous gangplank lowering and machine-gunning of American ground pounders is fictitious. Normandy's beaches are famous for being extremely wide, and Higgins Boats landing at low tide would still be outside the effective range of even the German's famously highly-accurate MG42 fire. Sources and eyewitness reports pretty generally agree that the Germans opened up with mortars and light artillery, once the boats hit the beach, and started laying down small arms in overlapping fields of fire once within effective range. I hate to be that guy but the image of guys taking a foot off the boat and getting mowed down is complete Hollywood fantasy. The fact that "Saving Private Ryan" hit the consciousness of the nation so hard that it changed the way the war is discussed and thought about is one those double edged swords of Hollywood war movie making; on the one hand I'm glad to see more interest in the subject where there was very little before. On the other, the film is thought to be completely "authentic" in how it dramatizes warfare and how everything in it is considered to be "true," which is not the case.

I once had the opportunity to shake hands with Major Dick Winters in 2004, shortly after "Band of Brothers" and "Saving Private Ryan" were out for audiences, and I asked him whether they "got it right." He said they didn't, but they were closer than anyone else.

"The Lying, Filthy Fingers of Stephen Ambrose"

I really don't know where this falsehood originates but I have to assume it comes from the late Stephen Ambrose. I generally approach his works with a pretty critical eye. He is known to not let facts get in the way of good storytelling -- basically many historians consider him to be second rate due to his propensity to write about things as if they were either the best or the worst.

A friend of mine shared this anecdote with me, as it is his goal to undo the historical damage that Stephen Ambrose caused with his narrative of the events surrounding the Rangers' assault on Pointe du Hoc on D-Day (the book is D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II).

Ambrose described in his book that the British crews of the LCAs bringing the Rangers ashore dropped the Rangers off too early, and acted cowardly during the landings. What this does for Ambrose's book is to essentially paint the Rangers as triumphing not only despite the tough defenses of their German enemies, but also despite the cowardice and shortcomings of their allies, the British crews manning the LCA's.

During a book tour some years back, Ambrose was taking questions from his audience, and an older member of the crowd raised his hand, stood and asked about Ambrose's description of the performance of the LCA crews at Point Du Hoc, essentially saying (and I'm paraphrasing) that what Stephen Ambrose wrote did not happen, as the older audience member was there. A few LCA boats actually did become mired on an unmarked sandbar a short distance from shore, and after they couldn't dislodge themselves, landed their troops and supported the assault with the machine guns that each LCA was equipped with. LCA crews are known to have behaved honorably on the day in question, and in some cases shown extraordinary bravery in battle.

Stephen Ambrose, for his part, thanked the old Veteran for his service, and pledged that in new editions of the book, the section on Pointe du Hoc would be updated and errors corrected. Unfortunately, Ambrose died before those edits could be made. My friend has therefore taken it upon himself to correct this historical error, which he regards, in his own words, as "a lie."

Callum O’Connor
Mine Clearance Diver in Senior Service, Royal Navy

Just a quick titbit from me on Saving Private Ryan, in the movie the Higgins boats are crewed by USN personnel but all those small boats were actually skippered by Royal Navy Coxswains. Probably not interesting enough to include but I thought the more info and talking points available the better.

I’ve never seen anything depicted on film about my predecessors, the frogmen who were the first ones on the beaches clearing obstacles for the landing craft. The RN frogmen were the LCOCU’s (landing craft obstacle clearance units, pronounced lock-yews) while the USN’s men were the Naval Combat Demolition Units.