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Saving Private Ryan--The Facts Behind the Story

While the basic story in this film is fiction, there are a number of factual elements involved. In the story, two brothers from the Ryan family - the only children - are both soldiers sent to the ETO during World War II. One brother is killed on D-Day and the remaining brother - a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division - has been mis-dropped over Normandy and can't be found. The U.S. Army badly wants to find him and get him out of combat since he's now become the Ryan family's sole-surviving son.

There was an actual case like this that occurred in World War II but it was hardly as dramatic. On orders from the War Department, a soldier who was thought to be a sole-surviving son was actually ordered out of combat to preserve the family line. In that case, a brother had been killed in action and another brother was missing in action and presumed lost. It turns out the second brother was repatriated, but that was after the third son had been sent out of the combat zone.

Such procedures were rare but common in applicable cases in World War II as a result of the loss of five brothers of the Sullivan family when their ship, the cruiser USS Juneau, was sunk in the south Pacific. Congress passed a law (known as the Sullivan Law) after that tragic event which effectively restricted brothers from serving together in combat units and kept sole-surviving sons from assignment to a combat zone unless that individual volunteered.