Steven Spielberg’s 1998 Academy Award® winning epic, Saving Private Ryan, about the search for and safe return to his family of the sole-surviving Ryan brother, was based, in part, upon the true story of Fritz Niland of Tonawanda, New York, and War Department policy after the loss of the five Sullivan brothers, of Waterloo, Iowa, aboard the USS Juneau. Near the movie’s end, Private James Ryan, played by Matt Damon, kneels beside mortally wounded Captain John H. Miller, played by Tom Hanks, the man who, along with many others, gave everything to save Private Ryan. With his last breath, Captain Miller whispers, “James, earn this. Earn it!”
Decades later, James Ryan returns to Europe and the grave of his fallen Captain. After several moments, he speaks:
Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. And I’ve tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that it was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.
It is not known whether the man who wrote those words, screenwriter Robert Rodat, had in mind Walt Whitman’s poem, “O Captain! My Captain!,” but he may well have. After all, he was inspired to write Saving Private Ryan upon visiting Putney Corners, New Hampshire, and seeing a memorial to eight brothers killed in the Civil War. Whitman, mourning the death of President Abraham Lincoln, wrote: O Captain! my Captain! Our fearful trip is done; the ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won. . . . Exalt, O shores, and ring, O bells! But I, with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.”
Ironically, it was President Lincoln who addressed those who, like Whitman, had been left behind. In his November 1863 Gettysburg Address, after dedicating that “great battlefield” to “brave men living and dead,” he called upon “us the living” “to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. . . to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. . . that this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”