Spielberg Film Festival: Saving Private Ryan

Steven Spielberg is being honored by the Foundation for the National Archives for his film legacy, which has brought history to life on the big screen. The National Archives is celebrating the award with a film festival, and Saving Private Ryan is the first film to be screened. Join us tonight, Friday, November 15. For details on the award and the times of the free screenings, go here.)

In Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan, a squad of Army Rangers search for Pfc. James Francis Ryan (played by Matt Damon) who is the last surviving brother of four servicemen. Seems like something that could only happen in the movies?

Unfortunately, history is stranger, and sadder, than fiction. Many stories of lost and missing brothers can be found in our records.

Twenty-three sets of brothers were killed on the USS Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor. The photo below shows a service jacket and salvaged service record, with Navy envelope, for William Wells. Wells enlisted at Kansas City, MO, on January 1, 1940, and died December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor after achieving the rank of Signalman 3rd class. His brother, Raymond Virgil Wells, was also on the Arizona and died that day.

Service record for William Wells. (National Archives Identifier 299693)
Service record for William Wells. (National Archives Identifier 299693)

Sometimes the decision to preserve these kinds of records means not treating them. According to Michael Pierce, a preservation technician, more than just the paper is preserved. “When one of these [USS Arizona] records has been in a plastic bag for awhile, you can smell diesel fuel when the bag is opened,” he says. “When I smell that, it takes me to that time and place, wondering what those young men and women were thinking and experiencing as their world was suddenly turned upside down.”

But the Sullivan brothers may be the most well-known case of lost siblings during World War II. The five Sullivan brothers (Albert, Francis, George, Joseph, and Madison) served together as shipmates aboard the cruiser USS Juneau after requesting special permission from the Secretary of the Navy. They were all killed in action during or shortly after their ship was sunk by a Japanese sub on November 13, 1942. Of the crew of more than 600 sailors, only 11 survived.

The five Sullivan brothers, who were all lost in the sinking of the USS Juneau (National Archives Identifier:     535944 )
The five Sullivan brothers, who were all lost in the sinking of the USS Juneau (National Archives Identifier 535944)

Even after the death of her five sons, Mrs. Sullivan continued to support the war effort. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a personal letter to Mrs. Sullivan expressing his and the nation’s sorrow. For wartime America, the Sullivan brothers became the ultimate symbol of heroic sacrifice.

Letter to Mrs. Sullivan from President Roosevelt.
Letter to Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan from President Roosevelt, February 1, 1943. From the President’s personal file 8293, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.

Was Steven Spielberg inspired by the Sullivan brothers? Did Spielberg refer to any historic documents while working on the film? Now is your chance to ask a question on Twitter using the hashtag #askspielberg!

Over the next few weeks, Ken Burns will handpick several tweets and share the questions with the movie director. Spielberg will answer the questions at the Foundation for the National Archives 2013 Gala and Records of Achievement Award ceremony at the National Archives, and we’ll tweet out the answers on @USNatArchives and @archivesfdn.

So tweet your question to @archivesfdn and use the hashtag #askspielberg.

One thought on “Spielberg Film Festival: Saving Private Ryan

  1. William and Raymond Wells are my grandfather’s (James Richard Wells) elder brothers. Just stumbling across this in some browsing, and seeing those documents, reading the description of the smell – it was enough to bring tears. Thank you for this entry, honoring the Wells family and all the families that suffered during that horrendous initial blow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *