Originally created 07/23/98

'Private Ryan' reminds family of tragedy



TREMONTON, Utah -- Five went to war, four returned in coffins. Mercifully, the military discharged the surviving brother and sent him home to his grieving parents.

This may sound like the script of the new Steven Spielberg movie, "Saving Private Ryan," but in this case the story is not fiction. And this real-life family continued to pay a heavy price long after war's end.

In the film, opening Friday, Pvt. James Ryan is the fourth sibling in a family that has lost three sons in World War II. The plot revolves around efforts to remove Ryan from harm's way and return him to his family.

Boyd Borgstrom's true story was eerily parallel to Ryan's. It has become patriotic lore in this tiny farming and ranching town on the Utah-Idaho border. But how could anyone in far-off Hollywood have known?

They did not, according to Spielberg's DreamWorks studio, which made the movie.

Similarities to real cases are coincidence, the studio said when Borgstrom's granddaughter and a newspaper reporter contacted DreamWorks.

Still, a co-producer of the film isn't surprised by the inquiries.

"What I think is going to happen is that the Borgstroms are among the first in a long line of people who will contact us and say, `Hey, we had two sons die,' or `We had three sons die,"' said co-producer Bonnie Curtis. "The same thing happened with `Schindler's List.' After the movie, thousands of Holocaust survivors came to us to tell us these fascinating stories."

The movie's plot more closely resembles the account of a real-life family named Niland, from Tonawanda, N.Y., than it does the Borgstroms' story, Curtis says.

World War II historian Stephen Ambrose popularized the story of the four Niland brothers. Two died on D-Day, another was taken prisoner in Burma, and the surviving brother was ordered to go home. Ambrose is a consultant for "Saving Private Ryan."

"I know what my family went through and my heart goes out to them," Pete Niland said, speaking of the Borgstroms. Niland's father, Edward, spent 14 months in a Japanese prison camp before escaping and returning home. Edward Niland died in 1984.

Hollywood has previously looked at the loss of brothers in war. The 1944 film, "The Sullivans," told the story of five brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, who died when their U.S. Navy ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine two years earlier.

Members of the Borgstrom family cannot imagine their tragedy happening to others as well.

"It wrecked our family ... . It's always in your mind," said Wilma Hawkes, Boyd's 78-year-old sister and the last of 10 siblings still alive.

While Spielberg's battle scenes of D-Day have been described as shockingly realistic, no film can depict the trauma a family goes through when it pays the ultimate price for its country at war.

"People don't know the devastation it can do," even affecting succeeding generations, said Sheila Borgstrom, Boyd's daughter. "His escape was to drink, and it was hurting the family and we missed out on a lot because of it."

Boyd Borgstrom was at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in October 1944 when the Marines ordered him home to the family farm in Thatcher, a town about 12 miles from Tremonton. He was 23 and had been stationed on Johnston Island in the Pacific, but experienced no combat.

In March of that year, a telegram reached the Borgstrom home: his 28-year-old brother Clyde, also a Marine, had died March 15 at Guadalcanal, where a tree fell on him while he was clearing debris.

In June, another telegram arrived: Roy, 30, an Army medic, had been shot and killed in Italy while carrying a wounded comrade to safety.

Less than two months after that, 19-year-old Rolon died of wounds suffered in an Army Air Force bombing raid over Germany. His twin, Rulon, was among Army troops storming France on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and was reported missing two months later. The headstone in the cemetery here says he died Aug. 22 in battle at LaDreff, France.

When word of Rulon's fate arrived at the local Western Union office, the agent refused to deliver the cable, not wanting to see Mrs. Borgstrom faint in grief again, Mrs. Hawkes recalled. He told the Mormon bishop he wouldn't go there anymore, she said. Niland remembered a similar story in his family.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a letter of condolence, telling Alben and Gunda Borgstrom that the loss of their sons "increased the determination of all of us to bring this war to an early and successful conclusion."

As Boyd Borgstrom awaited his discharge at Camp Lejeune, he told The Associated Press in 1944 that there was not much to say about his brothers' deaths. "Nothing I can say will bring them back," he said.

When the bodies finally came home, Life magazine reported the story with photos of the bereaved parents sitting in separate rooms of their home staring at the floor, and of four flag-draped caskets at the funeral in the Garland Mormon Tabernacle, where funeral services were held.

"We used to sit in the evenings and he would talk about his brothers and how hurt he was," Boyd's widow, Melva Borgstrom, said. "When you lose four brothers what is there to come home to?"

Besides sorrow, Boyd felt guilt and other emotions because of his brothers' deaths, and he dealt with these feelings by drinking, she said.

"He was very depressed," she said, crying as she spoke. "And after 17 years, I couldn't take it anymore and it was either the drinking or the family." Finally they divorced.

They remarried 12 years later, in 1974. A year after that, Boyd died of a heart attack at age 53, but Melva and their five children fondly recall the brief second marriage period, describing it as "heaven."

"He pulled us all together," Sheila said. "It may have been only a year, but it was a lifetime for us."

Will the Borgstroms see "Saving Private Ryan?"

Yes. DreamWorks invited Melva and several relatives to a veterans' screening in Southern California.