On Stumpy’s Boys

Even her children called her Stumpy. The stout, short woman, of Irish descent, had married Michael Nyland in the early 1900s, and the coupled settled in Tonawanda, New York. She and Michael produced six children because, well, that’s what Irish Catholic families did. What her children and her friends remarked about Stumpy was that you couldn’t ruffle her feathers, to use the colloquial phrase of the day.

Michael had been a veteran of the Spanish-American War, interestingly. In later years, Michael would tell tall tales about his time in Cuba fighting alongside Teddy. In a conflict that saw the largely Protestant United States fighting against Catholic Spain, Michael had no qualms about taking up arms for his country. He and his family were American to their cores. World War I saw him support Wilson’s decision to enter the war on the Allied side with zero hesitation about him. And, then, when World War 2 began, it made him proud that his four boys all signed up to go to battle, to the front lines, to fight to defend American democracy. No desk jobs for the Nyland boys, nossir.

On the other hand, Stumpy bore the four boys enlisting with her usual quiet resolve. She was certainly proud, yes, and she was the one who hung the banner bearing four blue stars in the front window, the four blue stars indicating that hers was a household that had provided four soldiers for the fight. Like everyone else in Tonawanda, she endured the rationing of goods, she planted her Victory Garden, and she contributed to the scrap metal drives. Stumpy held nothing back when it came to contributing to the war effort.

But Stumpy ended up giving more than most. Word came that one of her boys, Edward, was listed as missing in action and presumed dead after his plane was shot down over Burma. Then, in fast succession, another son, Robert, who had parachuted behind enemy lines after D-Day, was also missing. Finally, confirmation came to her door in the form of a telegram telling her that a third son, Preston, had been killed on the Normandy beaches. He had died a hero, manning a machine gun that provided cover for his buddies while they made their way inland. Five days later, the notice came that Robert, too, was confirmed dead. Stumpy changed out the flag in the window. She made it show two blue stars and two gold ones. People asked why she didn’t make it three gold stars, and she answered matter-of-factly that she had no confirmation about Ed’s death, so why should she change that blue star?

Stumpy’s emotions were so, so terribly mixed according to one of her daughters. The stunning losses happening so quickly one after another intertwined with the intense pride she had in knowing that her 2 sons died for such a noble endeavor. But, as a mother, the loss stung more within her heart. Yet, through it all, Stumpy never publicly shook her fist at the government or God for taking her boys.

The last son, Fredrick (whom the family called Fritz), was alive. The Army found him and brought him back to his mother and father in New York. He served out the remainder of his time in the military as an MP locally. And, then, as the war was drawing to a close, a miracle happened. Ed was found to have survived the plane crash in Burma and had lived through capture and imprisonment by the Japanese. He would be coming home as well. Stumpy told friends privately (because she wasn’t one to brag) that, see, she was right. Two gold and two blue.

And, even though the details aren’t exactly the same, in 1998, Stephen Spielberg would make Saving Private Ryan based on the story of Stumpy’s boys.

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