He was born in 1915 in the U.S. In 1933, he entered an unnamed college as an English Major, and learned German and French, and graduated in 1936. He said that his accent for German was clean while he only had a slight one for French. In 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, and was put in the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division as a cartographer and translator. On June 6th, 1944, after the American Army captured Omaha Beach, Upham landed on that beach with the rest of the 29th Infantry.
Recruited by Miller
On June 9, Captain Miller recruited Upham into his squad to serve as a translator following the deaths of Beasley and Talbot. He met the man when he was working vigorously at his desk. Unlike his fellow soldiers, who casually stood when Captain Miller entered, Upham was steadfast and stern in his manner, quickly returning to work when allowed to ease.
He showed eagerness at Miller's desire to recruit him to his squad. He admitted to speaking fluent in French and German with a passable accent in the former but an accurate one for their latter. As he gathered his things, he admitted that he had never seen live combat, but had trained to use a weapon in basic training.
He asked if he could bring his typewriter but Miller indicating his pencil indirectly caused Upham to change his mind. He fumbled to gathered his things, accidentally picking up a German soldier's helmet instead of his own, quickly swapping it, much to Miller's amusement.
As they left, Miller almost politely grabbed Upham's personal belongings and chucked them to the floor as he wouldn't need them, something Upham wearily admitted to. He then met up with the others in the squad and proceeded to depart in search of Ryan with them.
He accompanied the squad to Neuville on June 10th. On the way he tried to talk to the other soldiers but instead just got laughed at for reading a book about the bonds at develop between soldiers during war and threatened by Mellish for touching him with "rat claws". Only Miller responded in a friendly way by agreeing with Upham for what he was saying about why we go to war.
While in Neuville, he was watched over by Sergeant Horvath under Miller's orders. He later translated for Miller to a French family. The group were sighted by a German sniper. During the sniper duel, Upham comforted a a French girl. Afterwards, he filled everyone's canteens with water.
The group came across several Germans and their leader. He tried speaking to them in German to calm them down and avoid a conflict. His attempts were unsuccessful and the German soldiers were gunned down.
Later in the night he had a conversation with Miller about a betting pool the company did, anyone who could find out anything about miller's past would get all the money; so long as they bet $5 first of course. They agreed to spilt the prize when it reached $500. Upham tried to sway Miller to wait until it reached $1000. Miller responded "What if we don't live that long?".
Finding the paratroopers and meeting Steamboat Willie
When they encountered a radio site being holed up by four Germans, he stayed back outside of the battle for his own safety being inexperienced in combat. He watched the battle occur through Jackson's scope on his rifle, seeing his fellow soldiers push forward to the small bunker and tops several grenades within. After a series of explosions and shakily putting the scope away, he was called forward by Miller to bring canteens and provide the medical kit. He raced through the smoke, finding the soldiers around a mortally wounded Wade. As the others tried to save them, he stood back and asked what Wade needed, the medic indirectly stating he wanted to die. He watched Wade die, noticing the others suddenly becoming still and dismal.
The silence was broken by the grunts of Reiben, who had pushed on to assault the remaining German. As the others raced forward to join the assault, Upham stayed back with Miller, who marched forward and order the others to stop and make the German dig graves for Wade and the paratroopers in the burrow. Upham was quickly dragged forward by Mellish, demanding he ask if the German shot Wade. Upham heeded the order but the German began speaking Latin instead, much to Jackson's anger. As Miller walked away, he tried to plea with him that killing one of the soldiers wasn't right, but Miller coldly ordered him to help the man carry the bodies.
As time passed, Upham bonded with the German, dubbing him 'Steamboat Willie'. They shared cigarettes and talked about life back home. When Miller came with the other soldiers, Upham again pleaded for the man's life. To his surprise, Miller did let the soldier go. However, this caused Reiben and Horvath to start fighting due to it bring a conflicting decision. As the situation escalated further, Upham tried to convince the captain to stop the soldiers from fighting with each other but got an unexpected response with Miller revealing where he was from. He watched as Miller spoke of his profession before the war and how he was tired of killing, convincing Reiben to stay with the group. They then buried the bodies and proceeded to Ramelle.
Finding Ryan and the Battle of Ramelle
During the Battle at Ramelle, he became shell shocked and was unable to save a .30 cal team from a German soldier because he was too frozen with fear to do anything about it. He carried all the .30 calibre ammo at the battle of Ramelle, but was unable to do his job because he was always either pinned down or too afraid to move.
He signified the loss of innocence in war and thought that soldiers could be civil, but he later succumbed to the evils of war and made up for his cowardice when he shot Steamboat Willie for killing Miller even after the latter had shown Willie mercy earlier.
Not only did Upham represent the loss of innocence of war but he also symbolised the "Everyman"; the moment when he almost picks up the souvenir German helmet symbolises how he could have fought on either side, he was a neutral soldier.
His compassion was what resulted in him causing the deaths of Miller (from convincing him to free Willie) and Mellish when the German stabbed him. The latter in particular metaphorically displays Upham represented how the Americans knew what the Germans were doing to the Jews (Mellish) during WW2 but failed to intervene and make the Germans pay until much later.
His illusion of neutrality faded when he finally had to pick and side and kill Steamboat Willie, his character revelation being how he finally understood the horrors of war. It became clear that Upham had turned into a hardened and true soldier because of the whole experience.
There was also a running gag within the film in how he was the only soldier to not understand what the word "Fubar" meant. When he finally learns what it means when indirectly told by Mellish, it once against highlights his innocence. He also didn't smoke before the battle of Ramelle, a minor example of his innocence as he is only just understanding the stress war can impose on a man.
To clarify what Upham said to the Germans here is a short passage of what he said in English. The words he says in German at the end of the film when conversing with the group of German soldiers are as followed:
Upham: "Drop your weapons - hands up, drop your weapons!..... And shut your mouths!”
Steamboat Willie: "I know this soldier! I know this man!"
Upham: “Shut up!”
Upham: [After shooting him, to the others] "Get lost... Disappear!"