Last weekend, I had the privilege of presenting First Lieutenant James C. Jones, a veteran of World War II, with the Bronze Star Medal on his 91st birthday. Mr. Jones had commanded his unit during the Liberation of Paris and then the march to the German border. He is an American hero.
The accounts of heroism and sacrifice in World War II are humbling. While victory in battle is often measured by the amount of successful hits, it was the misses – and often times barely misses – that made heroes of one group of soldiers.
In early 1944, a Royal Air Force bomb hit the convent at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Italy. Fortunately, the residents evacuated several days earlier. The building crumbled into a pile of rubble – with the exception of a small section at the northwest corner. In that corner Leonardo da Vinci had painted his Last Supper on the wall. It was barely a miss, but it saved one of history’s most incredible masterpieces.
The Last Supper wasn’t saved by chance. Before the raid, a group called the Monuments Men – women and men who worked with the military to protect cultural treasures – jury-rigged a structure made of steel bars and sandbags around the wall with da Vinci’s masterpiece. The precautions they took saved this priceless work of art.
The Monuments Men was originally proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943 as a means to promote the preservation of history’s greatest masterpieces, like da Vinci’s Last Supper. These people would work hand in hand with Allied airmen to divert them from many culturally significant sites. And if these sites ended up as an unintended target, Monuments Men would hurry to make the repairs.
Adolf Hitler had also planned – even before the war – to steal many of Europe’s greatest cultural treasures, collecting them for his own Fuhrermuseum. From museums, churches, and private Jewish collections, the Nazis took millions of paintings, tapestries, books and religious relics that had been created by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet and others. In the years after the war, the Monuments Men worked to return over five million works of art to their rightful owners.
Robert Edsel – who lives in Dallas – has documented the largely untold story of these soldier scholars. Edsel’s third book, Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis was released earlier this month and his first book, The Monuments Men, is being turned into a movie that is starred in and directed by George Clooney. His Monuments Men Foundation has also done great work to help share these soldiers’ stories.
“To think that some 65 years after the war, there’s a story of such epic proportion that the broad public really doesn’t know about is astonishing,” said Edsel. “When we consider some of the problems that we experienced in the aftermath of the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in 2003, which was a small regional conflict, it’s remarkable to imagine that we were able to do this with just a hundred or so men and women during a truly world war.”
It is so important that we share heroic accounts like this one. History has so much to teach us, but if the stories are not shared, the lessons that could have been learned are lost forever.
Member of Congress