Special WWII art detectives unit deserves nation’s highest civilian honor

During World War II, amid the mounting loss of human life and the horrific destruction of European cities, a small group of men and women were assigned to a special unit with a very specific purpose.

These soldiers and sailors, considered by some to be “art detectives,” were charged with locating and recapturing hundreds of thousands of cultural treasures that had been confiscated by the Nazis in raids on homes, churches and museums. Although they represented 13 countries, most of the “Monuments Men” were American, and President Franklin Roosevelt had approved the concept of cultural preservation officers.

As to why the military should focus at all on art objects in the middle of such a deadly war, the group’s leader had an appropriate answer, which he posed as a question:

“What if we win the war, but lose the last 500 years of our cultural history?” asked U.S. Navy reservist George Stout.

Among the treasures rescued were works by Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, whose Bruges Madonna sculpture was recovered from a salt mine in Austria. In addition to recovering art, the Monuments Men helped save many churches, millions of library books, Torah scrolls and other objects.

They were true heroes of the war, and U.S. Rep. Kay Granger thinks it is time to recognize them as such. She introduced a bill Thursday that would award the Monuments Men the Congressional Gold Medal.

“I don’t believe it can be overstated how significant the contributions of the Monuments Men are to the preservation of many of the world’s most remarkable pieces of art,” Granger said.

“The story of the Monuments Men is one that has to be told and should be shared as an instrumental part of U.S. and world history. I believe the veterans who participated are certainly worthy and deserving of the recognition of Congress’ highest expression of appreciation, the Congressional Gold Medal.”

This is legislation that should easily pass. Legislation to award the gold medal, first given to George Washington, must be co-sponsored by two-thirds of members in the House and Senate before it can be introduced in committee.

That should not be a problem in either chamber, meaning this should not be a long drawn-out process, especially since time is of the essence.

There were 350 Monuments Men (and women) during the war.

Sadly, only five — four men and one woman — are still alive.