Corporal Lincoln Kirstein was the first men to enter the salt mine in Altaussee, Austria, after the unit that was there with him, managed to break down the 12-meter thick layer of debris blocking the entrance. This was happening on May 17, 1945, shortly after World War Two had ended.
After a lengthy search, they found what they were looking for. Dozens of wooden crates, covered in a thick layer of dust but undamaged, were waiting to be brought to light.
Before joining the military forces, Lincoln Kirstein used to be a writer and critic in New York. He was planning on launching a new project, a ballet ensemble. However, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, he gave up his project.
He was ordered to prevent the destruction of European works of art. Because the 1,200 year old Monte Cassino Abbey had been destroyed by a bombing attack in February 1944, a special section of “Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives” was created by the Allies, in order to protect these works, the Spiegel Online International reports.
When Kirstein first arrived in Europe, he realized that nobody had ever heard of the unit he got enlisted in. There were no provisions, typewriters, maps or paper whatsoever. However, he managed to get to France with the help of his own contacts. There he met Lieutenant James J. Rorimer, who was desperately trying to find the missing Michelangelo’s Madonna in Bruges and the Ghent altarpiece.
James J. Rorimer, a medieval expert of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had been travelling through northern France, to find and save what was not already in Hitler’s possession. All he had was a list of monuments and an order from Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The biggest theft in history was recorded after the Germans succeeded in stealing five million works from Europe. The 350 men of the special unit, worked as treasure hunters to find and get back these artworks from the Nazi officials.
Rose Valland, a woman from Paris, was the person who led the “Monuments Men” to the most important sources. Among them, was the salt mine complex of Altaussee. In the mines, stayed hidden 6,577 paintings, 1,200 crates of books, 954 illustrations, 230 sketches and 173 statues.
It took the “Monument Men” weeks to empty the mines and the work did not stop there. They kept on finding artwork in train cars, monasteries and underground.
The unit didn’t leave Europe until 1946.
A Hollywood film, inspired by the Monument Men story, is set to come out early next year.