Earlier in June, Americans commemorated the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the massive deployment of Allied troops during World War II to gain a foothold on the coast of France at Normandy. The speeches and ceremonies of June 6th focused on the events and sacrifices of that first day; less attention has been given to the subsequent landings in June and early July of 1944 that provided combat reinforcements and logistical support for the difficult 77-day Normandy campaign.
Francis W. Bilodeau ’38 arrived in Normandy on July 4, 1944, as a member of the 12th Combat Engineer Battalion, which was attached to the 8th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. Born in Augusta, Bilodeau had been a history major at Bowdoin, with a minor in German. Newly-appointed Director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art Phil Beam had hired him in 1937 as a part-time assistant through the National Youth Administration (a Works Progress Administration precursor to work study). Francis spent hours on a 14-foot ladder painting the museum galleries and he became an enthusiastic student of art history. After his graduation he worked at the Newark Art Museum in New Jersey and took graduate classes in art history at Yale. When the U.S. entered World War II he enlisted in the Army in 1942 as a private. By the time he arrived in Normandy Francis was a staff sergeant.
At some point in 1945, Bilodeau took advantage of the opportunity to join the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives group (MFAA), civilian and military experts in the fields of art history, architecture, library science, and conservation that were charged with the documentation, collection, preservation, and repatriation/return of objects of artistic, historical, or cultural significance. Several books and a recent film, The Monuments Men (2014), tell some of the stories of the men and women of the MFAA – and of works of art that were stolen, destroyed, lost, returned, or whose legal ownership has yet to be resolved.
The MFAA traced its origins to the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, established in 1943. General Dwight Eisenhower made the protection of monuments and artwork a responsibility for field commanders, which gave the men and women who served in the MFAA some authority, but few resources to work with. Some officers risked injury from building collapse, unexploded ordnance, and sporadic small arms fire to work in the chaotic wake of the battle’s front, compiling inventories of objects and providing for their protection from the elements and from looting by displaced persons or soldiers. Requisitioning vehicles and the necessary labor to pack and transport works of art challenged creativity (and occasionally a strict adherence to military regulations). Other MFAA personnel, such as Francis Bilodeau, were responsible for the administrative side of an operation which at one point had custody of about five million objects.
In 1945 Bilodeau was appointed director of the Marburg Central Collecting Point (50 miles north of Frankfurt), one of four such centers in Germany. Many of the pieces held at Marburg were deposited there for safekeeping by museums threatened by Allied bombing. Other objects had been stolen or had been looted. Bilodeau had to remain vigilant about thefts from the collections, and he instituted a series of security measures for military personnel and civilian workers at the Marburg facility. A steady stream of trucks brought art to Marburg, but nothing could have prepared Bilodeau for the shipments that came from the town of Bernterode in the Thuringian Forest in May of 1945.
In late April seven American soldiers were checking on a munitions plant and 400,000-ton ordnance depot located in an expansive network of tunnels in the Bernterode salt mine, 1,800 feet below the surface of the ground. A quarter of a mile from the elevator shaft the men noticed a freshly-mortared masonry wall. After digging into the wall and through several feet of rubble, the soldiers encountered a padlocked door. Beyond the door they found a room containing tapestries, boxes, paintings (271), 19th and 20th-century military banners (225), and four elaborate caskets. One of the caskets was draped with silk ribbons bearing swastikas and the name of Adolf Hitler. After posting a guard, the sergeant in charge of the detail reported the discovery to his commanding officer. MFAA officer Walker Hancock’s inspection confirmed that it had the appearance of a shrine. Red-crayon scrawls on paper tags taped to the caskets identified President and Frau von Hindenburg, Frederick the Great of Prussia, and Frederick’s father, Frederick William I. Ammunition boxes contained volumes from Frederick the Great’s library in Potsdam. Other boxes contained coronation regalia, decorated 15th and 16th-century swords, and a plumed helmet.
Using whatever packing materials were at hand, Hancock’s men spent four days preparing the objects for transfer to Marburg. Frederick the Great’s 1,200-lb. casket fit into the elevator cage with only inches to spare. A radio was playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” when the casket began its ascent, and “God Save the King” greeted its arrival at the surface; victory in Europe had been declared on the final day of the retrieval of the Bernterode cache.
The appropriation of military history, objects, places of commemoration, and even bodies were very important to the Nazi regime. Field Marshal/President von Hindenberg expressed his wish that in death he be buried next to his wife in Hanover. Instead, Hitler staged an elaborate state funeral at the Tannenberg Memorial in what is now Poland, linking the old field marshal’s World War I victory there to the Nazi regime. In a similar way, images of – and objects linked to – Frederick William I and Frederick the Great were appropriated as potent symbols of Prussian military prowess. As the Russians closed in on Tannenberg from the east at the close of the war, Hitler had the caskets of the von Hindenburgs and the battle flags removed from the site and ordered the memorial destroyed so that its symbolic power could not be used against him. Allied bombing of the Potsdam area likewise threatened the physical remains of Frederick William I and Frederick the Great, the family’s art collections, and library. All these treasures and relics ultimately ended up at Bernterode as the symbolic ingredients that might resurrect a Fourth Reich.
The Nazi reliance on historical objects to manipulate and inflame emotions was not lost on Francis Bilodeau and the staff at Marburg, who were entrusted with the caskets. The mission, known as “Operation Bodysnatch” by the three officers in charge (Bilodeau, Theodore Heinrich, and Everett Lesley), was kept secret while the State Department sought a repatriation solution that wouldn’t create a resurgence of German nationalism. Bilodeau and others made discreet inquiries. Would the British allow the fulfillment of von Hindenburg’s wish to be buried at Hanover, in the British Occupation Zone? The word came back loud and clear from London: under no circumstances would such a thing be allowed. Would the French permit the burial of the “Fredericks” at Burg Hohenzollern, a fairy-tale hilltop castle that was their ancestral home? Again the answer was an unequivocal “Non!” Secondary choices also fell by the wayside. As Theodore Heinrich told LIFE magazine in 1950, “It isn’t easy to bury a king.”
Bilodeau and his associates finally found a location in Marburg, a few hundred yards from the place where the caskets had rested for 15 months. St. Elizabeth’s Church, built by the Teutonic Knights between 1240 and 1385, is the oldest Gothic church in northern Germany. Church officials and surviving family members gave their permission for reburial at St. Elizabeth’s. There remained a few more curves in the road, however. Excavations in the transept where the kings were to be buried encountered the bones of pre-Reformation monks in unmarked graves. These had to be removed and re-interred to make room for the caskets. The graves for the von Hindenbergs in the chapel under the north tower hit bedrock at 21 inches. To accommodate the dimensions of the caskets, the surrounding floor of the chapel was raised nearly two feet. The only missing elements were the two massive sandstone slabs that Bilodeau had ordered to seal the von Hindenburg crypts. He finally tracked them to a flatcar that had been mistakenly routed towards Russia. Finally, in night-time ceremonies in August of 1946, the Hohenzollern kings and the von Hindenburgs were once again laid to rest.
In 1998 German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer wrote a letter to Bilodeau, thanking him for his work as director of the Marburg and Wiesbaden Central Collecting Points.
Frances Bilodeau was discharged from the Army, but returned to Germany as the civilian director of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point in October of 1946, where for the next year he continued to work on restoring works of art to their rightful owners. He then returned to complete a master’s degree in art from Yale in 1950, and enjoyed a varied and productive career at museums and art galleries in Indiana, Louisiana, South Carolina, and New York. He retired officially in 1972, although he remained active as a scholar, a consultant, and an engaged alumnus of Bowdoin College until his death in 2004 at the age of 89.
Following the reunification of Germany in 1990, the decision was made in 1991 to move the caskets of Frederick William I and Frederick the Great from Marburg back to Potsdam. I’m sure that Francis Bilodeau breathed a sigh of relief when the reburial ceremonies were accomplished with only minor (but peaceful) demonstrations and with no major disruptions. In 1998 German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer wrote a letter to Bilodeau, thanking him for his work as director of the Marburg and Wiesbaden Central Collecting Points: “…protecting works of art…and preventing the perpetration of new wrongs…Nor will it be forgotten that, despite strong opposition and with very modest means, you organized art exhibitions with the works entrusted to your care…By many accounts, these were in fact the first art exhibitions held in post-war Germany.”
This spring at the College, under the sponsorship of the Harry Spindel Memorial Lectureship, journalist David D’Arcy (“Recovering Nazi Art Loot – Unfinished Business”) and historian Jonathan Petropoulos (“Culture and Barbarism: Nazi Art Plundering and the Restitution Field Moving Forward”) spoke about issues that will not simply disappear with the passage of time, but challenge us to seek the right course, to the best of our ability. If we stick to that standard we will be paying tribute to Francis Bilodeau and the men and women of the MFAA.
With best wishes,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations