LAMOILLE — It’s known as the greatest treasure hunt in history.
The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program was established in 1943 and tasked with protecting cultural property in war areas during and after World War II. The members worked with the military and preserved historic monuments. When the war ended, they also worked to find and return art pieces that Nazis had stolen or hidden for safekeeping.
On May 8, 1945, Maj. Ralph Emerson Pearson was part of Gen. George Patten’s Third Army sent to liberate Germany at the end of the war. In the salt mines of Altaussee, Austria, American forces made a discovery. More than 14,000 pieces of art were found inside the mines, including Rembrandts, a Michelangelo sculpture and paintings from a church in Ghent. The total value of the art was estimated at more than $500 million at the time.
“I have a terrific amount of respect for my dad,” Betty Vaughan of Lamoille said of her father, Pearson. Vaughan is the wife of former longtime Elko attorney Bob Vaughan.
Task Force Pearson, as the mission was called, has been written about in a book called “The Monuments Men.” Today, the story will be brought to the screen in the movie of the same name starring George Clooney and Matt Damon.
Vaughan is excited to see how the movie portrays the real life event her father was a part of. She’s planning to see it this afternoon.
“I’m so excited to see this tomorrow,” she said during an interview Thursday.
Actor David Price plays a nameless U.S. army major in the film, and Vaughan and her family believe the role is based on Pearson.
“We’ll never know for sure,” Vaughan said. “ ... (The movie) just may not put his name on it.”
Pearson and the Third Army were in Altaussee to seize the town and bring back the crown jewels, according to the reports Pearson kept. German soldiers had orders to blow up the art pieces found in the salt mines after the fall of Adolph Hitler.
“It was about the last thing found,” Vaughan said.
Her father wrote about his experience after retiring, and she can’t remember whether he told his three children about the mission or if she read about it in his books first. Soldiers weren’t allowed to take notes during the war, she said, but Pearson made carbon copies of his reports and later published them in a five-volume book titled “Enroute to the Redoubt.” Redoubt is the name of one of Hitler’s hideouts, Vaughan said.
“There’s a lot of interesting stuff about this and a lot of people don’t know about this,” she said.
Boleslaw Jan Czedekowski, a Polish painter who was not allowed to paint by Hitler, was in a town liberated by Pearson and was so grateful to the major that he tried to paint his portrait, but could not finish it. Later on, when the painting was presented to Pearson in Washington, it was decided it should not be finished because “it’s a piece of history,” Vaughan said. Vaughan’s older sister has the painting in Wisconsin.
Pearson’s family lived in Middletown, Ohio, during the war. He retired from the army as a colonel, and moved to Austin, Texas, where he stayed until his death in 1991 at the age of 86.