PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Nothing really prepared sculptor Walter K. Hancock for what he saw in the towns of Europe as Allied forces closed in on Germany in 1945.
Siegen, east of Bonn, was a rubble field.
“The city had been solidly bombed for three months,” Hancock wrote in his memoir, A Sculptor’s Fortunes. “Corpses had been cleared away, but in one place I noticed a pool of blood with an American helmet beside it.”
In this grisly and devastated place, Hancock also found some of the greatest of all European treasures.
Entering an old tunnel, he came upon an incredible trove - works by Rembrandt and Rubens, Van Dyck and Delacroix, Van Gogh, Cranach, and Cezanne - some 400 paintings plucked up and squirreled away by the Nazis.
Here also were Charlemagne’s reliquary and the original manuscript of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6.
These “most precious objects” were secured under the direction of Hancock, a bona fide “Monuments Man,” one of about 345 men and women charged with saving Europe’s cultural treasures from the ravages of war and Nazi pillaging.
The opening Friday of “The Monuments Men,” the movie starring George Clooney, provides a moment to recall some of Philadelphia’s soldiers and civilians who - like Hancock - headed for the battlefields during and immediately after the war to save art. Just as important, it gives an opportunity to note that some art now on view in the city was rescued by Monuments Men.
One of the most distinguished sculptors of his generation, Hancock attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and taught sculpture there from 1929 to 1967. His public works can be found all over the country, including in Philadelphia, and the academy has several of his sculptures on permanent display in its galleries.
In Philadelphia, his most prominent public installation is the Pennsylvania Railroad World War II Memorial at 30th Street Station, dedicated in 1952. Another imposing Hancock - John Paul Jones, telescope in hand - stands behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
When the United States entered the war, Hancock enlisted in the Army and was trained as a medic. But he requested a transfer to the Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section - established to protect and recover Europe’s cultural treasures as the war entered its climactic phase.
In 1943, he was sent to London, and after the Normandy invasion, he headed for France and Germany, one of a minority of Monuments Men to work with an eye out for bullets and enemies. Most of his colleagues joined the fray after VE Day. Some were civilians; some were in military service.
Hancock, who died in 1998, is the most famous of Philadelphia’s Monuments Men. Archaeologist Langdon Warner, director of the Art Museum from 1917 to 1923 and a scholar of Asian art, served as a consultant to the military’s Arts and Monuments Section for Japan in 1946.
Before that, he had advocated strongly for protecting Nara and Kyoto during bombings. Japanese citizens in those two ancient capitals were so grateful a small shrine was built in Warner’s honor in Kyoto and a memorial tablet honoring him now stands in Nara.
“He was very modest about his role,” said Cathy Herbert, coordinator of collections research and documentation at the Art Museum. But in Japan, Warner, who died in 1955, was considered a hero.