This group of experts — many in their 30s and 40s with families, and older than their fellow soldiers — sought to safeguard treasures as well as recover what was stolen by the Third Reich, which organized a calculated theft of paintings, sculptures, sacred relics and much more. Works owned by Jews, and any enemy of Germany, were often targeted by the reich.
A National Geographic documentary televised Wednesday night about the Monuments Men included segments focused on Hancock’s role and talked about how he was deeply moved by the abject destruction he witnessed.
His daughter read an excerpt from one of her father’s many letters in which he recounted what he saw in Aachen, Germany, home to the ancient cathedral that is a now UNESCO world heritage site.
“For two weeks we had watched Aachen burning below the horizon, an unsteady glow in the sky at night. Behind these roofless brick fronts was only emptiness. The city was utterly abandoned ... Aachen was a skeleton,” penned Hancock, a lifelong letter writer.
French said her father was dedicated to preserving whatever piece of civilization he could.
The National Geographic documentary highlighted a huge find by Hancock, then attached to the U.S. First Army, which eventually led to the discovery of the whereabouts of Aachen’s treasures after he found a catalogue listing important artworks.
In April 1945, Hancock and Lt. Commander George Stout reached a copper mine about 85 miles away in Siegen, the location marked on the ledger Hancock had found in Aachen five months earlier, according to the National Geographic program.
There they would find countless treasures in huge chambers 700 feet below the surface. Shortly after, the Monuments Men would find more priceless artworks and treasure in a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria.
French recalled that her father was among the first G.I.s in Aachen after the bombing of the cathedral, and on the anniversary 50 years later, her father was invited back for a ceremony.