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Our link to the 'Monuments Men' John Davis Skilton Jr. was a curator at the National Gallery before volunteering for service in the Army's 'Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives' section.

The family of one of World War II’s “Monuments Men” hailed from Monroeville, Ohio – a fact that led U.S. Army Lt. John Davis Skilton, Jr. to donate some of his personal papers to the Hayes Presidential Center.

Recent media coverage about the Feb. 7 release of The Monuments Men movie created a buzz at the Center. A year before his 1992 death, Skilton donated a large collection of his family’s papers, photographs, and scrapbooks to the Hayes Presidential Center. Among the materials are a dozen letters written by Skilton at the end of the war (September-November 1945). He was stationed in Germany at the time and wrote to his mother about his involvement in returning art treasures to France.

Skilton was a member of the U.S. Army’s “Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives” section commonly called the Monuments Men. The men and women in the unit represented 13 countries, many were museum directors, curators, and art historians who volunteered for service in the MFAA. Skilton was among this group. An art historian, he was a curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. before signing up. The mission of the MFAA was to protect cultural monuments and treasures from destruction during WWII. The group not only identified buildings of cultural importance prior to bombing raids, but also worked to restore those already damaged and return art treasures to their owners.

Skilton was with Cpt. James Rorimer when the U.S. Army uncovered some 21,000 pieces of fine art looted by the Nazis. The cultural treasures were hidden in the castle Neuschwanstein in Fussen, Germany. (Rorimer was inspiration for actor Matt Damon’s character in The Monuments Men movie.)

In late October 1945, Skilton was the only MFAA officer present for the return of the art to the French government. In a letter dated October 18 he writes:
We estimate it will take twenty-five train cars to take care of all the objects – furniture, rugs, sculptures, paintings etc .

After the war, Skilton was honored by France and Germany for his extraordinary efforts to save treasures in those countries. He was presented the Medaille de Reconnaissance Francaise in honor of his rescue of Le Grande Calvaire de Plougastel, an elaborate French shrine depicting events of the Crucifixion. The West German government awarded Skilton the Verdienst Kreuz, First Class (the only federal decoration of Germany) for his outstanding efforts to preserve the Wurzburg Residenz palace after it was bombed.

Mr. Skilton's donation of his wartime correspondence demonstrates how invaluable such contributions are to United States history. First-person accounts deepen our understanding of both historical events and the amazing individuals who were part of them. It is one of the reasons the Hayes Presidential Center has launched Northwest Ohio Veterans' Oral History project.