Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
Find more columns by Tom here.
Steamboat Springs This is the story of how, in 1946, Pfc. Ray King helped to return priceless art masterpieces to Italy from an abandoned salt mine in Salzburg, Austria, where the Nazis had stashed them.
If it sounds like the plot of a recent Tom Hanks movie, I’m right there with you. But there’s even more. After guarding the art treasures until they were placed in safe hands again, Cousin Ray and his fellow soldiers stumbled into an audience with the pope in the Vatican.
Let me set the stage. In 1938, Adolph Hitler conceived a delusional scheme to transform his adopted hometown of Linz, Austria, into the cultural capital of Europe by relocating stolen art treasures from all over the region to a new museum. Naturally, it would be called the Fuehrermuseum.
Above all, he coveted Italian masters of the 15th and 16th centuries (think Bellini and Titian). Between 1939 and the fall of Berlin to Russian and Polish troops in 1945, the Nazis looted gold and foreign currency as well as more than 100,000 art pieces.
As everyone knows, things didn’t go according to plan for Hitler, and when things got really sticky toward the end, the art treasures were stashed in defunct underground salt mines outside Salzburg.
That’s where Cousin Ray King comes in. I should quickly point out that I am not related to Ray; he is the cousin of my late mother-in-law. We visited Ray and his wife, Lorraine, on Sunday in their beautiful home overlooking a horse pasture on the eastern edge of Loveland. Ray was born the son of a Polish immigrant who came to the United States with his family when he was 2. Ray grew up within 10 blocks of dozens of closely knit relatives.
“We were all poor growing up in Buffalo (N.Y.), but we didn’t know we were poor because we were all the same,” Ray told us.
Born in 1927, Ray was a teenager when, as a private first class, he shipped out aboard an icy troop transport in February 1945 to eventually link up with the 42nd Infantry Division.
“I got to Europe about two months before the war ended.” Ray said. “I didn’t do so much,”
His story about guarding the train cars takes place after the war in Salzburg in 1946. It came about after he broke the infantry soldier’s cardinal rule: Don’t volunteer for anything.
“The sergeant said, ‘We need some volunteers to go on a trip.’ My buddy Patrick Gallagher and I were bored and we volunteered,” Ray recalled
Their orders were to join a detachment of eight soldiers guarding two railroad cars on a train heading south over the Alps to Rome.
“We were told to be as inconspicuous as possible,” Ray said. And then, jokingly, “If I’d known then what I know now, I’d probably be living in a villa in Steamboat Springs. There were millions of dollars of paintings in those railroad cars. When we got to Rome, the people were so happy.”
The soldiers were happy, too. Upon their arrival, they were granted seven days of leave over and above their normal allotment and a stack of Italian lire notes to permit them some souvenir shopping.
“We wanted to go to the Vatican so we went to St. Peter’s Square. We didn’t see any guards around, and we went to some places where today you’d probably get shot for going there. A member of the Swiss Guard came up to us and said, ‘Would you like to see the pope?’”
A devout Catholic today, Ray was a little more nonchalant as a young soldier.
“I was Catholic, but I knew just enough to go to Mass,” Ray explained. “So we go inside, and there’s the pope, standing there. There’s eight of us and the pope. He was very accessible and talked to us in English, and we received the papal blessing.”
Pius XII was a controversial figure during and after the war. Appointed nuncio (ambassador) to Bavaria, he had signed a number of concordats or treaties with Austria and Germany. During the war, he was criticized for his perceived indifference to the suffering of Polish Jews as well as Catholic priests and monks at the hands of the Nazis. Ray believes any silence on the Pope’s part was to avoid further retribution in Poland.
Ray, who went to college on the GI Bill after the war and earned a master’s degree in Eastern European history from the University of Indiana, went on to have a second military career as an Air Force intelligence officer, serving in Berlin during the Cold War.
He continues to read avidly about modern European history and defends Pius XII for instructing that abbeys and monasteries be opened to shelter Italian Jews during the war. Those actions are estimated to have saved thousands of lives.
It all happened more than 60 years ago.
— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or e-mail tross@SteamboatToday.com