Pete Turnham recounts time as ‘Monuments Man’ during WWII
By Anna-Claire Terry
On the silver screen, the tale of the Monuments Men is depicted with typical Hollywood-style grandeur. For 94-year-old Pete Turnham, the real life events were less glamorous.
At the age of 22, Turnham graduated from Auburn University and immediately enlisted in the army during World War II. “I said ‘Here I am, send me where you want me. So, I got a pretty good trip. I landed in a harbor of France,” he said. He was a first lieutenant in Patton’s Third Army and fought the Nazis across Europe until the Germans surrendered. Just as Turnham was preparing to take on the Japanese, he received a vastly different assignment. He was named company commander of 200 soldiers and was given the task of guarding Hitler’s abandoned loot from what some refer to as the greatest theft of all time.
According to Turnham, more than $8 million of some of Europe’s greatest artistic achievements was seized from France by the Nazis and kept inside a spectacular white castle called Neuschwanstein, hidden away on a mountain near Germany’s border with Austria.
From spring to winter of 1945, Turnham and his men called a hotel at the foot of the mountain home and spent their days watching over the stolen art. The goal was to return it to its rightful owners and save it from being placed in German museums after the war as Hitler had planned.
Turnham said the castle, built by King Ludwig II, was breathtaking. “There were four buildings to the castle, and it had seven towers. There were 293 windows in it,” he said. “During the war, Hitler’s air force commander, Herman Göring, loved art, and he found out about all of this art in Paris. When Hitler heard about it, he had it all hauled into safe hiding places.”
Turnham said being in charge of that much precious art was stressful, especially after word got around that it was hidden in the castle. However, he and his men never had difficulty keeping enemies away from the castle. “No one ever gave us any trouble. They were about as proud to be finished with the war as we were,” he said.
Now, the castle is what Turnham called a “showplace.” He hasn’t returned to the castle since 1945. Upon his return to Alabama, the Chambers County native and his wife settled down in Auburn. Turnham then went on to serve in the State House of Representatives for 40 years and founded his own business, Alabama Contract Sales, where he still serves as president today. He referred to himself as a workaholic. “I just enjoy it,” he said.
If memories of guarding famous artwork and walking through a dazzling castle in snowcapped mountains every day is not an interesting enough story to tell, Turnham has many more stories of the war including times of constant battle and walking through prison camps in Austria. Aside from the castle, Turnham said the prison camps are his most prominent memories of the war. “You will never know how human beings can be treated until you saw something like that. It will break your heart,” he said. “I didn’t see a dry eye on any soldier in that place. Can you believe such would happen?”
He credits his love of serving his country to the Auburn University ROTC program, in which he was very involved before the war, and for learning more than scholastics at Auburn. “At Auburn, they teach you how to live,” he said. “When I saw all of these things, I knew why I had been called from Auburn, Alabama to fight the Nazis– It was for people. I shudder to think about those who won’t serve their country.”