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Real Life Monuments Man

January 28, 2014, 10:15 PM by Angela Kennecke

Real Life Monuments Man

You may have seen the movie trailers -- a Hollywood blockbuster is due out next Friday, called "The Monuments Men," staring George Clooney and Matt Damon.

It's a story about the "greatest treasure hunt in history," in the final days and months following World War II.  A KELOLAND man can claim that his grandfather was one of those treasure hunters.

For the South Dakota's State Treasurer, protecting treasures is part of the family lineage.

The film "The Monuments Men," promises to put the spotlight on a nearly forgotten piece of history from a group of people who helped preserve our cultural heritage.

"When I was in college, I wrote a speech and one of the speeches I wrote was, ‘The man I never met.’  And it was about my grandfather. His name was Charles Richard and it's kind of nice being named after him on the Richard side," Richard Sattgast said.

Sattgast's grandfather died a year before he was born.  But the stories of Captain Charles Richard Sattgast's war heroics have kept his memory alive.

Captain Sattgast was part of the group, The Monuments Men.  During the last year of the war, those 345 men and women from 13 nations and all walks of life, tracked, recovered and returned more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis.

"They were art curators; they were historians.  They just volunteered to be part of this unit to collect those artifacts to make sure they were safe," Sattgast said.

Charles Sattgast served as president of Sioux Falls College and then Bemidji State College.  He saw his students enlisting and decided to join the Army.

"He was very much in support of what we were doing to defeat Hitler.  That's the conviction he had to say, 'I'm going to leave my position and go over and serve,'" Sattgast said.

After serving in the Battle of the Bulge, Captain Sattgast was called upon to be part of the Monuments Men because of his expertise art and education.

"What he would do, when they would take over a city, he would go in before the troops would go in; it was a very dangerous assignment because you'd have snipers all over.  And it was his responsibility to go in and collect any artifacts so they wouldn't be looted," Sattgast said.

Captain Sattgast was one of the first American soldiers to get into Hitler's lair in the mountains, known as the Eagle's Nest.

"He did collect a silver tray that was a gift from Eva Braun to Hitler and he brought that back. I believe it's in a museum on the West Coast somewhere," Sattgast said.

But the Sattgast family does have another souvenir from the Nazis. A civilian cap worn by Nazi leader Hermann Goering.

"I would certainly like to have it get into a museum; the problem with it being a civilian cap, I don't know of any way to verify it actually belonged to Goering, other than the story of my grandfather and my dad," Sattgast said.

Captain Sattgast's efforts with the Monuments Men resulted in much more than just a few Nazi souvenirs.

"He went into Vienna and they recovered over $30 million worth of different artifacts, including Rembrandts and gold items," Sattgast said.

In 1946, Captain Sattgast was honored by Poland for returning artifacts stolen by Nazis to the Polish people. He also returned money and personal items from downed allied airmen to their families.

"I do have some letters that had been written by different families both in American and England, as well as some German families who had written him, explaining how much they were grateful to him," Sattgast said.

Sattgast was also one of the first Americans to go into the Dachau Concentration Camp and took pictures and brought back stories of the horror inflicted by the Nazis.

His grandson is glad that "The Monuments Men" film will help preserve a piece of history that makes his family proud.

"It's a great honor that he was placed in and I know he felt it was a strong duty he needed to fulfill," Sattgast said.

A duty that continues today.  One of the film's goals is to get any remaining artifacts from this time returned to their rightful owners.

Sattgast is meeting his sister in Rapid City to see "The Monuments Men," when it opens next weekend.

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