Thursday, February 6, 2014

My Monuments Men, Part 1

The Merkers Salt Mine

   Forrest Dixon and Bill Reiff were having a conversation at the January 1995 "mini-reunion" of the 712th Tank Battalion in Bradenton, Fla., when the subject of the Merkers salt mine came up. Almost 20 years later, the mine plays a prominent role in the new movie and bestselling book "The Monuments Men."
   "They have a column in the Detroit News where you ask a question and they answer it," said Dixon, who was the battalion's maintenance officer, "and somebody asked, 'Which was the largest robbery, the Brinks at Boston ..."
   "Or the 357th Infantry at Merkers," Dr. Reiff, one of the battalion's two medical officers, interjected ...
   "or the Great Train robbery in Britain?" Dixon completed his sentence. "And the fellow came back and said which was the largest. But the largest of all time was the five tons of gold that was robbed ... or removed ... from the Merkers salt mine."
   Dixon seemed lost in thought for a moment, and then said to Doc Reiff, "When you went down in the Merkers mine, was the door of the first vault blown open?"
   "Here we go again!" Reiff said. "I was just telling Aaron, I wish we had started this 30 years ago, because I think I just subconsciously blotted a lot of that stuff out of my mind. I was there when we picked up these prisoners that had been starved. That's when I got my picture in the Stars & Stripes. Somebody in our outfit said that I bawled him out for giving them candy, but as I was telling Aaron, I guess I subconsciously blotted it out."
   "Well, you know, on that Merkers salt mine," Dixon said, "it came out a couple of years later that there was five tons of gold missing."
   "Every time we went in the elevator," Reiff said, "when we took the trailer, we had to sign for every bar. We had little jeep trailers, and we had to account for every dang one, sign for each one separately. After talking about it, as I remember, that was a little scary, 600 meters down in the mine."
   "How far down?" Dixon asked.
   "Six hundred meters, wasn't it?"
   "I don't know. I thought it was close to 2,000 feet."
   "Six times three is 18, 1,800 feet. We can't start an argument."
   "One article about the Merkers salt mine said there were 30 miles of tunnels," Dixon said, "and I'm sure that whoever hit the computer hit the decimal point in the wrong place. I think it was more like three miles of tunnels. Did you see a lot of tunnels when you were down there?"
   "Yes," Reiff said. "My family is miners [Dr. Reiff was born in Muskogie, Okla.], I mean, it wasn't strange to me. Those things are not miles long."
   "I remember the one big drill, on the very end where the gold was, and they couldn't get that door open," Dixon said. "And there were vault doors on the other side tunnels, and there was art and paintings. The fourth one had sculpture. And there were others. And two million books."
   Dixon was one of the first officers to go down in the mine. In fact, it was he who was tasked with rousing the burgomeister and ordering him to get the steam engine started for the elevator, which had two stages, to descend in into the mine in the morning, when all manner of brass was due to arrive. He was interviewed in a documentary about the treasures in the mine and the interviewer asked him what he thought about going down into the mine. He said he expected at any moment to go right back out the top because he thought the shaft would be rigged to explode.
   "The area was only lit where we were," he said as we sat around the table in the hospitality room."Apparently that steam turbine that we got going during the night, that operated the ventilation and the elevator and everything. So the whole thing wasn't lit up, just where we were, so I had no idea. Later they said there was five million missing."
   According to the book "Documentary ... A Vanishing Cache of Nazi Gold," by Joseph Sprouse, the contents of the Merkers mine were recorded as "3,682 bags of German currency, 80 bags of foreign currency, 8,307 gold bars, 55 boxes of gold bullion, 3,326 bags of gold coins, 63 bags of silver, 1 bag of platinum bars, 8 bags of gold rings, 207 bags and containers of SS loot, and 400 tons of artwork."
   The gold rings came from victims of the Holocaust, as did the mountains of spectacles and row after row of suitcases that Forrest Dixon witnessed.

Forrest Dixon

William Reiff
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(My Monuments Men, Part 2)

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