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Mechanic guarded recovered Nazi plunder

Published: Saturday, March 29, 2014 11:59 p.m. CDT

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MANTENO – The cast of characters came to include actor George Clooney, Nazi villain Hermann Goering, a daring group of art professors and museum curators and a mechanic from Manteno.

But it wasn’t a story that the mechanic – the late Roy Benge – really wanted to talk about.

Benge’s son, Dick, of Chebanse, and daughter, Brenda Grace, of rural Bourbonnais, know their father wasn’t portrayed in the movie “Monuments Men,” now playing at the Cinemark Movies 10 in Bourbonnais. They know from Dad’s letters, though, that Roy once guarded the priceless artwork rescued by the special Army unit featured in that movie.

It was no secret that during World War II, German officers were confiscating centuries-old statues and paintings from museums and private residences throughout occupied France and Italy. But the story of the men who later retrieved tens of thousands of those priceless artifacts was a minor footnote until author Robert Edsel published his 2009 book, “Monuments Men,” which now has been given the Hollywood treatment.

The book outlines Adolph Hitler’s plan to store one stolen collection in a museum near his mountain getaway. Goering is said to have hand-picked at least 700 works for his own collection. At the book’s end, it was not unusual to see a convoy of as many as 80 trucks transporting the artifacts back to France and other locations.

Roy was an unlikely addition to the unique tale. His son explained that Roy was raised “in the hills of Missouri” and “with a seventh-grade education, he wouldn’t know much about Michelangelo or any of that art stuff.”

It also was unlikely that Roy even made it to Italy, where his unit guarded a cache of artwork for nearly three weeks in 1945. He first had to survive three bouts of malaria while his unit was based in South Africa.

“Dad was a handy guy, and they made him a head mechanic in Italy,” Brenda said. “So, it made sense in his letter that he told about the day they asked him to help them out at that building where they stored the art.”

Amid the 87 handwritten letters Roy sent to his wife, Mary, back in Kankakee, he didn’t waste many words describing his experience with the post-war art collectors.

“I done something yesterday that I will never expect to do again. The outfit we relieved here lost the key to the door that goes in the building where all the sculptures are.

“They asked me to open it. I opened it in about five minutes and walked in where millions of dollars was stored. I got to see several of the statues.”

In another letter, the Nazi plunder is mentioned again.

“Well, we moved and really have a nice place: It is a hotel. We have nice beds to sleep in. It is the most modern I have seen here. But guess we should have it nice. We are guarding 76,000,000 dollars worth of paintings and sculptures. That much isn’t anything to be sneezed at, eh.”

Still, seeing piles of priceless artwork wasn’t the most memorable part of his experience.

“This was a good day for me,” he wrote. “I got five letters from you.”

Roy’s other letters tell of a short leave and a trip to Austria in a 1937 Chevy – also recovered from retreating Germans. He added of his stay in Italy: “We are nine thousand feet above sea level. I think it is the most beautiful country I have seen since we have been overseas.”

Roy died in 1995 at 79. His wife died in 2005. They were married in 1942, the year Roy shipped out.

“His career as a mechanic was set after the war,” Dick said of his father, who spent most of his work years repairing Butternut Bread delivery trucks. “But he didn’t talk about the war. I remember, once when I was little, he had a reunion of his army buddies, and that was the first I heard of his experiences.”

The advertisements for the movie triggered a memory for Brenda, and she went through her mother’s letters. Neither Brenda nor Dick have seen the movie, yet. It’s on their to-do list, though, to see what their father saw in those temporary storehouses he guarded.

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