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‘New world for me’: Dilworth farmer assisted Monuments Men in World War II

DILWORTH, S.D. -- John Fiandaca saw the film "The Monuments Men," but he didn't need to. Seventy years ago, he lived that. Fiandaca spent three months in 1945 assigned to the now-famous group of art historians and conservators who rescued cultura...

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John Fiandaca, 89, of Dilworth smiles on the plane to Washington, D.C., for the WDAY Honor Flight in October. Fiandaca served in the Army motor pool in World War II and worked for the Monuments Men in 1945. Special to The Forum

DILWORTH, S.D. - John Fiandaca saw the film “The Monuments Men,” but he didn’t need to. Seventy years ago, he lived that.

Fiandaca spent three months in 1945 assigned to the now-famous group of art historians and conservators who rescued cultural property that had been stolen or hidden by the Nazis. His job was to retrieve artifacts from German castles and return them to their rightful owners.

It was a change of pace for a sugar beet farmer from just north of Dilworth. “New world for me,” the 89-year-old said with a laugh from his winter home in Arizona.

During the war, the Nazis hid all kinds of cultural property, including their own, “so it wouldn’t be destroyed,” said Greg Bradsher, a senior archivist at the National Archives in Washington, and an expert on the Monuments Men records.

That included paintings, library books, stamp collections, statues and jewelry, Bradsher said.

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One of the highlights for Fiandaca was towing an antique car through the streets of Munich to ship it back to Belgium.

Fiandaca said his group searched eight to 10 castles in Munich and Berlin. Although most of the castles were abandoned, some had caretakers who put up a fight.

“They weren’t too wild about us guys walking in and looking around,” he recalled. “But we didn’t pay a lot of attention to them. We were armed and they weren’t.”

An estimated 345 men and women were in the Monuments Men unit, but hundreds of soldiers like Fiandaca were on hand to drive trucks and provide military support, Bradsher said. The group started its work in Italy in 1943, and was able to trace looted artifacts with the help of captured documents, particularly from France.

Fiandaca doesn’t remember which paintings he helped retrieve, and he often didn’t know at the time. Once, he was asked to deliver a 2-by-2-foot burlap bag (he believes it was a painting) to the airport and was met by a memorable sight.

“Drove down there, pulled up to the plane, four guys jumped out with machine guns,” he said.

Fiandaca tried to talk to them, but they didn’t speak the same language.

“I thought later it must have been a pretty valuable painting,” he said with a laugh.

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Today, the Monuments Men are credited with saving cultural treasures from destruction, and surviving members were recently honored with the Congressional Gold Medal.

“A lot of stuff would have been taken by American soldiers,” Bradsher said. “American bombers would have bombed different places. A lot would have been destroyed.”

Fiandaca, drafted into the Army at age 18, said he didn’t realize the importance of his work then, but “I enjoyed it to the last.”

After the war, he returned to his farm and raised six children. And that Hollywood movie?

“It was very good, I thought,” he said. “Brought back some old memories.”

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Lisa Thornberg/iStockphoto.com

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