Army Capt. Gordon W. Gilkey had traced the missing art to a train that left Berlin for the Czech border two weeks before the German surrender.
The train had been strafed en route by American fighter planes, but the art survived. At the end of the line, a Nazi official and his wife carried much of it over a mountain trail and hid it in an abandoned cabin.
And there, at the close of World War II in Europe, Gilkey found it stashed under the attic floorboards, where it was tattered and mouse-eaten.
This was not the famous art the Nazis had looted from collections across Europe, the stolen treasure the Monuments Men sought to return to its owners.
The art Gilkey was assigned to hunt was German-produced — portraits of Adolf Hitler, pictures of German fighting men, Nazi propaganda.
The Allies believed this art had to be removed from Germany to the security of the United States.
Now, almost 70 years after the war, dozens of the pieces still remain in an Army facility at Fort Belvoir, Va.
As the new movie about the heroic Monuments Men opens and its creators make the rounds of Washington, little mention has been made of Gilkey's parallel program to root out Nazi art.
A kind of non-monuments man, he ranged across Germany and Austria and confiscated and shipped almost 9,000 pieces off to the United States.
Most of it was not Nazi propaganda and was later returned to Germany, Army officials said. But 456 pieces remain in the Army's Museum Support Center at Fort Belvoir.
They include a huge painting on plywood of a mounted Hitler in shining armor holding a Nazi flag. The work is marred by a hole in Hitler's face and scratches where a U.S. soldier thrust his bayonet.
On the record card Gilkey prepared for the painting, which is titled “Der Bannertrager,” or the “Standard Bearer,” he described the bayonet damage as “deletions” by the U.S. Third Army.
Another large work is titled “Hitler at the Front.” Based on a visit to the eastern front in 1942, it shows the smiling Nazi leader in black necktie and leather coat as he is mobbed by happy and attentive German soldiers.
Gilkey's project was part of the postwar effort to de-Nazify Germany, scholars said. The idea was to cleanse the country of national socialism, which had infected Germany for more than a decade.
“The Nazis were obsessed with controlling the visual,” said Cora Sol Goldstein, a professor of political science at the University of California at Long Beach, who has studied postwar Germany. “They thought art was propaganda. They used art. So it makes sense that in '45 the Americans had to do something about all the Nazi iconography.”
According to Gilkey's report, he was acting under U.S. military regulations that stated in part: “All collections of works of art relating or dedicated to the perpetuation of German Militarism or Nazism will be closed permanently and taken into custody.”
But Gregory Maertz, a professor at St. John's University in New York, has said that Gilkey went too far.
Maertz once interviewed Gilkey, who died in 2000. Maertz argued Gilkey confiscated German art that had little to do with the war and that his effort was essentially a “looting campaign” conducted by the U.S. Army.
Chris Semancik, chief of the collections branch at the museum support center, said, “I think as the war ended, the U.S. Army was the proper repository.
“As the world moves forward and grows in its understanding of events that took place during the 20th century, a different venue may be chosen” for what the Army still has. “But for now, it stays here.”
Some paintings in the Army collection were designed by the Nazis to demonize the Russians and Communism.
One apocalyptic piece, titled “The Red Terror,” depicts a red-robed skeleton riding a white horse across a fiery sea in which victims appear to be drowning.
It was painted by Willfried Nagel in 1942. Sarah G. Forgey, art curator at the Museum Support Center, said that he may have been a landscape painter before the war.
Other works bear titles like “Mass Hanging in a Public Park,” “Jewish Prisoners from Ukraine” and “Drunken Russians in Infantry Attack.”
One striking pastel portrait depicts a Frenchman, Rene Fayard, who joined the German army. After the war, he escaped to Argentina and was tracked down and assassinated there by French secret service agents, Forgey said.
These were just a few of the pieces rounded up by Gilkey during his seven-month operation, she said during a recent review of the German collection.
Most of the art had been hidden by Nazis as the war came to a close.
Gilkey “found pieces that were hidden behind other works of art. . . . He found pieces that were rolled up and disguised as stage curtains,” Forgey said.
In a report for the Army, Gilkey wrote that he found German art stashed in the bins of an Austrian salt-refining plant.
He also found a load of German art that had been taken from a disabled truck and put in the second-floor dance hall of a bar in St. Agatha, Austria.
It is not entirely clear why the Nazis were hiding their art — out of shame, for posterity, or in hopes of rekindling their movement?
Gilkey was 30 when he joined the Army Air Corps in 1942. He was a native of Oregon, the son of a rancher and the grandson of a prospector, according to an Oregon State University oral history interview.
He said he had worked as a mule skinner and cleared land to earn money for college. He later became an educator, a creator of a renowned collection of prints, and a leading arts figure in Oregon.
His Army report described how he used German train schedules to figure out where the shipments of art had gone. It describes how he tracked down Luitpold Adam, a German World War I artist who headed Hitler's combat art program.
It was Adam who had hidden some of the art in the cabin, carrying a load of it from the train each night for ten nights with the help of his wife and a local boy.
Gilkey's haul was brought to the United States in 1947, Forgey said. Over the following decades, the U.S. government returned all but the 456 pieces.
Images that showed Nazi leaders; the Nazi symbol, the swastika; or overt propaganda were kept.
In addition, the German government agreed to let the Army keep about 200 as a sample of German combat art during the war, Forgey said.
In the conclusion of his Army report, Gilkey wrote: “Perhaps the (German) combat artists were sincere. Working artists are simple people.”
“But behind (the German combat art program) was always Adolf Hitler and . . . his dreams of super-race built upon the bones of destruction of all who opposed him in his mad drive to rule the world.
“If his plan had succeeded, the suicide of the creative arts would have followed,” he wrote.
“My work of the past year has attained the removal from Germany of this monument to their baseness.”