Gordon Gilkey: The Monument Man at Oregon State College

During fall term 2023 Dr. Kara Ritzheimer’s History 310 (Historian’s Craft) students researched and wrote blog posts about OSU during WWII. The sources they consulted are listed at the end of each post. Students wrote on a variety of topics and we hope you appreciate their contributions as much as the staff at SCARC does!

This post was written by Eliza Eckman.

In Nazi Germany, art emerged as a treasure—stolen, created, and hidden. Gordon Gilkey led the charge to recover these artworks. His mission involved collecting and preserving war-related artifacts, confiscating works tied to Nazism, and facilitating artwork restitution. After WWII, in August 1947, he became Professor of Art and Chairman of the Art Department at Oregon State College (OSC), and the following year he earned recognition from the French Government. Gilkey’s service during the war as an academic turned serviceman was not an isolated case; numerous faculty members at OSC and across the nation, extending from librarians to camouflage course teachers, also served in the military and contributed to specialized war work.

Gilkey grew up on a ranch outside of Albany, Oregon and attended Albany College (now Lewis and Clark College) in Portland, Oregon starting in 1929 and completed his Master of Fine Arts at the University of Oregon in 1936. Gilkey married, and he and his wife, Vivian Malone, moved to New York City, where she pursued studies at the Juilliard School of Music. While in New York, he created a book of reproductions and originals that documented the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Gilkey later taught at Stevens College in Colombia, Missouri from fall 1939 until he joined the Army Air Forces in June 1942.[1]

In an October 1943 letter, Gilkey, serving as a supervisor of instruction for the Advanced Navigation School at the Central Flying Training Command (CFCT) in Ellington Field, Texas, expressed interest in joining the Commission for the Protection of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe. This commission, established a month earlier, sought soldiers with backgrounds in the arts to assist the US Army in safeguarding works of cultural value. Gilkey directed his letter to the chairman and founder, Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, and commission member Paul Sachs, a Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard. Gilkey outlined his civilian experience, including his education, art collection ownership, and teaching experience. He explained that, “As an officer in the Army Air Forces, the writer could be useful in aiding a determination of what to bomb and what to preserve. The writer is familiar with aerial photo interpretation and bombing procedures. Later, he could help reassemble Europe’s collections – especially graphic art collections.”[2] Sachs forwarded Gilkey’s letter to David Finley, director of the National Gallery of Art, and added that Gilkey was a potential Monuments Officer, along with other candidates with possibly superior qualifications.[3] Gilkey’s superiors at the CFTC denied his repeated requests to contribute to art preservation in combat zones, citing a lack of skilled personnel within the CFTC. To overcome this reluctance, Gilkey discovered a loophole: by undergoing combat intelligence training, he could be released from the role of supervisor of instructors, as the combat intelligence school held higher authority over the CFTC and faced its own shortage.[4] Upon completing his training in 1945, Gilkey contacted Boyd Shafer, one of the teachers he had overseen and who had become a speechwriter for Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Gilkey stated, “I’ve got to get to Europe. I want to be involved in resurrecting the art, working with art.” Shafer’s connection with Stimson facilitated Gilkey’s assignment, and Gilkey promptly took charge of the War Department’s Special Staff Art Projects.[5]

Gilkey had the responsibility of capturing this watercolor created by a German Combat War artist, with a stamp on it marking it as property of the U.S. War Department (Gordon Gilkey, German War Art, April 25, 1947, United States War Department, The Directives and Purpose, G.W.I.185.47, https://medium.com/@abeaujon/gordon-w-gilkeys-report-on-german-war-art-295e7dcb5360). Rudolf Hengstenberg, Boatload of Wounded Soldiers, painting, undated, The National Archives, G.W.1.2748.47, US Army Art Collection, NARA, https://nara.getarchive.net/media/artwork-boat-load-of-wounded-soldiers-artist-rudolph-hengstenberg-catalog-number-0c1c5a.

In his 1947 German War Art report, produced for the Army, Gilkey explained his work from the previous year, which involved collecting, processing, and preserving war-related artifacts, confiscating works of art dedicated to the promotion of Nazism, and returning paintings back to their owners. Gilkey detailed how larger paintings owned by Hitler were moved from Munich to salt bins at a refining plant in 1944 since they didn’t fit in the salt mines with other valuables. Some paintings were delayed due to a truck breakdown and traced to a dance room in St. Agatha, Austria.[6] Gilkey also outlined the direct restitution of paintings from Schloss Oberfrauenau, affirming that these artworks, acknowledged as rightfully owned by the artists who originally created them, should be returned.[7] As the operation concluded in summer 1946, Mrs. Gilkey informed her husband about a vacant position as the chairman of the art department at OSC, and despite a job offer from NBC in New York, he returned to Oregon in August 1947 to become a Professor of Art and Chairman of the Art Department.[8]

This letter from Gilkey provides guidance on the location of art collected by him and specifies the designated recipients for their return. “Paintings to be Restituted to Artists,” from Gordon Gilkey to Chief of the Monument program, Fine Arts and Archives Section,October 1, 1946, Records Concerning the Central Collecting Points, Restitution Claim Records, Austria Claims, 11.

Seven months after Gilkey began teaching at OSC, he received a letter notifying him that the French Government had awarded him the title of “Officer d’Academie” a distinction seldom granted to non-French individuals. Alfred Herman, Consul of France at the Agence Consulaire de France in Portland, Oregon, wrote the letter dated March 11, 1948. The one-page letter, typed on standard-size printer paper, is a copy. This distinction entailed an honorary degree from the French University and High Education System. The award also granted Gilkey the privilege of wearing the Palmes Academiques decoration in recognition of his devoted services to France. Herman offered to forward the diploma directly or arrange an official presentation, and he commended Gilkey for his help in the restitution of French Museum properties.[9] This communication provides insight into the recognition of the contributions of individuals associated with the college regarding World War II, highlighting how these contributions likely positively influenced the college’s reputation.

An artwork crafted by Ludwig Dettmann, a Nazi artist included in the “God-gifted list” (Gottbegnadeten-Liste), which is mentioned in the preceding letter, indicating that Dettmann’s artistic pieces are slated for return to his son. (Gilkey, German War Art, Staffel Der Bildenden Kuentsler, Propaganda Abteilung, Oberkomandowehrmacht.) Ludwig Dettmann, Battle Scene, painting, undated, Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dettmann-Battle.jpg.

Gilkey’s work coincided with a broader trend among OSC staff members in the humanities and the library who left for military service. In 1943, the Eugene Register-Guard published an articlethat listed the resignations of several personnel from OSC, including Priscilla Ferguson, a library cataloger, and Ruth Krueger, a circulation librarian.[10] OSC further documented the resignations and temporary leaves in a document titled “Record of Staff Members Released for War Activities.” For example, Kenneth Munford, an English Instructor, became Captain of the 2nd Mapping Squadron in Spokane, Washington.[11] In a letter dated November 1945, Wm. H. Carlson, Director of the Libraries, described the wartime work of his staffers for the benefit of Delmar Goode, the Editor of Publications at OSC. He explained that Grace Beecher, a reference assistant, had assumed the role of librarian at the Camp Adair Medical Unit.[12] Another November 1945 letter from the Dean of the Lower Division, Ellwood Smith, to Goode detailed the involvement of Lower Division faculty in the war effort, including those from the fields of Art, Economics, English, History, Psychology, Speech, and Journalism. Major H. R. Sinnard, Associate Professor from the Art department, chaired the Training Board for the camouflage course at Belvoir Engineering School. He used his artistic skills and expertise to design fake inflatable rubber tanks and artillery, as well as to create camouflage patterns.[13] This all demonstrates that wartime efforts encompass industries extending beyond the traditionally emphasized sectors.

Kenneth Munford, an English Instructor, became a Lt. Col. during the war and went back to teaching at OSC afterwards, serving as another example of OSC staff who contributed to the war effort. Record of Staff Members Released for War Activities, undated, SCARC, OSC History of World War II Project Records, Box 1, List of Staff Granted Leaves 1940-1946.

Faculty and librarians across the country made significant contributions to the wartime efforts. Led by Frederick Kilgour from the Harvard Widener Library, the Interdepartmental Committee for the Acquisition of Foreign Publications (IDC) primarily used faculty to facilitate the acquisition of print sources for intelligence purposes. Simultaneously, faculty assumed leadership roles in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) Bands. While stationed in Stockholm, Adele Kibre, a Latin Instructor at the University of Chicago and an undercover agent, obtained publications through newspaper subscriptions and bookstores, microfilmed materials from Swedish institutions, and collaborated with the Norwegian underground to intercept mail from Berlin to Oslo.[14] Additional efforts from professors included female music teachers who became directors of the WAC Bands. Mary Waterman, who taught at the Crane Normal Institute of Music, enlisted in 1942, and attended Army Music School. She became a Warrant Officer and served as director of the 400th WAC Band. In 1943, Professor Leonora Brown of South Carolina State University enlisted. She assumed the role of director for the 404th WAC Band—an all-female African American Army band. Both leaders led their ensembles on a tour across the United States as part of national war bond drives and conducted martial performances on bases and in hospital wards.[15]

The intersections of the humanities and military service prompt reflection on the impact that university faculty, including Gilkey, had during World War II. Gilkey took his wartime experiences back to OSC, and in October 1947, OSC exhibited two sets of Nazi art collected by Gilkey: one that Hitler deemed ideologically acceptable and retrieved from hidden locations, and the other, acquired directly from artists disapproved by the regime.[16] This show, representative of Gilkey’s work, also symbolized the contributions of OSC’s faculty and the role of universities across the United States in wartime efforts.

[1] Gordon Gilkey, “Gordon Gilkey Oral History Interview,” June 27, 1980, Special Collections & Archives Research Center (hereafter SCARC), http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/omeka/items/show/34451.

[2] Gordon Gilkey to Owen Roberts, October 5, 1943, The National Archives, Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historical Monuments in War Areas (The Roberts Commission), Staff Correspondence, Miscellaneous Correspondence-G, 8, Retrieved from Fold3: https://www.fold3.com/image/270025421?terms=gilkey,art,gordon.

[3] Paul Sachs to David Finley, January 24, 1944, The National Archives, The Roberts Commission,  Correspondence with Commission Members and Personnel, David Finley, 8, Retrieved from Fold3: https://www.fold3.com/image/270311993.  

[4] Gilkey, “Oral History Interview,” 1980.

[5] Gordon Gilkey, “Oral History Interview with Gordon W. Gilkey,” January 1, 1998, Oregon Historical Society, https://digitalcollections.ohs.org/oral-history-interview-with-gordon-w-gilkey-transcript.

[6] Gilkey, German War Art, Procurement.

[7] “Paintings to be Restituted to Artists,” from Gordon Gilkey to Chief of the Monument program, Fine Arts and Archives Section,October 1, 1946, The National Archives, Records Concerning the Central Collecting Points, Restitution Claim Records, Austria Claims, 11, Retrieved from Fold3: https://www.fold3.com/image/269943979?terms=gilkey,art,gordon.

[8] Gilkey, “Oral History Interview,” 1980.

[9] Alfred Herman to Gordon Gilkey, March 11, 1948, SCARC, News and Communication Services, Biological Files, RG 203, Folder 4.171-4.191.

[10] “State Board Boosts Salary of Educators,” Eugene Register-Guard, April 27, 1943, 2, https://books.google.com/books?id=E7BWAAAAIBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_all_issues_r&cad=1#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[11] “Record of Staff Members Released for War Activities,” undated, SCARC, OSC History of World War II Project Records, Box 1, List of Staff Granted Leaves 1940-1946.

[12] Wm. H. Carlson to Delmar Goode, November 20, 1945, SCARC, OSC History of World War II Project Reports, Box 1, Correspondence Reports 1944-1947.

[13] Ellwood Smith to Delmar Goode, November 16, 1945, SCARC, OSC History of World War II Project Reports, Box 1, OSC Participation.

[14] Kathy Peiss, Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 40-46.

[15] Jill Sullivan, “Women Music Teachers as Military Band Directors During World War II,” Sage Journals 39, no.1 (2017): 78-90, https://doi.org/10.1177/1536600616665625.

[16] “Contrasting Displays of Nazi Art Shown,” Eugene Register-Guard, October 15, 1947, 17, https://books.google.com/books?id=2o8RAAAAIBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.

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