When Ruth Ehler was a teenager, the story started to come out of her grandfather in pieces, little snippets of a hidden life he once lived.
He would mention the beauty of the morning light streaking through the stained-glass windows in Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral. He would mention the 600-year-old buildings that the bombs missed, or the priceless pieces of art from the Louvre that were hidden around France, or the Nazi thieves who claimed that art as their own.
And that would be it. Ralph Hammett had so many stories to tell. He was a longtime architecture professor at the University of Michigan. He authored a book about U.S. architecture and another about the great buildings of Italy. He designed several great buildings of his own, including the inside of the Abe Lincoln Memorial in Honest Abe's hometown of Springfield, Ill.
Maybe that life didn't leave much time to tell his World War II story, a story about a 47-year-old man who put on a uniform, landed at Normandy, rumbled to Paris and then completed an amazing yet largely unknown mission.
During the war, Grandpa Ralph protected Europe's most magnificent buildings from being turned into rubble. He helped snatch many of the world's most priceless pieces of art from the clammy grasp of Adolf Hitler.
“I remember hearing (as a teenager) that he was terrified that the things he had loved so much wouldn't survive,” says Ruth Ehler, a Millard-area resident who taught second grade at Ezra Millard Elementary School before recently retiring. “It wasn't just architecture. These things needed to be preserved, because they told our stories.”
The story of Ralph Hammett and his one-of-a-kind Army platoon finally gets its long-overdue spotlight starting today.
A George Clooney-directed movie called “The Monuments Men” opens in Omaha and in movie theaters nationwide. The movie is a dramatized account of a nonfiction book of the same name, a book that tells the story of a group of middle-aged museum curators, art historians and architects who volunteered to enlist and travel to Europe during World War II. (Read Bob Fischbach's review of "The Monuments Men.".)
Together, they risked their lives — and in some cases gave their lives — to save the paintings, sculptures, books and great buildings that form the very foundation of Western civilization.
“It's pretty unbelievable that they put their lives at risk for a principle they felt that deeply,” Clooney said during a promotional appearance for the movie.
Ruth Ehler and her Omaha family are excited to see the movie, in part because they have been uncovering Grandpa Ralph's part in the Monuments Men story for years, piecing together details long after he died in 1984.
Here is what they have learned: Grandpa Ralph was one of the original dozen or so Monuments Men to land in France. The architect left his family in Ann Arbor, Mich., and wound up in Normandy, quite possibly at the tail end of the D-Day landing.
From there, Capt. Ralph Hammett made his way to Mont St. Michel, a small French island whose stunning abbey, started in the 10th century and completed in the year 1523, luckily still stood. And then, as the Allied troops overran the Nazis, he moved to Paris.
His first stop in Paris: the Cathedral of Notre Dame, maybe the most famous church in Europe and an example of architecture that Hammett would marvel at until the day he died.
Amazingly, the cathedral had escaped serious damage.
His next stop: Another historic church, this one in the nearby town of Chartres. There, Hammett persuaded Allied troops to spare the church as they bombarded the city.
Hammett and other Monuments Men ended up marking many historic buildings, museums and important chateaus as off-limits to Allied soldiers so young Americans and Brits wouldn't accidentally damage the priceless works that hung on French buildings' walls or were hidden in the basement.
They weren't always successful. Hammett, who published a short history of the Monuments Men in a 1946 Michigan magazine, writes of several isolated incidents of thievery and at least one where an Army field kitchen and gasoline storage depot were set up mere feet from one of France's most valuable private libraries and tapestry collections.
“Needless to say, it did not take long for this unit to move when advised of the risks it was taking,” Hammett notes dryly in the 1946 piece.
Hammett spent most of his time reporting on the condition of Paris' famed buildings. He also set up a card catalog that eventually listed each monument, art collection, important chateau and library in France. Much of the most famed French art — including many pieces belonging to the Louvre — had been hidden around the country before the Nazis entered the city. Hammett's catalog helped the French keep track of them.
In the waning months of the war, other Monuments Men traveled into Germany, where they hunted down 5 million pieces stolen by the Nazis during World War II, including many intended to carry out Hitler's dream of building the greatest art museum in the world in his adopted hometown of Linz, Austria.
As far as his family knows, Hammett never engaged in the priceless treasure hunt at the center of Clooney's new movie. But he did work under the character portrayed by Matt Damon in the movie, and he did get several mentions in “The Monuments Men” book that led to the movie.
After he retired, Hammett talked a little more about his time as a Monuments Man. But those short conversations veered quickly back to his favorite building in France.
Its majestic spire. The stained glass. The way the light dispersed in the late afternoon. The fact that it had been built in the 13th century yet seemed just as important in the 20th.
He always called Notre Dame Cathedral “the Jewel of Paris.”
“He would always say true architecture doesn't define time. It spans time,” Ruth says.
Sometime soon, Ruth, along with her husband, Jeff, a structural engineer, and a group of family members that includes their son, Curtis, who is an architect like his grandfather, will gather at a west Omaha movie theater to watch “The Monuments Men.”
Ruth will think about her grandfather telling the story in snippets. And she will think about the first time she traveled to Paris, in 1974.
She went to Versailles. She went to the Eiffel Tower. She went to Notre Dame.
And as she stood in the cathedral, stunned by its beauty, she thought about what her grandpa and his one-of-a-kind Army platoon had done.
“They saved pieces of the story of the history of the world,” she says.