published Monday, February 17th, 2014

Monument man

Turnham guarded art featured in Clooney movie

Former state Rep. Pete Turnham looks brochures of work his company produced over the years in Auburn, Ala. For Turnham, “The Monuments Men” is not a Hollywood movie about World War II. It’s part of his life. The 93-year-old businessman spent the summer and fall of 1945 guarding Neuschwanstein Castle, where Nazis hid thousands of artworks seized during the war, mostly in France.  (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Former state Rep. Pete Turnham looks brochures of work his company produced over the years in Auburn, Ala. For Turnham, “The Monuments Men” is not a Hollywood movie about World War II. It’s part of his life. The 93-year-old businessman spent the summer and fall of 1945 guarding Neuschwanstein Castle, where Nazis hid thousands of artworks seized during the war, mostly in France. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

By Phillip Rawls

AUBURN, Ala. -- For former state Rep. Pete Turnham, of Auburn, "The Monuments Men" is not a Hollywood movie about World War II. It's part of his life.

The 93-year-old businessman spent the summer and fall of 1945 guarding a Bavarian castle where Nazis hid thousands of artworks seized during the war, mostly in France.

"They were going to keep it until after the war, and Hitler was going to put it in a museum," Turnham said.

"The Monuments Men," directed by George Clooney and starring Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and John Goodman, focuses on seven museum directors, curators and art historians who entered Germany with Allied forces during the closing stages of World War II to rescue artworks seized by the Nazis. Their goal was to protect the art from being destroyed by the Nazis and return it to its rightful owners.

Neuschwanstein Castle, near Germany's border with Austria, was one of many hiding spots. The white castle, built by King Ludwig II, has soaring turrets and looks out over rolling green fields and snow-capped mountains.

Turnham was a first lieutenant serving as company commander for 200 soldiers responsible for guarding the castle. It was not where he expected to be assigned.

He joined the ROTC at Auburn University and entered the Army during World War II, fighting the Nazis across France and Germany and into Austria when the Germans surrendered. He was preparing to go fight the Japanese when he and his fellow troops got diverted to the castle. They stayed in a hotel at the foot of the mountain and were charged with making sure no one damaged or stole the art.

Being responsible for the safety of art masterpieces "just scares you to death and blows your mind," Turnham said.

But he said his fears never came true. "We never had any trouble with anybody," he said.

"The Germans were glad the war was over. They were dedicated, good people who had been misled by a bad leader," he said.

After that assignment, Turnham returned to the United States, raised a family, started a school furnishings business and spent 40 years in the Alabama House of Representatives.

Despite his age, retirement is not in his vocabulary. "I still go to the office every day," he said.

Looking back 69 years, Turnham is not surprised the adventures at Neuschwanstein Castle became a Hollywood movie. He said the efforts to save the art made a great story, and the story was enhanced by being set in a beautiful castle recognized by many because it was Walt Disney's inspiration for Sleeping Beauty's castle at Disneyland.

"It was quite a masterpiece," he said.

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