The Archivist’s Nook: A Venus Fixer Goes to War

A devastating scene during the Italian Campaign of WWII.

“It’s been a strange way to do my wartime service but somebody had to do it and, since…I wondered inside who will take care of the monuments and the objects of art, I’m afraid I rather asked for it and so it was not improperly myself who was chosen.” – Staff Sargeant Bernard M. Peebles to Colonel Ernest T. DeWald, 1945

The Museum, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) Subcommittee, more popularly known as either the Monuments Men or Venus Fixers, was a program that focused on protecting and restoring cultural and historic sites and materials during the Second World War. Consisting of scholars of art, manuscripts, and architecture, the members of the MFAA often operated in active warzones across North Africa and Europe with limited resources. Not only did they work to assess the damages rendered to cultural sites and archives, but they worked to guarantee the survival of missing or pillaged art or manuscripts. Long-time Catholic University Professor of Greek and Latin (1948-1971) Bernard M. Peebles was one such Venus Fixer, serving in Italy from 1943-1945.

German Field-Marshall Albert Kesselring allegedly referred to the Italian campaign as “waging war in a museum.” With limited resources and combat raging across a culturally-rich and highly urban peninsula, the Allies relied on informational flyers and posts and local aid to secure sites.

Peebles was born in Norfolk, Virginia on January 1, 1906. He received his Bachelors in Greek and Latin in 1926 from the University of Virginia, and his Masters and Doctorate at Harvard University in 1928 and 1940 respectively. During this time he was also a fellow at the American Academy in Rome from 1932-1934. While in Rome, he met and befriended a fellow scholar by the name of Wolfgang Hagemann. The two would later be on opposing sides of the war effort, with Hagemann engaged in art and translation work with Rommel’s armies in North Africa and Italy.

In the years prior to the war, Peebles’ teaching career blossomed as he taught at Harvard (1937-1939), Fordham University (1939-1941), and at St. John’s College in Annapolis (1941-1942). With the US entering WWII, Peebles enlisted in 1942, being assigned as a chief clerk for the MFAA . As one of the earliest members of the Program, he began his service in Sicily in the fall of 1943, where he was regarded as a “discoverer of manuscripts.”¹ As a report dated 20 January 1944 from Palermo, Sicily relates:

Visiting a hardware shop in Via Cassari, [Peebles] saw there some old MS. Documents loose on the counter and apparently about to be used as wrapping paper. Upon showing interest in the documents he was allowed to examine them and, afterwards, a larger number which apparently had been removed from the same bound volume and comprised some sheets of parchment, one with heading in gold. Upon offering to buy the smaller batch of documents, he was told that he have them as a gift… A second visit to the neighborhood to determine the precise location of the shop found it closed but revealed that several shops in the Via Argenteria were using similar old MSS. (along with other documents of more recent date) to wrap fish and other edibles.²

Right photo: Peebles (L) with Hagemann (R), together on a hike in Verona in 1933. Left photo: Peebles during his MFAA tour in Italy.

Among the documents recovered were those belonging to the Palermo state archives, including early eighteenth-century manuscripts from Philip V of Spain! Peebles continued to serve with the MFAA in Italy throughout the remainder of the war. In 1945, a request came in for him to transfer to Austria to assist the Monument Men there. Writing to Colonel DeWald, Director of the Italian MFAA, he expressed a desire to finish the job in Italy – a mission he referred to as “[his] baby” – and then return to his wife, child, and academic career in the United States. He was awarded this opportunity, along with the Bronze Star and British Empire medal.

Peebles returned to the US in 1945, and began teaching at Catholic University in 1948. He served with the Greek and Latin Department – including an eight-year stint as Chair (1962-1970) – until his retirement in 1971. A scholar with wide-ranging interests in Latin manuscripts, he is most well-known for his work on the Church Fathers and Patristic studies. Sadly, he died during a robbery attempt in 1976.

In addition to recording his long academic career, the papers of Bernard Peebles catalogs his experience of the Second World War, with Allied reports, maps, and propaganda material.  It may be viewed here: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/peebles.cfm

A small sampling of the WWII documentation and objects contained in the Bernard M. Peebles Papers, including his Bronze Star.

¹laria Dagnini Brey The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Monuments Officers Who Saved Italy’s Art During World War II (New York: Picador, 2010), 71-72.
²Ibid.

The American Christmas Songbook: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (1943)

President Roosevelt signing the declaration of war against Germany, Dec. 11, 1941.

Today marks the 76th anniversary of the United States’ official declaration of war against Germany and Italy, thereby putting the US at war with all three Axis powers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had resisted bringing the US into battle as long as he could, but his hand was forced as a result of the surprise Japanese attack on the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Territory, on December 7, 1941–“a date which will live in infamy.” Two weeks following the attack, the Selective Training and Service Act was amended to require all men between the ages of 18 and 64 to register for military service. By the end of the year, the number of enlisted soldiers nearly quadrupled, from approximately 450,000 to over 1.8 million. By the end of the war in 1945, that number had grown to over 12 million.¹

Thinking of all those brave service personnel separated from their loved ones for the holidays, songwriters James Kimball “Kim” Gannon and Walter Kent penned a ballad in the summer of 1943 titled “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” In the song, which reads nearly like a letter from a deployed soldier, the singer promises to be home in time for Christmas:

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree

The first edition of sheet music, which credits Buck Ram in addition to Kim Gannon and Walter Kent.

When Bing Crosby recorded the song for Decca in 1943 with the John Trotter Orchestra, the label was hesitant to release it due to concerns over the ultimate couplet, in which the singer confesses: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas / if only in my dreams.” This sobering lyric was a stark reminder to the millions of separated families that they may not be reunited for Christmas, or indeed, ever again. Nonetheless, the song proved to be a huge success, especially among the troops. It became the most widely requested song at U.S.O. Christmas shows, and in a poll conducted at the conclusion of the war in 1945, troops selected Bing Crosby as the person who did the most to boost morale.² In December 1965, Crosby’s recording comforted those serving even farther from home when it was piped, by request, to astronauts Frank Borman and James Lovell aboard the Gemini 7 spacecraft.³ “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” immediately charted and remained there for eleven weeks, peaking at #3. Despite its success, the song was banned on BBC radio in fear that it would lower morale.⁴

A bit of controversy arose following the success of Crosby’s recording. Songwriter Sam “Buck” Ram, along with his publishing company Mills Music, filed a lawsuit claiming that the song was stolen by Gannon and Kent after Ram had shared it with them in December of 1942. Ram copyrighted a song by the same title that year, though musically and lyrically, the two songs were completely different. Still, the court sided with Ram, awarding him a share of the royalties and a songwriting credit.⁵

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” has been recorded by countless artists since Bing Crosby. Perry Como offered his own take in 1946 (single, RCA Victor), and Frank Sinatra recorded his in 1957 (A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra, Capitol). My favorite recording, yet again, is The Carpenters‘ (Christmas Portrait, A&M, 1978). More recently, She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) included a nostalgic rockabilly-style cover on their 2011 album, A Very She & Him Christmas (Merge, 2011). A friend recently introduced me to a soulful version by the up and coming Leslie Odom, Jr., from his album released last year, Simply Christmas (S-Curve, 2016). Wherever you find yourself this holiday, there is a version of this entry from the American Christmas songbook to make you feel at home…if only in your dreams.


¹https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/research-starters-us-military-numbers

²https://www.uso.org/stories/1905-uso-tour-veteran-bing-crosby-was-a-hit-overseas

³https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200000010/

http://mentalfloss.com/article/50178/11-reasons-bbc-has-banned-hit-songs

⁵Collins, Ace. Stories behind the best-loved songs of Christmas. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2001.

The Archivist’s Nook: Monsignor John O’Grady, Pioneer in International Catholic Charity

John O’Grady made several trips to post-World War Two Europe towards assisting wartime refugees there. These trips kicked off a flurry of activity by him on behalf of international Catholic charity. Here, he departs on a TWA flight from New York to Germany for an International Catholic Charities meeting in Freiburg in 1956. Catholic Charities USA Records, Box 190, Folder 4.

The Archivist’s Nook recently blogged on Monsignor John O’Grady’s early Catholic charity efforts and how he helped make Catholic Charities USA (called the National Conference of Catholic Charity until 1986) a national organization focused on assisting the poor and needy.  With the Second World War, O’Grady, by then an experienced and active leader in professional Catholic Charitable work in the United States, turned his attention to assisting those whose lives had been ruined by war.

The immediate postwar years saw millions war refugees gathered in camps throughout Europe. Not only had many individuals found themselves homeless and penniless after hostilities ended, but many had been moved to displaced persons camps, often suffering in crowded, diseased conditions. In the immediate postwar period, the United States worked with other western nations to aid these refugees through organizations such as the International Refugee Organization established in 1946, ultimately assisting 10 million of 15 million stranded in Europe due to the war.¹

O’Grady wrote this report on Displaced Persons—also known as wartime refugees—in 1947. From the Monsignor John O’Grady Collection, Box 30, “The Holy Father and Displaced Persons”

Monsignor O’Grady, now at the helm of the National Conference of Catholic Charities (later renamed Catholic Charities USA) for 25 years, made it a personal mission to travel to Europe, tour the refugee camps, and attempt to assist the refugees by coordinating his Catholic charity networks with those of other organizations. He found many obstacles to resettling the refugees. Italian resettlement authorities, for example, were criticized for returning those deemed Nazi collaborators to their original countries of origin, particularly in Eastern Europe, where Soviet authority was solidifying. As he toured dozens of refugee camps in Germany, Italy, and Austria, he noted that “displaced persons now were more than a generic term to me. I had actually seen them in the flesh. I had talked to them. I had found employment for them. I had seen them come off the ships with all their earthly belonging[s] on their backs. I had seen not only individuals but families.” A three-hour tour of refugees from Eastern Europe housed in underground shelters in western Germany shocked him: “One day after a 3-hour tour of one of the underground shelters in Stuttgart, I dropped to the ground and had to be taken out by the people who occupied the shelters. These people had no work; they barely had enough food to keep them alive.”²

In 1947, O’Grady visited with officials at the Vatican on the refugee problem. He thought about the work that needed to be done with the refugees in Christian terms. After meeting the Pope Pius XII on the matter, he noted that “I left the audience with a real faith in the educational mission of our Church throughout the world, in a great international program.”³

O’Grady conferred with refugees, charity workers and a range of authorities in relief work. Here, he confers with two colleagues in Rome in an undated photo. Catholic Charities USA Records, Box 240, Folder 60.

When he returned to the United States after his overseas tours of the refugee camps, O’Grady became convinced that many of the remaining displaced should be resettled in the United States. One problem with this aspiration was in the stigma some Americans attached to the refugees. After repatriation of millions, he said, opponents claimed “what we had available were the dregs that had been left.” Moreover, where a Presidential Executive Order of 1945 had paved the way for admission of refugees from Europe to enter the U.S., voluntary groups occupied with the admission process did not have the organizational framework nor the information on the refugees necessary to resettling them in ideal locations. O’Grady believed that religious groups—he particularly admired the Jewish organizational structures with respect to resettlement activities—were better equipped to manage the program because they had pre-existing networks overseas. He worked with a range of religious organizations as well as local governments toward resettling thousands of refugees in the United States, particularly in the Midwest, where a need for farm workers was sorely needed. “We were bringing people in to meet occupational needs in the United States,” he notes of the effort. “This is what we had sold the American people. We had sold them on the idea that we could find jobs and homes for the displaced persons without disturbing American workers. This was a new approach to immigration. It was a sound approach.”⁴

For more on the work of John O’Grady, see the finding aid: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/ogrady.cfm

For more on Catholic Charities USA, see the finding aid: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/catholicCharities.cfm

An earlier blog on O’Grady and Catholic Charity: http://www.lib.cua.edu/wordpress/newsevents/9315/


¹ See, for example, Mark Wyman, DPs: Europe’s Displaced Persons, 1945-1951 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).

² John O’Grady, All That I Have Seen and in Some of Which I Have Had a Part, (unpublished memoir) John O’Grady Papers, Box 21, 268, 265, 279, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

³ O’Grady, All That I Have Seen, 285.

O’Grady, All That I Have Seen, 279, 288.

The Archivist’s Nook: “A Wonderful Tonic” – A Wartime Hollywood Romance

Wedding photo, 1936.

“My Sweetheart, today is your birthday. There is so much to say that I am not going to attempt to use words and paper and pencil. I think you know how I feel about our separation – and the war which caused it – and my prayers and hopes for our future.”

Thus begins a letter sent from the Department of National Defense in Ottawa, Canada to an address in Los Angeles, California. The author was Hollywood director and screenwriter John Farrow, who was wishing his wife, actress Maureen O’Sullivan, a happy birthday. Despite the challenges of distance and wartime censorship, the pair continuously worked to maintain regular contact on all topics, both good and ill.  

We have highlighted the life and career of Farrow in a previous post, but his relationship with O’Sullivan was but one of many topics covered. The Australian-born director and Irish-born actress married in 1936. They welcomed their first child, Michael, three years later in 1939. Almost immediately after his birth, the couple and their newborn experienced several years of separation and long-distance communication.

Sunday News, Oct. 1, 1939.

In August of that year, O’Sullivan traveled to the United Kingdom to film her latest feature. Unfortunately, the clouds of war were gathering on the Continent, and she soon found herself trapped in Britain. Her husband frantically sought safe passage for her return home. Both Farrow and MGM Studios worked to secure a flight or ship back for the actress, but passage was difficult as the uncertainties of the new conflict produced repeated cancellations. Ahead of one of the many canceled return trips, Farrow wrote to his wife:

“This letter is arriving by the plane that is bringing you back. To use the local vernacular – am I glad. I never realized before how much of a part you play in my life. In fact you are my life and I am thoroughly miserable without you.”

In the same letter, however, Farrow tells his wife that he wishes to heed the call to service. He would find an opportunity to follow this call, after O’Sullivan managed to return in late September. With the US not yet involved in the conflict and himself being a British subject, Farrow traveled to Vancouver in November 1939 to enlist in the Royal Canadian Navy. O’Sullivan remained behind in Los Angeles, taking care of their infant son and continuing her acting career.

In the coming years, Farrow would move around during his assignments with both the Canadian and British navies. He was stationed at various times in Ottawa, Nova Scotia, and Trinidad. Despite where he headed, his wife wrote to him frequently:

“My Dearest, what a wonderful treat I received last night. Two letters from my sweetheart….I can tell you I enjoyed every word. And after I finished reading them do you know what I did? I took all your letters, now a lovely big heap, and read through them too.”

The family reunited during a visit.

While O’Sullivan and Michael did manage to visit him – during one visit, John warned Maureen that she may be swamped by fans – the couple maintained most of their contact long-distance during his service. In addition to notes of affection, Farrow discussed his take on wartime events, O’Sullivan’s contract negotiations with the studio, and even explained the importance of mothers to young Michael. However, for Farrow, the most “wonderful tonic” for his melancholy at being apart happened to be his wife’s voice during their weekly phone calls:

“My sweetheart, wasn’t it fun to talk together. But for so long! I forget to reverse the charges so probably a month’s pay will go to the phone company. We are extravagant and must really discipline ourselves to a limit of say – 10 minutes. Yes? But anyway I have no regrets. It was so nice.”

Farrow would continue his service with the Canadian and British navies until he was invalided due to a contraction of typhus fever in January 1942. Throughout the remaining war years, he would be intermittently called back to service, while working on such wartime features as 1942’s Wake Island. A film for which Farrow received an Oscar nomination for direction.

A note Farrow sent to O’Sullivan.

While the separation of the war years weighed heavily on the couple, O’Sullivan and Farrow would remain married until his passing in 1963. They had seven children together over the following years, and remained active in both Hollywood and Catholic circles.

O’Sullivan, who donated the John Farrow Papers to the CUA Archives in 1978, kept the letters her husband sent her during the war years. Nestled between materials on his film career and involvement in religious societies, the wartime correspondence with his wife highlights a personal side of the famed director’s life that mattered deeply to him.