Jim Pitts, state government records archivist (and retired U.S. Army officer), brings us this post on a little-known aspect of William D. McCain, the second director of MDAH.
The movie Monuments Men opens today. Interestingly, Mississippi had its own monuments man, Captain William D. McCain, who was the director of the Department of Archives and History before and after World War II. The exploits of the Allied officers and soldiers assigned to the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Commissions in the European and Mediterranean Theaters of Operations have been largely unknown outside of the history, arts, archives, and library communities. With the release of this movie, based on Robert Edsel’s books Rescuing DaVinci, Monuments Men, and Saving Italy, their role in preserving Western heritage from the devastation of World War II and massive looting by Nazi leaders can come to full light.
McCain was called to active duty in March 1943 as first lieutenant and served in an antiaircraft artillery unit. In December 1943, he deployed overseas to the Mediterranean Theater of Operations where he was assigned as a historian with Headquarters, Fifth (U.S.) Army. He remained in that assignment until September 1944. He helped write the history of the Fifth Army during its operations in North Africa, Sicily, and southern Italy. McCain was the author of From the Volturno to the Winter Line (6 October to 15 November 1943), one of a series of fourteen studies of World War II military operations. In February 1944, he was promoted to captain.
In September 1944, McCain was reassigned to the Fifteenth Army Group’s Allied Commission, which oversaw all civil military operations in the Italian peninsula. He joined the Subcommission for Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) as the regional records officer and archivist of the Lombardia area (northern Italy). McCain’s tasks were “ … to plan to take care of the archival deposits in northern Italy, to plan for the restoration of archival service in northern Italy, and to plan for the protection and return to Rome of the records of the ministries which had been removed northward as the Allied armies advanced … .” During the winter of 1944–1945, McCain worked with Italian state archivists to collect information on the archival depositories in northern Italy and make plans for their recovery, protection, and return.
During the spring and summer of 1945, as Allied armies surged north up the Italian peninsula, McCain worked to locate and inspect archival depositories and restore archival services in northern Italy. He also took it upon himself to supervise the restoration of various libraries in his area of operations. His work culminated in late August 1945, with a “great meeting in Milano” that settled all remaining matters of restoration and return of the archives. From September through November, the Italian state archives were transferred back to Rome in eleven thirty-five-truck convoys.
McCain departed Italy for the United States in September 1945. After completing his reports and performing other administrative duties, he was discharged from active service in December 1945 and returned to Jackson to resume his duties as state archivist. McCain continued his military service after World War II as an officer with the Mississippi National Guard in antiaircraft artillery units, including a twenty-month mobilization during the Korean War.
McCain was an assistant archivist at the nascent United States National Archives before becoming director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. His contacts with archivists at the national level, including Solon J. Buck, Archivist of the United States, resulted in his assignment as the archivist for the Mediterranean Theater of Operations Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Commission.
William D. McCain, “Some Reminiscences of the United States Archivist in Italy, 1944–1945,” Journal of Mississippi History, vol. 34, no. 1 (1972), pages 1–28. The two quotations are taken from pages 6–7 and 26.
William D. McCain papers, Z/0065.000 and Z/0065.001, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
McCain (William D.) Photograph Collection, PI/ED/M33.8/folder 44, MDAH.
For additional information on the Monuments Men:
The Monuments Men web site: http://www.monumentsmen.com/
The Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art: http://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org/