In early April 1945, the Third Army of General George Patton, Jr. was rolling across Germany, crushing the dispirited Wehrmacht in its path. His GIs had already scored victories on the Normandy beaches, bailed out the Battle of the Bulge, and crossed the Rhine River into the Third Reich’s Vaterland on the evening of March 22. In a special message to his men, Patton bragged that between late January and late March, “You have taken over 6,400 square miles of territory, seized 3,000 cities, towns, and villages including Trier, Koblenz, Bingen, Worms, Mainz, Kaiserslautern, and Ludwigshafen. You have captured over 140,000 soldiers, killed or wounded an additional 100,000, while eliminating the German 1st and 7th armies. Using speed and audacity on the ground with support from peerless fighter-bombers in the air, you kept up a relentless round-the-clock attack on the enemy. Your assault over the Rhine at 2200 last night assures you of even greater glory to come.”
Along the way, the general wrote doggerel verse about warfare such as:
For in war just as in loving,
You must always keep on shoving,
Or you will never get your just reward.
On April 4, Patton’s 358th infantry regiment captured Merkers, a village in central Germany about 80 miles northeast of Frankfurt and 180 miles southwest of Berlin. The whole area around there was known for its salt mines. Some of them had thirty miles of tunnels. The area’s dense forests gave it the nickname “the green heart of Germany.” The 358th was in the process of cleaning up pockets of enemy resistance and arresting retreating German soldiers trying to disappear into the sea of refugees. When the GIs went through Merkers, they heard rumors that the German Reichsbank had been moving gold there in recent days, but nothing was confirmed, so they moved on and set up a command post in Kieselbach a mile and a half down the road.
At 8:45 A.M. two days later, American military policemen Clyde Harmon and Anthony Klein, two privates first class, who were guarding a road, stopped a pair of French women entering Kieselbach on foot. They were violating the U.S. army curfew that prohibited civilians from being on the streets. One of the women was obviously well along in her pregnancy. The two explained that they were displaced persons from Thionville in northeastern France and were on their way to a midwife in Kieselbach to deliver the baby. The women were taken to the Provost Marshal’s Office and questioned. Their story seemed honest, and they were offered a ride back to Merkers.
PFC Richard Mootz, who spoke German, drove them. When the three entered the town, the soldier asked the women about the huge Kaiseroda mine facility that they were passing. Sitting in the middle of a green valley of rolling hills, it looked more like a steel mill than a mine. There were large brick buildings plus bridges and cobblestone streets. It resembled a small village. Smokestacks and a giant elevator dominated the skyline, but they were no longer operating. The women explained that the Germans had recently stored gold and paintings underground there, adding that it took local citizens and displaced people three days to unload the first train. PFC Mootz passed the information up the chain of command to Colonel Whitcomb, the chief of staff, and Lt. Col. Russell, the military government officer.
Armed with that information, Russell immediately went to the mine with a few GIs where he talked with other displaced people and local Germans, who corroborated the French women’s story. Mine officials told him that the assistant director of the National Galleries in Berlin was also there to take care of art works. A British POW, who had been captured in 1940 and was working at the mine as a mechanic’s assistant, told Russell that he had help unload the gold. The soldiers discovered that there were five entrances to the labyrinthine mine, with one of them still behind enemy lines. Russell immediately ordered a tank battalion to guard the entrances and arrested all the mine executives.
On April 7 at 10:00, Lt. Colonel Russell, accompanied by mine officials, soldiers, and Signal Corps photographers, entered the mine. The group immediately noticed at the entrance several hundred bags. When they opened them, they found it full of Reichsmark currency, which the Germans had apparently left behind in their rush to escape. Soldiers later found more than a hundred more in another location. They determined that each sack contained one million Reichsmarks. They also found a locked steel door and speculated that they would find more valuables were probably behind it. Germans told the GIs that it was called simply Room #8. At 2:00 p.m., soldiers attempted unsuccessfully to open the vault’s door and then left.
With all that evidence in hand, Russell interrogated Werner Veick, who worked for the Reichsbank, Germany’s central bank, and said that he had been part of a group that recently brought gold along with both German and foreign currencies to the mine from Berlin. He said most of it was stored in the room behind the steel door. Russell quickly sent word to his superiors that there was a vault that reportedly contained a lot of gold. Eventually the news reached General Patton, who ordered the soldiers to blow off the door the next day and find out what was inside. In the meantime, reinforcements were sent to guard the mine.
The next morning, a group led by Lt. Colonel Russell was back at the mine to blast their way into the vault. They gathered up both Kaiseroda officials and Paul Ortwin Rave, the curator of the German State Museum, to investigate what was underground. Newspaper photographers and reporters traveling with Patton’s army accompanied them. The soldiers tried at first to get into the room by digging around the door; but when that didn’t work they blew a five-foot hole in a masonry wall.
Inside, the soldiers found riches to rival King Solomon’s mines. The room was approximately 75 ft. wide, 150 ft. long, and had a 12-ft. ceiling. Bags of gold bars and gold coins were neatly arranged in rows only a few feet apart. The GIs broke the seals of a few bags to confirm the contents and then resealed them. At the back of the room were 207 battered suitcases, boxes, and packages in addition to 18 bags containing gold or silver jewelry, gold watches, and other valuables. Much of it appeared to have been flattened with a hammer to get as much in as possible into the containers. The soldiers speculated it was war loot collected by Nazi soldiers. The boxes actually contained valuables that Gestapo guards had taken from concentration camp inmates on their way to the gas chambers. Bales of currency were stacked along another side of the room. There were also several balances, seemingly to weigh precious metals. Later that day, the group found elsewhere in the mine 550 bags of Reichsmarks plus paintings and other museum treasures. They were haphazardly packed in cardboard or wooden containers.
General Manton S. Eddy, the commander of the XII Corps, arrived at the mine three hours later and quickly telephoned Patton to report that they had found a huge treasure of gold and art works. In a rare reaction for a general famous for his oversized ego, Patton decided that the discovery was a political rather than a military matter, and asked General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commanding general of the Allied European Theater of Operations, to take over responsibility. The Berlin museum paintings and art pieces, which included the famous bust of Empress Nefertiti, were priceless. The gold alone in Room #8 was worth $238.5 million. At today’s gold price, that would be about $9 billion.
The Merkers mother lode was the largest recovery of stolen property in world history, but the story behind this incredible cache and the plight of Europe’s wartime gold was still to be discovered.