Hometown Hero: Walter Kirtland Hancock, St. Louis’s Monuments Man
Today’s post comes to us from archivist Theresa Fitzgerald of the National Archives at St. Louis. Theresa has previously shared her expertise with us in a popular post on how to access veterans’ records and today she applies that knowledge to another topic we love, the Monuments Men.
The recently released film, The Monuments Men, has garnered interest in the efforts during World War II to preserve art, culture, and history. As anticipation grew for the movie’s release, the staff at the National Archives at St. Louis became interested in locating and studying the Official Military Personnel Files of the decorated veterans who were to become known as “Monuments Men.” The Official Military Personnel Files provide further detail into the men’s involvement and specific orders depicting their activities.
One record that elicited particular interest is that of Walker Kirtland Hancock. In the movie his character’s name is Sgt. Walter Garfield and he is played by fellow St. Louis native, John Goodman. Hancock was born on June 28, 1901 in St. Louis, Missouri, home to the National Personnel Records Center, the central repository of all Official Military Personnel Files for veterans spanning the course of the late 19th to the late 20th centuries.
Hancock began his education at the School of Fine Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. He proceeded to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the American Academy in Rome. Upon graduation he became the head of the sculpture department at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1929. During this period in his career he created many works of art: most notably for St. Louis are the statues of four monumental sculpture groups: Vision, Courage, Sacrifice, and Loyalty. These granite monuments were created between 1936 and 1938 and are located outside of the St. Louis Soldiers’ Memorial. In addition to honoring the military outside of the Soldier’s Memorial, Hancock performed his civic duty and registered with the Selective Service System on February 16, 1942.
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Hancock was drafted into the Army of the United States on October 12, 1942 and assigned serial number 31210708. He served with the Medical Corps and trained as a medic until he was transferred to Washington, D.C. for temporary duty at the Army War College. At the Army War College he had the task of designing the Air Medal. This was an honor that he had won in a competition that was held prior to the war. He served as an enlisted man until February 19, 1943, when he was separated from the service in order to accept a temporary appointment as First Lieutenant with the Army Air Forces of the United States.
Upon his promotion to First Lieutenant, Hancock became part of Military Intelligence. Due to his studies in art and sculpture at the American Academy in Rome, where he had resided for four years, and his time studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Hancock was immersed in European culture and language and was fluent in French and Italian.
After earning his degrees from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the American Academy in Rome, and an honorary doctorate degree from Washington University in St. Louis, he had spent thirteen years teaching and directing the activities of young men as the Director and Instructor of Sculpture at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His language and leadership skills made him the perfect candidate for a position in Military Intelligence:
After seven months of service at the Pentagon in Military Intelligence, he was promoted to Captain and notified of the President’s creation of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe. In order to implement the recommendations of the Commission, officers such as Hancock, were allocated as advisors for the preservation of museums and monuments. It was at this time in 1943 that he took his place as a Captain with the U.S. Army, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (M.F.A.A.).
As Captain with the M.F.A.A. he was instrumental in compiling lists of protected monuments for France and directives relating to them. Many of his efforts were put forth to identify buildings of historic or artistic importance, as well as archives and movable works of art, so as to prevent avoidable damage. He spent time inventorying collections and providing emergency treatment to prevent deterioration of works of art. Finally, Hancock located numerous depositories of works of art and arranged their safeguarding during combat and carried out the evacuation of the contents to the U.S. Army collection points.
Upon his release from the military on March 5, 1946, Hancock returned to his position as Director with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. A year after his release from active duty he was promoted to Major for his various contributions to the war effort and for the protection of such important works of art and history.
After the war he continued his contributions to veterans and the military. He was commissioned to create such works as the Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial located in Philadelphia, a tribute to the thousands of Pennsylvania railroad employees who sacrificed their lives during World War II. Other commissions consisted of the U.S. Air Mail Flyers Medal and the Army and Navy Air Medals.
Hancock received many awards for his achievements during the war and after. His wartime service garnered him the American Service Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, and the European, African, Middle Eastern Service Medal. Civilian achievements include the George D. Widener Memorial Gold Medal, the Herbert Adams Medal of Honor, the National Medal of Art, and the Medal of Freedom.
Hancock continued his work in art and sculpture up until his death on December 30, 1998.
Hancock’s records are part of RG 319: Records of the Army Staff, 1903-2009, Official Military Personnel Files, compiled 1912-1998. More information on accessing military personnel files is available here.