The Monuments Men

Back to The Monuments Men | Quessenberry, Maj. Mary J. Regan, WAC

Mary J. Regan Quessenberry ( 1915-2010 )

Mary Joan Regan Quessenberry was born on October 10, 1915 in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father, a graduate of MIT, worked as headmaster of Dorchester High School. Her mother was a graduate of Radcliffe College, the women’s coordinate institution at the all-male Harvard. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in art history from Radcliffe in 1937, Mary spent the next year traveling the world as a Radcliffe Scholar. In Munich, she witnessed the growing threat of war when she attended a public speech by Adolf Hitler. In China and Japan, she studied Asian art under the guidance of Langdon Warner, revered Harvard professor and future Monuments Man in Japan. She then returned to Radcliffe for her Master of Arts, where her professors included Mason Hammond, who would later serve as a Monuments Man in Sicily and Germany, and Paul Sachs, director of the Fogg Museum and future prominent member of the Roberts Commission. After graduation, she spent the next two years working as a high school art teacher in Grafton, Massachusetts.

In July 1942 Regan enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), the first female unit to serve in the U.S. Army in a capacity other than nursing. She was sent to Fort Des Moines for officer’s candidate school and commissioned a Third Officer. In July 1943 the WAAC was awarded full military status and renamed the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Regan was promoted to lieutenant and returned to Boston as a WAC recruiter. There, she met Mary Churchill, daughter of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, during the Churchill family’s visit to Harvard.

After a brief assignment in St. Louis, Regan was flown to England in 1943 accompanying a group of American B-17 bombers being delivered to the United Kingdom. She was then assigned to U.S. Eighth Air Force under the direction of General James “Jimmy” Doolittle. At the headquarters of the British Bomber Command, she underwent training to assess bomb damage from aerial photographs following air raids. She used this training at the Royal Air Force (RAF) base at Medmenham, England, where she identified important monuments and culturally significant sites that should be avoided during future bombing runs.

After the D-Day landings in June 1944, Regan managed the headquarters of General Carl Spaatz, commander of the Eighth, Ninth, and Fifteenth Army Air Corps and leader of the strategic bombing campaign against Germany, first in Twickenham, England and later in France at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. As company commander of 550 WAC officers, she managed two mess halls, converted a garage into a recreation room, and installed a juke box so the officers could dance. For her extraordinary leadership during this time, she was awarded the Bronze Star.

Following the Allied victory, Regan participated in the “Victory in Europe” (VE) parade in Paris and attended an art exhibition for soldiers at the Louvre. Soon after, she was assigned the task of delivering an antique desk to the airbase in Wiesbaden, Germany. By this time, she had read in Stars and Stripes that officers with an art history background were needed as Monuments Officers. Despite having more than enough points to return home, she traveled to the MFAA office in Berlin. There, she was greeted by her former Harvard professor, Monuments Man Lt. Col. Mason Hammond, who was so happy to see her that he ignored her official salute and gave her a big hug instead. She immediately volunteered for service and was soon named Information and Reports Officer at the headquarters of the U.S. Group Control Commission in Berlin. In late October 1945 she was transferred to the MFAA Section, Repatriation, Deliveries and Restitution Division (RD&R) as Fine Arts Specialist Officer. In this position, she traveled to the various central collecting points to examine looted works of art and cultural objects before restituting these items to their countries of origin. She worked alongside Monuments Men Maj. L. Bancel LaFarge, Lt. Cdr. Charles Kuhn, Capt. Calvin Hathaway, Capt. Rose Valland, and fellow WAC officer Capt. Edith A. Standen.

In late 1946 Regan was assigned the duties of Art Intelligence Research Officer in the MFAA Art Intelligence Sub-Section. As Art Intelligence Research Officer, her task was to provide the information necessary for active MFAA officers to effectively protect cultural property and monuments. Her field reports reveal her many correspondences with foreign offices, management of intelligence documents, updates on the proceedings of high-profile looting cases, and even the whereabouts of suspicious art dealers currently in the American Zone of Occupation. She made sure the Monuments officers in the field were up-to-date on the current customs regulations for art objects, and distributed copies of similar information. When three paintings were stolen from a storeroom of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, she was informed of their suspected location, interviewed the middleman, Wolf von Appen, and confiscated the paintings from the art dealer Herbert Klewer, who had purchased them illegally.

Such a role as the eyes and ears of the MFAA in Berlin established her as a trusted source of information. She believed that looting by American personnel was an embarrassing fact that the U.S. Army failed to effectively prevent or control. She kept meticulous records on the topic, and submitted a document entitled Art Looting by American Personnel (ALBAP), a list of the twenty-four sets of documents in the MFAA Intelligence Files directly related to American looting. Among these are files on the Hohenzollern Silver, reportedly taken by the 175th Regiment, and a follow-up report regarding a Newsweek article publicly exposing American looting. Until her discharge in 1948 with the rank of major, Regan remained committed to the pursuit of the common good for displaced works of art. In a special report to headquarters, she recommends “that international discussions be initiated to solve the intelligence problem presented by the removals, generally accepted as illegal, of German art treasures by governments and individuals of occupying powers, whether the objects removed are considered as “War Trophies”, or “Reparations.”

Upon her return to the United States, Regan taught humanities at the University of Florida for twelve years. She married Tim Quessenberry in 1965 and the couple moved to Tarpon Springs, Florida, where she taught at St. Petersburg Junior College. While her husband passed away in 1978, she remained in Florida until her return to Massachusetts around 2006. In 2008 she was presented with a State Resolution honoring her incredible wartime contributions.

Mary Regan Quessenberry died in Massachusetts on April 8, 2010.