Everett Parker (Bill) Lesley Jr. (1913-1982)
Everett Parker Lesley, Jr.—known as “Bill” Lesley—was born in Baltimore, Maryland on August 31, 1913. He graduated in 1934 from Stanford University with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Classical Literature. In 1935 he earned a Certificat des études, Institut d’Art et d’Archéologie from the University of Paris. A Master of Fine Arts, Art and Archaeology from Princeton University followed two years later. In 1937 Lesley also earned a Certificat des études from the University of Brussels, Belgium as a Belgian-American Educational Foundation Fellow. Lesley served as Curator of European Art at Detroit Institute of Arts in 1938 and 1939. Over the next three years Lesley worked as an Assistant Professor of Art and Architecture at University of Minnesota. By the time he entered military duty in 1942, Lesley had traveled to France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, England, and Spain. He was skilled in four languages: French, German, Spanish, and Italian.
Lesley enlisted as a private in the United States Army in June 1942. He received his commission in December 1942 at the Quartermaster Corps Officer Candidate School. In 1944, Capt. Lesley was selected for Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) duty. On August 24 he reported to London for indoctrination. Two days later he began work with MFA&A Section, G-5 Operations Branch, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), working on official lists of protected monuments for Germany. Because Lesley had received training in bomb damage assessment, Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb—head of MFA&A operations —found him of great usefulness in helping with an urgent survey of the damage to the listed monuments of western Germany. On September 5, Webb requested Lesley’s attachment be extended for two additional weeks. His work on the project lasted until the end of September, at which time he was relieved from further attachment to the MFA&A Section, Operations Branch, G-5 Division, SHAEF and ordered to report to the Commanding Officer, European Civil Affairs Division for further instructions.
By early October 1944, Lesley was assigned to MFA&A duty alongside Capt. Walker Hancock with First U.S. Army as it fought its way through France and Belgium, and then into Germany.
Horrified about damage to Stavelot and Malmedy and other towns caused by the occupation of American troops during the bitterly cold winter of 1944/45, Lesley and Hancock jointly wrote in the First U.S. Army MFA&A Semi-Monthly Report, February 1, 1945:
There remains only one means by which the MFA&A Specialist Officer in the field can, in a measure, prevent the reoccurrence of such incidents as those of Stavelot and Malmedy. He must be free to work, for longer periods at a time, with the commanders of Corps, Divisions, and Regimental Combat teams, in advance of and during operations. There he could make preliminary pinpointing, in conjunction with tactical commanders at lower echelons, of monuments within their areas and accompanying, if feasible, the commander of these echelons during operations, in order to post, protect, appraise, or inventory monuments. As an answer to the problem of covering an entire Army area during a rapid operation we further suggested the feasibility of designating a particular member of the Corps G-5 Staff to consult with the MFA&A office to pinpoint monuments in the anticipated corridor of operations.
After stressing the absolute necessity for more latitude of movement, they observed:
The MFA&A officers represent a service both unparalleled and unprecedented in the U.S. Army, one which cannot easily be processed through traditional channels. It is unrealistic to assume that the duties so uniquely theirs will or can be carried out by others. The need for the MFA&A Specialist Officers is to be on the spot at the time danger to monuments is imminent, or damage is taking place. All tactical commanders with whom the undersigned have conferred are unanimous in agreeing that the place for the MFA&A Specialist Officer is in the advance, not rear, of tactical operations.
Their report resulted in the Adjutant General, Headquarters, First U.S. Army sending a memorandum—dated February 4—addressed to Corps, Division, and Separate Unit Commanders, Subject: Protection of Historic/Artistic Monuments, granting Hancock and Lesley the latitude they requested.
On February 8, 1945, Lesley was relieved from duty with First U.S. Army and reassigned to Fifteenth U.S. Army, which had been relocated from England to the Continent on January 9 and assigned to 12th Army Group. Its initial responsibility was to supervise ground troop units being prepared for combat. By mid-March 1945 Fifteenth U.S. Army had joined the fight.
In February, Lesley wrote a series of operational instructions which would be forwarded to all tactical and Military Government echelons of Fifteenth U.S. Army. Lesley also wrote Fifteenth U.S. Army’s G-5 about the MFA&A policies, procedures, and duties hoping that it would apprise the G-5 elements of the duties of the MFA&A Specialist Officer. In late March, Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb had a copy of this memorandum sent to the other commands for their information and use. In March Lesley produced, and had issued by Fifteenth U.S. Army headquarters, instructions down to company level, titled “Protection of Historic/Artistic Monuments,” that addressed placing off-limits any property within the area of operations of the army.
Lesley went on temporary duty to London from March 30 till April 4 to obtain a transcript copy of German fine arts personnel files compiled by Monuments Officer Squadron Leader Douglas Cooper, Control Commission (British Element) as well as the latest information on current plans for protection, collection, and control of enemy archives. While in London he met with Cooper and other Monuments Officers including Col. Henry C. Newton, Special Adviser, War Department for MFA&A and on assignment with the U.S. Group Control Council (USGCC); Lt. Col. Sir Leonard Woolley, MFA&A Adviser to War Office; Maj. Mason Hammond, USGCC; Maj. Michael C. Ross, Archives Section, Control Commission (British Element); Hilary Jenkinson, Archival Adviser to the War Officer; John Nicholas Brown, Adviser on Cultural Matters to USGCC; and Sumner McKnight Crosby of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas.
By early April, back at Fifteenth U.S. Army headquarters, Lesley issued letters providing guidance for the protection of historic and artistic monuments and archives and issued a command letter for general distribution down to and including all companies and detachments, putting off-limits to all military personnel of Fifteenth U.S. Army all artistic/historic monuments posted by MFA&A specialist officers of other armies. This would, he stressed, obviate the necessity of reposting these monuments.
In the closing months of the war, Lesley was involved with providing for the protection of the archives of Aachen that had been captured at Nordenau and assisting with efforts to locate a suitable storage facility for the treasures found in the mine at Siegen. In June, Lesley facilitated the movement of Cologne museum paintings from Schloss Hohenzollern to the Central Collecting Point at Marburg, under the command of Capt. Walker Hancock.
Lesley would leave Fifteenth U.S. Army and assume a position with the Military Government for Greater Hesse, where he was responsible for restitution activities. In early November 1945, when the Office of Military Government for Germany (U.S.) (OMGUS) ordered some 200 German-owned masterpieces be transported to the United States for safekeeping at the National Gallery of Art, Capt. Walter I. Farmer—head of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point—invited all the members of MFA&A in Europe to come to his office to develop a strategy to protest the decision.
Farmer later wrote that thirty-two officers showed up for the November 7 meeting. “Everyone there,” he noted, “shared my sense of shame at our government’s behavior, and it was a highly vocal meeting.” He added that “By the end of the day, our collective expressions of defiance and passionate convictions had been codified into a document finally drafted by Everett Lesley, that has become known as the Wiesbaden Manifesto…” It reads:
We, the undersigned, Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Specialist Officers of the Armed Forces of the United States, wish to make known our convictions regarding the transportation to the United States of works of art, the property of German institutions or Nationals, for purposes of protective custody.
We are unanimously agreed that the transportation of these works of art, undertaken by the United States Army, upon direction from the highest national authority, establishes a precedent which is neither morally tenable nor trustworthy.
Since the beginning of United States participation in the war, it has been the declared policy of the Allied Forces, so far as military necessity would permit, to protect and preserve from deterioration consequent upon the processes of war, all monuments, documents or other objects of historic, artistic, cultural or archaeological value. The war is at an end, and no doctrine of ‘military necessity’ can now be invoked for the further protection of the objects to be moved, for the reason that depots and personnel, both fully competent for their protection, have been inaugurated and are functioning.
The Allied Nations are at present preparing to prosecute individuals for the crime of sequestering, under the pretext of ‘protective custody,’ the cultural treasures of German-occupied countries. A major part of the indictment follows upon the reasoning that, even though these individuals were acting under military orders, the dictates of a higher ethical law made it incumbent upon them to refuse to take part in, or countenance, the fulfillment of these orders. We, the undersigned, feel it is our duty to point out that, though as members of the Armed Forces we will carry out the orders we receive, we are thus put before any candid eyes as no less culpable than those whose prosecution we effect to sanction.
We wish to state that from our own knowledge, no historical grievance will rankle so long, or be the cause of so much justified bitterness, as the removal, for any reason, of a part of the heritage of any nation, even if that heritage may be interpreted as a prize of war. And though this removal may be done with every intention of altruism, we are none the less convinced that it is our duty, individually and collectively, to protest against it, and that though our obligations are to the nation to which we owe allegiance, there are yet further obligations to common justice, decency and the establishment of the power of right, not of expediency or might, among civilized nations.
The document was signed by 24 of the 32 Monuments officers at the meeting and sent to Maj. L. Bancel LaFarge, Chief of the MFA&A Section at United States Forces European Theater headquarters. Some of the remaining eight chose either to submit individual letters expressing their objections, or to orally express like sentiments. Despite this protest, the masterpieces were shipped to the United States. They would eventually be returned to Germany.
During the winter of 1945-1946, Lesley was engaged in overseeing the operations of the collecting points in Frankfurt and Offenbach, in addition to his other duties as MFA&A Specialist Officer with the Frankfurt Detachment. The two collecting points were consolidated at Offenbach in February 1946. Monuments Officer Capt. Seymour J. Pomrenze arrived to take charge of what would be renamed the Offenbach Archival Depot, thereby relieving Lesley of the responsibility of directing the activities of the collecting point at Offenbach, which at the time had “the largest collection of Jewish material in the world” and was in operation from 7am until 10pm six days a week with 70 employees under its direction.
In late April and early May 1946, Lesley oversaw the movement of a twenty-seven-car train carrying the Veit Stoss altar and numerous other looted Polish treasures, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine to the Polish Government.
Upon returning from this trip to Poland, Lesley would continue his MFA&A duties in Frankfurt. He left the military at the end of 1946, but continued his work during 1947 in a civilian capacity.
After returning to the United States, Lesley studied at New York University in 1947-1948. From 1950 to 1954 he worked as Keeper (Curator) of Exhibitions at Cooper Union Museum in New York City. From 1955 to 1958 he was self-employed in New York cataloguing private collections. He moved to Norfolk, Virginia in 1959 and became the Acting Director of the Norfolk Museum (later the Chrysler Museum of Art) and was appointed Assistant Professor of Art at the College of William and Mary in Norfolk (eventually to be renamed Old Dominion University). In 1968 Lesley was promoted to Professor of Art and continued to teach until his retirement in 1979. During that time—from 1974 to 1976—he also served as Curator of Decorative Arts, National Gallery of Art. He died in Norfolk on February 13, 1982.
During his military career Lesley was awarded a Bronze Star for Meritorious Service, Army Commendation Medal, Chevalier of the Order of Polonia Restituta (Poland) and Honor Medal in Silver for Art and Science of the House-Order of Orange-Nassau (The Netherlands).
*The Foundation wishes to express thanks to The National Archives and Dr. Greg Bradsher, longtime friends and supporters, for their contribution to this biographical profile.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.