Asa M. Thornton (1916-1952)
Archivist and historian Asa Mell Thornton was born in 1911 and devoted his career to the conservation of archival material. He earned degrees in archives administration from the University of California and George Washington University, as well as a Master’s degree in economics from American University.
Thornton rose up through the ranks at the U.S. National Archives and thus gained an understanding of almost every facet of archival work. By 1942, he had held the successive posts of Minor Reference Assistant, Junior Archives Assistant, Junior Archivist, Assistant Archivist, and Associate Archivist. He joined the war effort as a 2nd lieutenant with the Quartermaster Corps. There, he organized and oversaw the historical program of the Office of the Quartermaster General, which trained twenty-eight workers and assistants both in Washington and in its various field establishments and depots.
Subsequently, Thornton was commissioned into MFAA service in May 1942. He was one of the first to be assigned as an archives or records expert for duty in the European Theater, and was later the first archivist to reach German territory. Upon arrival at SHAEF headquarters in London, Thornton assisted Monuments Man Sir Hilary Jenkinson of the U.K. Public Records Office in making a list of archival collections in Western Germany. He was then escorted to SHAEF headquarters at Versailles by Fred W. Shipman, fellow National Archives staff member and Director of the F.D.R. Presidential Library, who was given leave to help Thornton settle in to his duties. As Thornton and Shipman waited for Thornton’s next assignment, the two took the opportunity to meet with representatives of the French Archives Nationales to discuss the state of archives in the area. Soon after, Thornton received his orders and arrived at the headquarters of 12th Army Group in October 1944 as the MFAA Field Officer in charge of archives and records for 1st U.S. Army.
Stationed in Velviers, Belgium, Thornton was charged with inspecting the condition of records at the many repositories in Germany as well as working to prevent the looting of records by both the local population and by Allied souvenir hunters. One of his first assignments was to accompany Monuments Man Lt. George Stout in late October 1944 during his trip to inspect archives removed from Aachen, Germany. Thornton found lists in the Stadtarchiv at Aachen leading to the stores of archives which, by that time, had been placed in emergency depositories at Hombourg and Gemmenich, Belgium.
Thornton was forced to leave active service in January 1945 due to an illness sustained during a harsh German winter. He died in July 1952 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
Photo courtesy of the Walker Hancock Collection, The Monuments Men Foundation Collection, the National WWII Museum, New Orleans, LA.