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WWII GI Returns Books Taken From Germany 64 Years Ago

After 64 years, veteran Robert E. Thomas returns books that he took from a salt mine in Germany during WWII that contained national treasures hidden by the Nazis.

Asked about the books, Scharioth said:

"He probably had no idea that this was valuable. He just thought it was a souvenir. . . . You do that in youthful spirit. I think it's great that he thought about it a second time and came to the conclusion that these books belonged to someone."

Thomas said he was raised in the Long Beach, Calif., area and wound up in the Army in the closing months of the war in Europe. He said he served in an infantry regiment in Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army. Thomas said he had seen some harrowing combat, and had learned to say in German: "Get your hands up quick or die!"

He said he was recovering from being wounded by an exploding rocket when he was summoned one day in early April 1945. An officer on a motorcycle asked him to ride shotgun on a reconnaissance mission.

Along the way they stumbled upon the storage mine, and went down in an elevator shaft. Thomas said the mine was cold but illuminated with lights. He said he wandered into a chamber and found it packed "floor to ceiling" with books, two of which he took. He said he came home from the war with a Bronze Star, six decades worth of nightmares, and the two books.

Then last spring, Thomas e-mailed Bradsher, a National Archives expert on looted World War II artifacts. Bradsher said Thomas was trying to figure out where he was in Germany and in what mine he had found the books.

Bradsher had written an article about the discovery of the famous storage mine near Merkers, Germany, in which the Nazis stashed $520 million in German gold and currency and a priceless trove of art, much of it looted.

"I determined he wasn't in the Merkers mine, but I sort of pinpointed it to another mine that was about 15 miles to the west," Bradsher said Monday.

Bradsher asked Thomas for more details. "He wrote back, well, he was in this mine and there was lots and lots of books, and he took two," Bradsher said. "As souvenirs."

Bradsher checked and found that the two tomes were among about 2 million books secreted in the mine, along with about 200,000 opera costumes from the Berlin State Opera and 50 boxes of musical scores and sheet music. He noted that the books Thomas took were probably not stolen by the Nazis, as so much other treasure was.

These "are probably anti-Nazi librarians hiding their books," he said.

"I wrote back to him, I said, 'I'm pretty sure you were at this mine on this particular date,' " Bradsher said. " 'And by the way, you might want to think about giving the books back.' "

Bradsher suggested Thomas mail the books to the archives. Thomas wanted to bring them in person.

Bradsher said such a return is uncommon. "Soldiers picked up souvenirs, but most of it was sort of military-related."

Bradsher said he asked Thomas, "Why books?" Easy, Thomas said: As a kid in high school he had loved to spend time in the Long Beach Public Library.

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