Bemidji's Monument Man: Former BSU president was in special unit depicted in new film
BEMIDJI — A gardener, a scholar.
While Sattgast himself does not appear to be portrayed in the film, it chronicles the work of about 345 soldiers who fought to protect historical and cultural artifacts during World War II.
Sattgast was among those soldiers.
“What would happen is they would take over a city or location — the U.S., Allied soldiers — but these guys would go in before the troops would go in so they could secure all of those artifacts,” said Rich Sattgast, Charles Sattgast’s grandson.
It was not a safe assignment.
“Locations would be boobytrapped,” said Rich Sattgast, who is the South Dakota state treasurer, speaking with the Pioneer by phone.
He recalled an incident when his grandfather had to go down into a cellar and immediately encountered an armed German soldier.
“(The German was) pointing a P-38 pistol at him,” he said. “My grandfather shot this young man in that altercation. That soldier was so inexperienced he didn’t take the gun off the safety.”
The Sattgast family still has the pistol.
From Bemidji to battle
Locally, Sattgast is perhaps best known nowadays for the science building named for him on the Bemidji State University campus.
Sattgast served as the college’s president from Feb. 1, 1938, until his death on March 24, 1964. Previously, he served as president of Sioux Falls (S.D.) College from 1930-1937.
During Sattgast’s tenure, Bemidji State expanded from a teachers’ college to one offering liberal arts programming and a graduate school, and the campus itself grew, from 20 to 74 acres, boasting dedicated buildings for science, physical education and industry and arts, as well as dormitories.
“He was a very forthright, very plainspoken person and, in my opinion, one of the finest gentlemen I ever met,” said Ray Carlson, a Bemidji State psychology professor from 1952 to 1984.
Sattgast took over leadership of the college during trying times. In 1938, enrollment was less than 200. Then, after experiencing some growth, enrollment fell 23 percent in fall 1941 due to the WWII. Of 253 students, 98 were men. That figure would later fall to 15.
In fall 1942, the college began to fly a 6-foot by 9-foot service flag near the gymnasium, displaying stars in honor of each student and faculty member serving in the war. By October 1944, there were 360 stars, the vast majority blue for service members and eight gold, indicating those killed in action. By war’s end, that number would increase to 21.
In fall 1943, Sattgast took leave from the college and reported to Fort Custer, Mich., for basic training.
“He had joined up because, as president of Bemidji State, he saw so many of his students joining up or being drafted for World War II that he felt, knowing those young people would be going overseas, that he needed to be a leader and join as well,” Rich Sattgast said, citing articles and letters preserved by his family.
Sattgast initially was assigned to train British soldiers to ride motorcycles so they could be used as couriers during D-Day.
One of the letters Sattgast sent home was dated “D-Day + 1.”
“One of the lines in the letter was that the planes have been going nonstop now for the last 48 hours,” Rich Sattgast said. “It looks like silver fish in the sky.”
Into the Eagle’s Nest
Capt. Sattgast fought in the Battle of the Bulge and then was invited to join the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit, the MFAA, which would become known as The Monuments Men.
“Because of my grandfather’s history and education and arts background, he was invited to be a part of this unit,” Rich Sattgast said. Other members included museum directors, curators, art historians, artists and architects.
Not only did Sattgast serve in the war, but so did his two sons, Morris, who served in the Merchant Marines, and Lawrence, Rich’s father, who joined the Army at age 17.
Charles and Lawrence Sattgast met up for a brief time during the war, in Marseilles, France.
“My dad was very much into photography and so he had numerous cameras and would document just about everything,” Rich Sattgast said.
Charles took Lawrence through a warehouse, where recovered artifacts were being stored and protected.
“A superior … he came up and said, ‘You need to take something home,’” Rich Sattgast said.
Sattgast was then given a civilian cap worn by Nazi leader Hermann Goering.
“We still have it to this day,” Rich Sattgast said.
A scene in Tom Hanks’ “Band of Brothers” HBO miniseries shows members of the 101st Airborne Division going into the Eagle’s Nest, Adolf Hitler’s mountain chalet, to explore the grounds and gather up liquor and wine.
“My grandfather was part of that,” said Rich Sattgast, explaining that while Sattgast was not a member of the 101st, he was sent in ahead of those troops to retrieve important artifacts.
One of the items he retrieved was a silver tray engraved for Hitler from Eva Braun.
The tray was eventually given to Morris Sattgast who donated it to a museum.
Among Rich Sattgast’s clippings is a newspaper article, datelined Vienna, reporting on the return of $30 million in art masterpieces. The clipping was mailed home by Sattgast during WWII.
“Vienna’s art treasures, consisting of 250 priceless paintings which were removed from the Kunsthistorisches Museum early in the war by the Austrian Government and deposited in the Laufen Caves for protection from air raids, has (sic) been returned,” the article states. “Valued at ($30 million) the shipment was under the supervision of USFA art experts and was heavily guarded on the rail trip here from Salzburg.”
Twenty-nine of the paintings were reported to have been removed from the caves by Viennese Nazies but intercepted and recovered by American forces.
In the margin of the clipping is a handwritten note from Sattgast himself:
“Re. just a few of my paintings. I was on this yesterday. We moved 7½ tons of pure gold. Charles.”
Sattgast — and his sons — safely returned home in 1946, though he was briefly called back to Warsaw, Poland, as he and his colleagues were honored by the Polish government for returning priceless artifacts to the people of Poland.
Eventually, though, Sattgast settled back into his “regular” Bemidji life, leading the college and spending time with his family.
“He was very much into gardening,” Rich Sattgast said. “My dad would always tell me, ‘We had a garden, but it was more like a hobby farm.’ They raised bees and numerous different types of vegetables and whatever fruits they could.
“In one of his letters home (during the war), half of the letter — a four-page letter — half of it was dedicated to different flowers that he’d seen in England.”
“He was an avid collector of mushrooms and things like that,” said Carlson, Sattgast’s friend at Bemidji State. “He was very knowledgeable. He would show you which ones were edible.”
He was also an environmentalist.
“He rescued a tree that fell over, right outside the college,” Carlson recalled. “He saw to it that tree was set back upright and, by golly, it grew. He called it The Monarch. A pine tree. It was right behind Sattgast (the building now named for Charles), right directly behind it.”
But his work at the university went much beyond saving trees. As one Pioneer article noted, “Some called him a dreamer, but some of his dreams came true because he made them come true.”
“He took his role very seriously,” Carlson said. “His image, his activities, his life was all about representing the college. … He was very conscious that anything he said or did was a reflection on the image of the college. That was characteristic of him.”
Sattgast, at age 65, died March 24, 1964, at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, two weeks after undergoing surgery. It is believed that Sattgast had pancreatic cancer.
“He was immensely honest, just a very honest, principled person,” Carlson said. “I admired him greatly.”
Lawrence, Rich Sattgast’s father, served in WWII, having left high school early to join up. He transferred into the Army Air Corps and was a flight engineer in the Berlin Airlift.
He later graduated from Bemidji State University and worked as a college professor, but he actually didn’t receive his high school diploma until 1995, when during his 50th class reunion in Bemidji, he received an honorary diploma.
Rich Sattgast himself joined the Army after graduating high school. He served active duty for four years, stationed in Berlin and then later in Desert Storm.
“We have a long family tradition” of serving in the military, Rich Sattgast said proudly.
He often thinks of those who served before him.
“I have stacks of letters,” Rich Sattgast said, “not a lot from my grandfather, but stacks of letters my dad wrote back to my mom when he was stationed over there.”
Rich Sattgast never actually met Charles Sattgast, who died about 14 months before he was born. But he heard stories passed down through the generations and he has those countless letters, articles and artifacts.
“Growing up, any time I got that chance to do a report on World war II, I took it,” he said.