By Jim Pitts
Mississippi Department of Archives and History
The movie “The Monuments Men,” directed by and starring George Clooney, opened Feb. 7. The film follows an Allied group tasked with finding and saving pieces of art and other culturally important items before their destruction by Hitler during World War II.
Interestingly, Mississippi had its own monuments man, Capt. William D. McCain, a Bellefontaine native who was the director of the Department of Archives and History before and after World War II.
The exploits of the Allied officers and soldiers assigned to the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Commissions in the European and Mediterranean Theaters of Operations have been largely unknown outside of the history, arts, archives and library communities.
With the release of this movie, based on Robert Edsel’s books “Rescuing DaVinci,” “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” and “Saving Italy,” their role in preserving Western heritage from the devastation of World War II and massive looting by Nazi leaders can come to full light.
McCain, the son of Samuel Woodward and Sarah Alda Shaw McCain, was born in Bellefontaine on March 29, 1907. His family eventually moved to Sunflower County, where he graduated from Sunflower Agricultural High School in Moorhead.
He went on to receive his bachelor’s degree from Delta State College, his master’s degree from the University of Mississippi and his doctorate from Duke University.
Having enlisted in the National Guard in 1924, McCain was called to active duty in March 1943 as first lieutenant and served in an antiaircraft artillery unit. In December 1943, he deployed overseas to the Mediterranean Theater of Operations, where he was assigned as a historian with Headquarters, Fifth (U.S.) Army.
He remained in that assignment until September 1944. He helped write the history of the Fifth Army during its operations in North Africa, Sicily and southern Italy. McCain was the author of “From the Volturno to the Winter Line (6 October to 15 November 1943),” one of a series of 14 studies of World War II military operations. In February 1944, he was promoted to captain.
In September 1944, McCain was reassigned to the Fifteenth Army Group’s Allied Commission, which oversaw all civil military operations in the Italian peninsula. He joined the Subcommission for Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives as the regional records officer and archivist of the Lombardia area (northern Italy).
McCain’s tasks were “to plan to take care of the archival deposits in northern Italy, to plan for the restoration of archival service in northern Italy, and to plan for the protection and return to Rome of the records of the ministries which had been removed northward as the Allied armies advanced.”
During the winter of 1944-45, McCain worked with Italian state archivists to collect information on the archival depositories in northern Italy and make plans for their recovery, protection and return.
During the spring and summer of 1945, as Allied armies surged north up the Italian peninsula, McCain worked to locate and inspect archival depositories and restore archival services in northern Italy. He also took it upon himself to supervise the restoration of various libraries in his area of operations.
His work culminated in late August 1945, with a “great meeting in Milano” that settled all remaining matters of restoration and return of the archives. From September through November, the Italian state archives were transferred back to Rome in eleven 35-truck convoys.
McCain departed Italy for the United States in September 1945. After completing his reports and performing other administrative duties, he was discharged from active service in December 1945 and returned to Jackson to resume his duties as state archivist.
He continued his military service after World War II as an officer with the Mississippi National Guard in antiaircraft artillery units, including a 20-month mobilization during the Korean War.
McCain assumed the presidency of Mississippi Southern College, now the University of Southern Mississippi, in 1955. He retired as president on June 30, 1975.
In his honor, the William D. McCain Chair of History was established in 1975, and in 1976, the William David McCain Library and Archives on the USM was opened and named in his honor.
Following his retirement from USM, he maintained an office in McCain Library, as president emeritus, devoting much of his time to civic activities. He died on Sept. 5, 1993, and is interred at Lakewood Memorial Park in Jackson.
Addendum: McCain was an assistant archivist at the nascent United States National Archives before becoming director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. His contacts with archivists at the national level, including Solon J. Buck, archivist of the United States, resulted in his assignment as the archivist for the Mediterranean Theater of Operations Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Commission.
For additional information on the Monuments Men:
“The Monuments Men” website: http://www.monumentsmen.com/
The Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art: http://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org/
This article was adapted from a post by Jim Pitts on MDAH’s blog “A Sense of Place.” Pitts is state government records archivist and a retired U.S. Army officer.