Robert Thomas, 83, breezed into the National Archives with a smile, a white hankie peeking out of his suit coat pocket and an old briefcase containing the two rare books he filched in Germany 64 years ago.
He was a World War II GI then, fresh from the horrors of combat. He had blundered into one of the notorious salt mines where the Germans stashed their national treasures. And this one contained books. Millions and millions of books from institutions across Germany.
Thomas poked around, saw two that looked old and took them.
Now, a lifetime later, in an ornate room with a fireplace and two chandeliers and the German ambassador looking on, the retired optometrist from Chula Vista, Calif., was returning them.
Everyone seemed happy. Thomas, a widower with two hearing aids who still has a touch of the brash and cheerful GI about him, said he acted because “it was the right thing to do.”
He hadn’t been bothered that much by keeping the books all these years. Other things haunted him more -- such as the German soldier who looked like a child that Thomas had shot one day in a bunker along the Siegfried Line.
“I’ve had these books since I was 18 years old,” he told a group of officials from the archives Tuesday, as he removed the plastic wrap covering the two boxes in an anteroom before the ceremony. “I’m relieved, for one. I wanted to return them to the original owners, but I had no clue where to start.”
The National Archives was delighted to facilitate the return. Senior archivist Greg Bradsher, whom Thomas had contacted last spring, researched the books and urged Thomas to return them.
German Ambassador Klaus Scharioth said the 16th century volumes date to the dawn of the Protestant Reformation when Germany was the book publishing center of the world.
The first book has been traced to a museum in Paderborn, Germany, the ambassador said. The second has been traced to a library in Bonn.
Both books are small and thick. Thomas said he kept them in two old cardboard boxes -- one of which had long ago contained shaving lotion. He said he never read the books but had kept them in cool, dry, safe places in his home.
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 area and wound up in the Army in the closing months of the war in Europe.
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 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.
Ruane writes for the Washington Post