Now here’s a story Ken Burns might have retold: on Monday, the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran an article about retired archbishop Philip Hannan, who recently recounted his experiences as a military chaplain for the oral history project at the National World War II Museum. As a young priest, Hannan parachuted into battle alongside his men, and he helped to liberate a concentration camp—but one of his deeds that wasn’t a matter of immediate life and death also bears repeating:
When the regiment took Cologne, the first thing Hannan did was visit the cathedral to see whether its “wonderful collection of art” survived the war.
Hannan said the German prelates tried to protect the art by storing it in boxes made of brick. He worried those boxes would be bait for American soldiers, who had come into possession of some British-designed Gammon grenades and were eager for targets to test them out.
He was forbidden to cross the Rhine river, but he ignored the orders and set out in search of the German archbishop. That bishop appointed him protector of the cathedral, and Hannan made sure his paratroopers guarded it.
If not for Hannan, countless medieval treasures might have been destroyed, including several remarkable reliquaries, a famous tenth-century crucifix, and other irreplaceable artifacts that help us understand the past.
It’s become a cliché to say that during World War II, Allied forces “saved the world.” A few, showing foresight and decency, also saved the Middle Ages.