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The American hero who saved Chartres Cathedral

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Photo - Chartres Cathedral (Photo by Wikimedia user Ireneed, used under a Creative Commons license.)
Chartres Cathedral (Photo by Wikimedia user Ireneed, used under a Creative Commons license.)
Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Michael Barone,History,Minusextra,France,Patriotism,World War II,Heroism

I don’t know how I got on the email list of the American Friends of Chartres, but I’m glad I did, for it made me aware of this inspiring story, of how an American military officer saved Chartres Cathedral from shelling in World War II, a story which I thought was worth sharing:

American Friends of Chartres Honors the Memory of Col. Welborn B. Griffith, the first World War II "Monuments Man" on Aug. 16

He died exactly 70 years ago, Aug. 16, battling in France against the Germans to save Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral from destruction.

August, 1944. Patton’s Third Army awaits orders — that would never come — to take Paris. Elements of the Third Army, including the XX Corps, were based just outside the historic town of Chartres. On Aug. 16, Col. Welborn Barton Griffith of Texas, logistics and liaison officer in the XX Corps, learned of orders for U.S. artillery to shell Chartres Cathedral, one of the most important monuments of medieval civilization, in order to eliminate suspected German snipers and observers in the tower.


Col. Griffith as a cadet at West Point(Photo: FindaGrave.com)

According to Eugene Schulz, author of The Ghost in General Patton's Third Army, whom American Friends of Chartres recently interviewed, Griffith — on his own initiative — and his driver approached the forward American forces and obtained information on where the Germans were located in Chartres. They were able to evade the Germans, who still occupied the city, and entered the cathedral. Griffith searched the cathedral and climbed the bell tower. He found no Germans, and was able to rescind the order to shell the monument. Thanks to Griffith’s courage, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres was saved from war damage, thereby preserving it for future generations.

Griffith then headed to Lèves, a small town just north of Chartres. He spotted a German machine gun nest, headed back to the American lines, climbed onto the turret of an American tank, and ordered the tank crew to head for the machine gun nest.

Griffith did not get into the tank because “he was a very large man and couldn’t get through the hatch," said Schulz. Although the tank destroyed the machine gun nest, Griffith was killed in the fight. He was posthumously decorated with the Silver Star, Distinguished Service Cross, and the French Croix de Guerre. He is buried at the St. James World War II Memorial Cemetery in Brittany.

Griffith was born in Quanah, Texas. According to his daughter, Mrs. Alice Griffith Irving of Jacksonville, Fla., Griffith was a loving father who visited her whenever he was on leave from the military. In a recent conversation, Mrs. Irving also mentioned Schulz’s admiration for her father, as a man of great commitment, dedication, and integration — his mentor in the armed forces.


Griffith's grave in Brittany, France (Photo: Brittany American Cemetery Facebook page)

The people of Lèves setup a plaque on a building next to the spot where Griffith was killed. Initially, it was dedicated to Col. Griffith Welborn, as the French people did not know how to read American dog tags. In 1999, thanks to the efforts of local historian Bertrand Papillon, who was a teenager in 1944, a new plaque was erected in the presence of Col. Griffith’s daughter and her family.

In 2009, Alice Griffith Irving and her family attended Memorial Day at the St. James cemetery, where her father is buried along with 4,413 other American servicemen. In her words, in the AWON issue of September 2009: “More than a thousand local people attended. It was rewarding to know that the sacrifices these graves represent have not been forgotten. It was an unforgettable experience for our family."

To honor the 70th anniversary of Col. Griffith’s death, Dominique Lallement, president of American Friends of Chartres, will lay a wreath at the Houston National Cemetery in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 16, thus uniting as an expression of gratitude and friendship in the ceremony that the people of Lèves conduct annually in front of the plaque dedicated to his memory.

Editor's note: The text of the American Friends' email was edited slightly for style.

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Author:

Michael Barone

Senior Political Analyst
The Washington Examiner

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