A 92-year-old Milford man is being recognized at last for his role in the 1945 discovery of a large cache of Nazi gold and treasures in a German salt mine.
Truthfully, if Richard Mootz wasn’t such a skirt-chaser, the discovery may never have happened.
“I was just trying to meet girls,” he said.
It was April 6, 1945, as the Allies were putting the finishing touches on their campaign against the Axis. Then 20-year-old Mootz was a military policeman in the small central-Germany town of Merkers. A curfew had been imposed, and two women had been caught on the streets in the early morning hours.
Mootz was called to assist because he could speak German. He found they had been out to see a midwife and drove them home.
“They were very friendly, and I found out they were from near my mother’s hometown in France,” Mootz said. “While we were driving I saw these tall chimneys and I was curious as to what kind of factory it was. They said it was a salt mine, and I was surprised there was such a big installation for a salt mine.”
After talking some more, the women revealed to him that a few months earlier a train had come to town, and every able-bodied person had to help move Nazi gold and other valuables into the mine.
“I went to tell the boys, I said, ‘Hey, let’s go check out this salt mine, there’s a bunch of stuff down there,’ but they were all playing cards and thought I was crazy,” Mootz said. “So I went down to division headquarters and made a report.”
The next day, the U.S. Army entered the mine. According to Prologue, the official magazine of the National Archives, the stunned soldiers found 3,682 bags and cartons of Germany currency, 80 bags of foreign currency, 8,307 gold bars, 55 boxes of gold bullion, 3,326 bags of gold coins, 63 bags of silver, one bag of platinum bars, eight bags of gold rings and 207 bags and containers of Nazi loot that included valuable artwork. Found among the treasure were items stolen from victims of the Holocaust, including everything from wedding bands to gold teeth.
Over the years following the war, most of the treasure was returned to the countries from which it came. More was returned after the Cold War ended, but some of it disappeared after records were mysteriously lost. In the mid-nineties, there was an effort to determine just how much gold belonging to Holocaust victims was in the cache. In 1997, 5.5 tons of confiscated gold, worth about $60 million, was donated to the Nazi Persecution Relief Fund to aid Holocaust survivors.
Mootz gets his due
Both of Mootz’s parents emigrated to the United States, where they met, married and raised a family in Wilmington’s Richardson Park area. Mootz’s father was German-born; his mother was from Obernai, France.
Growing up, being half-German was tough.
“Was my childhood good? Yes and no,” he said. “The hatred for Germans ... was so energized back then.”
Mootz was drafted at age 18, just as the Allies were gaining momentum in WWII. He survived the D-Day invasion of France on June 6, 1944.
“Tracer bullets light up so you can see ’em, and I had some go by me,” he recalled. “I could feel the heat; they were within inches of me at Normandy. I was lucky I didn’t get hit.”
While the bullets missed Mootz, the bombs didn’t. He still has shrapnel in his leg from that day.
After U.S. troops crossed the German border, Mootz’s cursed German roots quickly became a blessing.
“Because I could speak German, I became an interpreter,” he said. “That changed my whole life in the army.”
When the war ended, Mootz returned to Delaware, settling in Sussex County. He married and had four children, all girls. An experienced carpenter and machinist, Mootz worked a variety of jobs, including supervising a lumber treatment plant for American Engineering.
“He’s been claiming this story happened forever,” said his daughter, Maida Graves. “But they only declassified it recently.”
After forgotten records of the Merkers treasure came to light in the ’90s, recognition began to trickle in.
“The Monuments Men” movie, costarring, written and produced by George Clooney, was released in 2014. The modestly successful film finally made famous the work of the Allies’ Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives detachment, art experts tasked with saving artistic and cultural treasures looted by the Nazis. Those experts would tend to the treasure in the salt mine, discovered partially in thanks to Mootz’s intel. The film, however, only mentioned the American soldier that got the ball rolling.
However, in February of this year, BriteSpark Films came calling. The British production company was making a documentary television series about the looting of Europe and North Africa by the Nazis in WWII, and wanted to get information on the Merkers treasure from the horse’s mouth. They filmed their conversation with Mootz, and “Hunting Nazi Treasure” is set to air in the United Kingdom and Canada this summer. A U.S. broadcast date is to be announced.
The state House of Representatives presented him with a tribute April 6, 72 years to the day after Mootz drove those two women out after curfew back home, to commend his role in the discovery.
“We recognize this exceptional individual for his outstanding service to his country while serving in the United States Army,” said Rep. Harvey Kenton, R- 36. “Private Mootz assisted the ‘Monuments Men’ in the discovery of a massive collection of gold, silver, artwork and German currency. This was the remaining paper currency and gold reserves of the Nazi regime. Hence, this discovery bankrupted the German Army, bringing an earlier end to the war.”
Today, Mootz resides at Milford Place, an assisted living residence off Route 113. He appears much younger and healthier than his age would suggest. His room is filled with WWII memorabilia and books, and he’s always eager to chat about the era.
He doesn’t think much has changed since then, especially in terms of world leaders.
“It’s just like always,” he said. “They’re all pretty crazy.”