In late March and early April of 1945, Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army was finally able to cross the Rhine and drive deep into the heart of Germany. Just before noon on April 4, the village of Merkers fell to the Third Battalion of the 358th Infantry Regiment. Soon, rumors began to run rampant through the soldiers stationed there. Many of the townspeople were apparently insisting that the Nazis had been using nearby abandoned potassium mine to store gold and artwork that had been stolen by the Reich. The townspeople’s stories caught the attention of Lt. Col. William A. Russell, the civilian affairs officer stationed in Merkers. He placed armed guards at the entrance to the mine and contacted General Patton. Patton, having been burned in the past by such rumors, ordered that the possible existence of gold in the mine be kept a secret.
On April 7, William Russell, the assistant division commander, two other Ninetieth Infantry Division officers, Signal Corps photographers, and German mining officials descended down the main mine shaft twenty-one hundred feet beneath the surface. In the main hallway, stacked against the walls, they found 550 bags of Reichsmarks. Moving down the tunnel, the Americans found the main vault. It was blocked by a brick wall three feet thick, enclosing a portion of the mine at least one hundred feet wide. In the center of the wall was a large bank-type steel safe door, complete with combination lock and timing mechanism with a heavy steel door set in the middle of it. Attempts to open the steel vault door were unsuccessful.
Early on April 8, an Army engineer blasted though the brick wall by using a half-stick of dynamite. Inside the main room were more than 7,000 bags full of loot. There were bales of currency stacked alongside the wall. In the back was another, smaller room, that held 18 more bags and 189 suitcases, trunks, and boxes. In order to examine the contents, some of the bags were opened, and a partial inventory was made. The inventory indicated that in the cavern there were:
- 8,198 bars of gold bullion
- 55 boxes of crated gold bullion
- hundreds of bags of gold items
- over 1,300 bags of gold Reichsmarks, British gold pounds, and French gold francs
- 711 bags of American twenty-dollar gold pieces
- hundreds of bags of gold and silver coins
- hundreds of bags of foreign currency
- 9 bags of valuable coins
- 2,380 bags and 1,300 boxes of Reichsmarks, making about 2.76 billion Reichsmarks total
- 20 silver bars
- 40 bags containing silver bars
- 63 boxes and 55 bags of silver plates
- 1 bag containing six platinum bars
- 110 bags from various countries
The soldiers also found an enormous number of artworks in other tunnels. These tuned out to be the most valuable pieces from various Berlin museums.
The United States scrambled to clear out the Merkers mine as soon as possible. Not only were the troops guarding the mine needed at the front, but also under the Big Three arrangements at Yalta, the Merkers part of Germany would be taken over by the Russians after the war and that they certainly needed to get the treasure out of the area before the Soviets got there. Plans were quickly made to move all of the treasure to the Reichsbank building in Frankfurt.
On April 12, United States Generals George S. Patton, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley inspected the mine before everything was moved to Frankfurt. The generals entered the main room and looked around in awe at the captured gold. Eisenhower was moved by the experience. "Crammed into suitcases and trunks and other containers was a great amount of gold and silver plate and ornament obviously looted from private dwellings throughout Europe,” he wrote. "All the articles," he noted, "had been flattened by hammer blows, obviously to save storage space, and then merely thrown into the receptacle, apparently pending an opportunity to melt them down into gold or silver bars." Later Patton would write that he saw "a number of suitcases filled with jewelry, such as silver and gold cigarette cases, wrist-watch cases, spoons, forks, vases, gold-filled teeth, false teeth, etc." acquired by "bandit methods." These were obviously taken from concentration camp victims.
Near the end of the inspection, Bradley said to Patton, "If these were the old free-booting days when a soldier kept his loot you'd be the richest man in the world." Patton just grinned. Later that evening Bradley, Eisenhower, and Patton dined together. Among the things they discussed was that when word first reached Patton about the gold discovery, he had ordered a censorship stop on the discovery. "But why keep it a secret, George?" Bradley asked. "What would do with all that money?" Patton said that his soldiers were of two minds. One view was that the gold be cut into medallions, "one for every sonuvabitch in Third Army." The other view was that the Third Army should hide the loot until peacetime when military appropriations were tight and then dig it up to buy new weapons. Eisenhower, looking at Bradley and laughing, said, "He's always got an answer." The evening did not end on a happy note, as at about midnight the three learned that President Roosevelt had died.
The emptying of Merkers started on April 14, 1945. It took over two days to load the 56 ten-ton trucks that were to carry the treasure to Frankfurt. Once the trucks reached the Reichsbank, it took another two days to unload them. During the entire moving operation a continuous air patrol was begun over the area, and the trucks were heavily guarded at all times.
During the move, every piece of loot was counted and inventoried. The value of the gold, silver, and currency found was over $520 million (which would be approx. $5.1 billion today).
In early 1946, the gold found at Merkers was turned over to the Inter-Allied Reparation Agency and eventually turned over to the Tripartite Commission for the Restitution of Monetary Gold (TGC) for distribution to countries whose central-bank gold had been stolen by the Nazis. The TGC began the process of getting the gold returned to most countries as quickly as possible. However, the Cold War resulted in some of the gold not being restituted until 1996.
At an international conference held in London in December 1997, several countries agreed to relinquish their claims to their share of the remaining 5.5 metric tons of gold (worth about $60 million) that was still held by the TGC and donate it to a Nazi Persecution Relief Fund to help survivors of the Holocaust. Early in September 1998, in a ceremony held in Paris, the TGC announced its task was completed and went out of business.
Quotes by the Generals are taken from their respective autobiographies.