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  • Robert M. Edsel

Motoko Fujishiro Huthwaite, the Last of the Monuments Women, Dies at 92

Twenty-seven Monuments Women served in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section’s mission of preserving millions of works of art and other cultural objects during and after World War II. I knew and loved three of them. On May 4, the last of the three, Motoko Fujishiro Huthwaite – the last living Monuments Woman – died, another casualty in the global war against the novel coronavirus.

The strength and character of each of these women broadened my understanding of the group of heroes we now know as the Monuments Men. I met Anne Olivier Popham Bell in 2007, at her home in East Sussex, England. Her bravery during the war, serving as a courier and air warden in the days when London was ablaze, left me in awe. Olivier, as she preferred to be called, possessed an acuity of thought and iron-willed determination that provided a decisive and vital element to the British Monuments Men operation in post-war Germany. This “garrulous old woman,” as she once referred to herself, passed in 2018 at the age of 102.

An interview I gave on BBC World Radio in 2009 resulted in a tip that days later took me to the town of Scituate, outside Boston, to meet Mary Regan Quessenberry. Hours of conversation followed that included stunning revelations, one in particular that had a lasting impact on us both. This Bronze Star recipient, decorated for her leadership and courage as a captain in the Women Army Corps assigned to the staff of General Eisenhower, was a delightful mixture of charming and tough. Mary died the following year, but not before we had several more chances to spend time together.

Married names made finding Monuments Women exceedingly difficult as most if not all were single at the time of their military service. A “Motoko Fujishiro” was on the original list. We had no idea if she was alive. We had no idea whether to search for her in Japan, or the United States. By 2015, the odds of finding any other living Monuments Men or Women were slim. Imagine, then, my surprise when one of our intrepid researchers walked into my office and said, “I think I may have found another Monuments Woman. Her name is Motoko Fujishiro Huthwaite, and she lives in Westland, Michigan.” Within days, I was on a plane to Detroit to meet my third Monuments Woman, and the twentieth member of this storied group of heroes that I had known.

Petite in size, her warm smile and soft-spoken manner belied the lioness within her. We spent all morning discussing her earliest dreams of becoming a teacher and attending Radcliffe College, and just how distant those hopes seemed upon learning that the Imperial Japanese Army attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor. This former educator had not lost her attention to detail, as she had her journals and photographs from the war years neatly assembled on the kitchen table, a temporary classroom waiting for the student to arrive. Like Anne Olivier Popham Bell and Mary Regan Quessenberry, Motoko was precise in her recollections and trusting of me in all that she shared. The more I learned about the hardships that she endured – as a fourteen-year-old girl forced to leave the country of her birth and travel to Japan, and the death of her father as a result of his arrest by the FBI on charges of espionage and transfer to an internment camp in Montana, and the prolonged dangers of scraping out an existence in Tokyo during the U.S. Army Air Force bombing of Tokyo – the more astonished I was to hear her repeatedly speak of gratitude for her good fortune. Not once did I hear anger or bitterness in her voice.

When I handed her an American flag in honor of her service as a Monuments Woman, the smile of her youth appeared and for a moment, she was speechless. It was a tender moment, one of many which I have shared with twenty other Monuments Men and Women.

We parted that day knowing we would see each other again, and indeed, we did. Months later, we arranged for Motoko to be with us in Washington, D.C. to participate in the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony honoring the Monuments Men and Women. She joined three other Monuments Men on stage for the unveiling and presentation of the medal, a glorious moment for anyone, much less these aged heroes in the twilight of their lives.

Motoko also visited us in Dallas, helping us better understand who served in the Monuments operation in the Pacific Theater, and providing more details about her amazing life. Above all, Motoko was a great storyteller, and in the staff of the Monuments Men Foundation, she had a captivated audience. In the years since, we stayed in touch through letters and phone calls. She had become a part of our extended family, which has made her loss not just historic but personal.

It is no small irony that this new war the world is waging against COVID-19 is taking place exactly seventy-five years after the end of the last world war, and that the people who are most susceptible are the heroes whose sacrifices helped build the world and all its freedoms that we enjoy today. To those who, shamefully, say, “Well, they were old; they would have died soon anyway,” I have this response: “You have never known, as we have, the mettle and dignity of these aged warriors. Their loss is society’s loss. Their loss is your loss, for they take with them knowledge and virtue our nation, in fact the world, needs now more than ever. They are our nation’s treasures, and we should protect them accordingly.”


(Travel safely in your next journey dear friend. Godspeed.)

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