Monuments woman Mary Regan Quessenberry was born on October 10, 1915 to a third generation, Irish Catholic Bostonian family. Her father, John W. Regan, graduated from MIT and worked as the headmaster at Dorchester High School in Boston. Mary followed in her mother’s footsteps and attended Radcliffe College, the coordinate women’s college for Harvard University. She then received a master’s degree in fine art from Harvard, and studied under Paul Sachs, Langdon Warner, and Mason Hammond; all future Monuments Men as well. In 1938, Mary traveled the world, and visited China and Japan as a Radcliffe Scholar, under the guidance of Asian art expert Langdon Warner. She also traveled to Munich, where she witnessed one of Hitler’s rallies and quickly understood that war was approaching.
The United States entered World War II in December 1941, and by July 1942 Mary had given up her job as a high school art teacher and was in uniform serving with the WAAC (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps). Over 400,000 women applied to be part of the first group of women to serve in the US military; only 450 were chosen. Mary and the other “six-week wonder girls” were sent to Fort Des Moines for officer’s candidate school, and she was commissioned a “Third Officer-WAAC.” She soon returned to Boston to become a recruiter for what by then had become the WAC (Women’s Army Corps).
One of the highlights of her time in Boston was meeting the Churchill family. “I had learned that Winston Churchill was coming to receive an honorary degree at Harvard. I was standing on the steps of the Fogg Museum. I saw a couple of big black limousines pull up. Prime Minister Winston Churchill exited one car with his wife, later to become Lady Churchill, and their daughter Mary. Lady Churchill saw me standing there in uniform, approached and she commented on being delighted to see women in uniform. I have a picture posing with Mary Churchill there.”1
After a stint in St. Louis, Mary was sent overseas in 1943. She flew over in a group of American B-17 Bombers being delivered to the United Kingdom. After stops to refuel in Gander, Newfoundland and Keflavik, Iceland, they landed in Wales. She traveled to the High Wickham School for training with the U.S. Army 8th Air Force under General Doolittle where she learned “to assess bomb damage from aerial photographs following bomb raids.”2 After training, Mary was sent to the Royal Air Force base at Medmenham as part of the Central Interpretation Unit. Working in 24 hour shifts, she examined dossiers on the day’s bombing runs to assess damage and identify important monuments for bomber command.
At 11 pm one evening, Mary received orders to report to General Carl Spaatz’s headquarters at Twickenham. Spaatz reported directly to General Eisenhower. At that time he commanded the 8th, 9th, and 15th Army Air Corps and led the strategic bombing campaign against Germany. Mary became “company commander of the 550 WACs who ran Spaatz Headquarters.”3 These American women were supplying officers, secretaries, and assistants for the 3000 men stationed at headquarters. After the D-Day landings, she ran Spaatz’s headquarters in France at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, west of Paris. There she slept in a tent (in full uniform) in the forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye so that she could be “Johnny on the spot”. The troops’ dog slept at her feet. One of her numerous duties was running two mess halls for the troops and officers, but ironically she had never even cooked a supper. She had to find housing for the 550 WACs; many of them ended up at a nearby convent. She converted the garage into the day room, and installed a juke box so the American girls could bring the boys over to dance. Mary became an assistant to General Spaatz, who always chose to eat at her mess hall because it was “the best on the base.” For her service as company commander, in particular the evacuation of the WACs during battle, Mary received a Bronze Star.
Following the Allied victory, Mary participated in the VE Day celebrations in Paris, and also got to see an exhibit at the Louvre for soldiers. She was soon assigned the task of taking an antique desk to the Wiesbaden airbase. By this time she had read in the Stars and Stripes that officers with an art history background were needed as Monuments Men. Despite having more than enough points to return home, Mary traveled to Berlin to find the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives office. She was greeted by her former Harvard professor, Mason Hammond, who was so happy to see her, he ignored her official salute and gave her a big hug instead. Mary volunteered for service and soon recieved orders for reassignment.
As a Monuments officer stationed in Berlin, Mary traveled to the Munich Collecting Point, Wiesbaden Collecting Point, various repositories, and badly damaged cities. She worked with fellow Monuments Men Bancel LaFarge, Rose Valland, Charles Kuhn, Calvin Hathaway and others to restitute stolen works of art to their rightful owners. Mary refused to sign the Wiesbaden Manifesto (a document 32 Monuments Men signed in opposition of German-owned works of art being transferred to the United States for safekeeping) on the premise that she took an oath to “obey the lawful command of my superiors.” She served as a Monuments officer until 1948, when she retired as a Major after an extraordinary and accomplished military career.
Mary returned home to the United States and taught humanities at the University of Florida, and married her husband Tim Quessenberry in 1965. She then taught at the St. Petersburg Junior College. Her husband died in 1978; Mary spent her later years at her family home in Scituate, Massachusetts. In 2008, she was presented with a State Resolution honoring her wartime contributions. Mary passed away in 2010.