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"Monuments Men" receive monumental honor from Congress

Harry Ettlinger was honored as one of the art experts turned military officers who rescued treasures looted by the Nazis
"Monuments Men" honored 02:16

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Congress gave its highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, to 345 unsung heroes of World War II on Thursday.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, left, presents the Congressional Gold Medal to Monuments Men Harry Ettlinger, Richard Barancik, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, during a ceremony in Emancipation Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington. From left are, Boehner, Ettlinger, Barancik, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., and Motoko Fujishiro Huthwaite. The award is Congress' highest honor of appreciation for distinguished achievement. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) AP

Harry Ettlinger was one of those honored as one of the art experts turned military officers who rescued treasures looted by the Nazis, nicknamed the Monuments Men.

The 89-year-old discovered a Rembrandt self-portrait that had been stashed away in a German salt mine.

"I was in charge of what was going on down there. I said let's open the box," said Ettlinger.

Before the war, the masterpiece had hung in a museum in Ettlinger's hometown. But because he was Jewish, he was never allowed to visit it. He and his family fled Nazi Germany for the United States.

Now, thanks to Ettlinger, the painting is back in its hometown.

Harry Ettlinger poses next to a photo of the Rembrandt self-portrait he discovered Harry Ettlinger

"For me to go into that particular museum and take a look at it and get a photograph of it, that made me feel good," said Ettlinger. "It made me feel good in my heart."

The 2014 film "The Monuments Men" brought new attention to the real Monuments Men. It was based on a book by Robert Edsell.

"The story from my point of view was: who were these men and women?" said Edsell.

One of those women is Motoko Huthwaite. She worked for Lieutenant Commander George Stout, played in the movie by George Clooney.

Huthwaite was a typist. Until last month, she didn't realize the field reports she worked on related to the famous group.

"I was absolutely flabbergasted," said Huthwaite.

Who were the real “Monuments Men”? 02:56

The foundation set up to honor the Monuments Men has run out of money, so Thursday's ceremony was bittersweet.

"It's the realization of a dream I held so closely. We struggled to get to this moment," said Edsell.

Preservers of the past, awarded a monumental honor.

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