Story of wartime treasure hunt for stolen art comes to Hollywood

Soldiers behind a high-stakes hunt for Europe... 04:35

They are called the "Monuments Men," and today only a handful of them remain. In the final months of World War II, and for several years after, these American soldiers -- most of them middle-aged artists, museum directors, and curators -- were sent to Europe to find and rescue countless, priceless works of art.

They recovered works by artists like Michaelangelo, daVinci and Ver Meer -- stolen by the Nazis from museums and private collectors. They found Michaelangelo's Bruges Madonna in a salt mine in Austria, along with Ver Meer's "Astronomer" -- one of Hitler's favorite works. Everything they recovered, they kept until the item could be returned to the rightful owner.

The high-stakes, high-art treasure hunt is now the subject of a new book and a movie directed by and starring George Clooney. Robert Edsel wrote the book. He described the Monuments Men effort to CBS News correspondent Mark Strassman as "an effort to preserve civilization."

Henry Ettlinger, now 87, was 19 at the time. He joined the group because, as a German Jew who had emigrated to the United States, he could serve as translator and guide. "I went back as an American soldier, not as a German," Ettlinger said.

The group criss-crossed battle fields, searching high and low for stolen works. Ettlinger tells Strassmann the Nazis took everything -- "paintings, sculptures, books." Among the recovered pieces were many well-known works like Monet's Parc Monceau and Chardin's Soap Bubbles, both of which now hang in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By the time it was all over, the group had supervised the return of some 5 million stolen objects -- something no country had ever done before. It was "unique in the history of civilization," Ettlinger said.

There was also a very personal chapter in all this for the then teenaged Ettinger. "I was able to come along and recover my grandfather's collection of 3,000 prints," he said. Some of the prints hang in his home today.

But thousands of works stolen by the Nazis have still never been found.

"So the treasure hunt is still on?" Strassmann asked Edsel. The answer, according to Edsel: "I think the treasure hunt is just beginning."