Howard M. McBee: A Biography
By Susanna McBee
Howard M. McBee was a prominent Oklahoma lawyer who helped shape the state’s judicial system. He was also a civic leader in his hometown of Frederick and a decorated World War II veteran who discovered one of the significant Nazi treasure troves after the war.
His impact on Oklahoma’s judiciary began in the 1960s when he was on the Board of Governors of the Oklahoma Bar Association and served on its Standing Committee on Judicial Performance. That committee investigated a scandal in which three state Supreme Court justices were found to have taken bribes from lawyers trying cases before them.
As a result of the investigation, Oklahoma voters in 1967 adopted two constitutional amendments. One provided that trial judges would no longer be elected as party candidates but instead would run in nonpartisan races. The other stated that appellate judges would not be elected at all but would be appointed by the governor. The system was amended in 1970 to allow voters to reject appellate judges seeking reappointment once their term ends. The investigation also led to the creation of the Oklahoma Court on the Judiciary, which has the power to remove state judges from office for malfeasance. Mr. McBee served on that court’s division overseeing appellate judges from 1966 to 1977.
For 10 years Mr. McBee was chairman of the Continuing Legal Education Committee of the Oklahoma Bar Association. He led the committee in recommending that all lawyers in the state be required to complete 12 hours of updated legal education each year. That requirement was adopted by the Bar Association’s House of Delegates in the mid-1980s and remains the standard today in Oklahoma. By attending annual seminars, attorneys around the state are able to keep up with the latest developments in the law.
During the 1980s Mr. McBee was an adviser to U.S. Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., and made recommendations to him on the selections of federal judges from the state. In 1981 Mr. McBee was vice president of the Oklahoma Bar Associaiton, and in 1985 received its distinguished service award.
Howard McBee’s legal career began after he returned home from World War II in 1945. He worked for a title company in Oklahoma City until 1947 when he moved to Frederick, the county seat of Tillman County. He was elected County Attorney that year and served in the post for the next four years, spending most of his time prosecuting criminal cases. From 1951 until his death he was in private practice in Frederick handling banking, corporate, insurance, oil and gas, probate and real estate matters.
He headed the firm of McBee, Benson and Benson. His chief partner was Oklahoma House Speaker Loyd Benson, who said Mr. McBee was “noted for his integrity.” Mr. Benson added, “I’m proud to have served as Howard’s partner for more than 32 years, and never once have we had a cross word with each other.”
Mr. McBee received national recognition for his courtroom skills by being selected as a fellow of the American Bar Foundation, the American College of Trial Lawyers and the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. In 1971, when he became a fellow of the foundation, he was the only Oklahoman selected that year.
In Frederick, Mr. McBee was a guiding force in raising funds for the elementary and high school libraries and computer centers.
The Frederick Elementary School library media center was named for Mr. McBee in 1997. The Frederick Leader newspaper said at the time of the dedication that “the McBee Library Media Center will serve always as a tribute to this great man who loves Frederick and cares about Frederick’s young people.”
His library work began a decade earlier when he convinced a wealthy widow named Clara Berry, who had been a teacher in Oklahoma and Arkansas, that she could make a significant contribution to local education by setting up the Frederick School Enrichment Foundation. That charitable trust provided the finds to build the town’s high school library. Mrs. Berry, then 94 and terminally ill, came to the dedication ceremony in an ambulance. Mr. McBee later recalled that she told him as the ceremony ended, “Well, this has been money well spent, and it’s been fun.” The next day she died.
Afterward, Mr. McBee began a campaign to build a new elementary school with a modern library and computer center. As head of the foundation, he bought 10 parcels of land, which provided much of the space for the $2.5 million school with its $327,000 book, computer and audio-video center. The school was funded by a bond issue and the library center, by the foundation.
Over the years, as foundation president, Mr. McBee oversaw the awarding of $4,000 scholarships to outstanding seniors at each high school graduation ceremony. At the end of every college semester, he received letters from the foundation’s scholarship winners telling him about their grades, activities and plans for the future.
Mr. McBee was also instrumental in acquiring land and a building for the Lois Long Youth Center in Frederick. The facility serves as a community center for arts and recreational purposes as well. It is named for a civic leader who was a major stockholder of the First National Bank there. Mr. McBee, who was then a director of the bank, was Mrs. Long’s lawyer and helped administer the funds she had set up in her will for community improvement.
Mr. McBee won a number of awards over the years. In 1964 he received a Most Useful Citizen award from the Frederick Lions Club at the annual Chamber of Commerce banquet. Four years later he received the Boy Scouts’ highest leadership honor, the Silver Beaver Award, for his work as a scoutmaster and his service on the board of the Scouts’ Black Beaver Council, which covered much of southwestern Oklahoma.
Born in Nowata, Oklahoma, on September 9, 1917, Mr. McBee grew up in Oklahoma City. He was a son of William D. and Myrtle McBee. W.D. McBee was a senator in the territorial legislature of New Mexico and later, in 1923 and 1924, the speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Howard McBee attended the Modesto, California Junior College and received his bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Oklahoma.
Two months after he graduated from OU’s law school in 1941, he was drafted into the Army and became a second lieutenant in the Field Artillery. He was quickly promoted to first lieutenant and the following year became a captain. In December 1943 he and Mari Vinovich, a Colorado State University graduate who was then a dietician in the Army Medical Corps, were married.
In June 1944 his artillery battalion shipped out to Cornwall, England, and in July he landed on Utah Beach at Normandy, France, a month after D-Day. He saw combat in Brittany and later in Belgium, Holland and Germany. In October 1944, Captain McBee was shot and wounded in the left shoulder when his battalion was manning an observation post near Aachen, Germany, about 25 miles west of Cologne. While wounded himself, he carried a staff sergeant, who had taken several shots in the leg and abdomen, down a hill and then got another soldier to help him carry the man the rest of the way to safety. As it turned out, the staff sergeant, Kenneth Farrell of Wichita, Kansas, had been at the wedding of Howard and Mari McBee.
Mr. McBee later received the Purple Heart, other medals and four battle stars.
On December 25, 1944, by then a major, he was named commander of the Fire Direction Center of the 268th Field Artillery Battalion in Belgium near the German border. He and his troops, firing 8-inch guns, were able to hit enemy targets 22 miles away in St. Vith, Germany, a small town that was a key transportation center for Adolf Hitler’s military forces. Later Major McBee’s battalion fought on both sides of the Rhine River near Bonn, Germany.
After the combat in that area ceased in mid-April 1945, Major McBee asked to be transferred to the First Army’s legal department, the Judge Advocate General Corps. His request was granted and he was assigned to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, which U.S. troops had liberated that month. There he joined a legal team preparing for the Nuremberg war crimes trials.
Buchenwald was one of the Nazis’ most notorious forced-labor camps, where unbelievable sadistic experiments were performed on prisoners by doctors studying the effects of amputations and poisons on the human body. More than 50,000 prisoners died there.
As the allied armies were closing in on Germany, Nazi leaders in various cities frantically began hiding the loot they had confiscated and hoarded. In early April soldiers of the 90th U.S. Infantry Division discovered a huge treasure in the depths of a salt mine in Merkers, Germany, some 60 miles west of the Buchenwald camp. The trove contained gold bullion, cash from many nations and priceless paintings and sculptures that had been removed from Berlin.
At Buchenwald, there were rumors that another, smaller treasure was hidden in a nearby stone quarry. Major McBee was assigned by Lt. Col. John W. Bonner, chief of the First Army’s war crimes section, to check out the rumors. On April 27 Major McBee questioned two Germans who were former prisoners there. They said they had heard the rumors and led him to a third German who had also been a prisoner at the camp. That man took Major McBee to the quarry and showed him a cave where the Nazis had built two air raid shelters in a tunnel.
On April 29, after determining that the site was not booby-trapped, Major McBee arranged for a civilian work team of 20 men to dig into the shelters. After they dug a small hole into the tunnel, he crawled through it and discovered several suitcases, wooden boxes and some barrels. Over the next three days, he and others removed those and similar containers and found that their contents included gold bars and American gold coins, U.S. currency, precious and semi-precious stones, boxes of silverware, watches and clocks as well as boxes of gold fillings, gold teeth and wedding rings presumably removed from the death camp’s victims.
A 1996 account of the discovery in a London quarterly publication called “After the Battle” said that “altogether, Major McBee’s discovery in the quarry constituted an inventory of loot filling 313 boxes, barrels, cases, crates and packages.” On May 2 Major McBee turned the quarry loot over to the First Army’s inspector general, and it became known as Shipment 16. The shipment, which was transported in six 2 1/2 –ton trucks and two armored cars, arrived at the currency section of the 12th Army Group in Frankfurt, Germany, on May 6, 1945. It went into the Frankfurt Exchange Depository, along with the Merkers treasure. That summer at the depository the U.S. Army put on a public display of the valuables that the Germans had collected during the war. The total value of the Merkers, Buchenwald and other finds was said in 1996 to be about $500 million. The Merkers treasure was initially valued in 1945 at $250 million. The Buchenwald find was initially said to be worth about $1 million, Major McBee recalled later. The recovered loot became part of the evidence that the allies presented at the Nuremberg trials of accused Nazi war criminals, held between November 1945 and October 1946.
Major McBee, at age 28, returned to the United States in October 1945 and left the Army that December. Ultimately, he retired with the rank of colonel after 37 years of wartime and reserve duty. In the reserves, he taught military law.
In addition to his civic work in Frederick, Mr. McBee was active for more than 30 years in the First United Methodist Church there. In the 1950s and 1960s he held several church offices, as a lay leader, chairman of the Finance Committee and chairman of the church’s Official Board. In 1988 he helped the church buy adjacent property to build a multi-purpose building used for retreats, banquets, recreation and youth activities.
Mr. McBee actively raised funds for an addition to the University of Oklahoma’s law center. He was also chairman of the Board of Directors of the First State Bank of Grandfield, Oklahoma. He was formerly on the Board of Directors of the First Southwest Bank of Frederick.
Howard and Mari McBee had a daughter, Marla, and two sons, John and William. They also were very proud to have five granddaughters: Carrie, Valerie, Lindsay, Rebecca, and Sandra.