clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


Shortly after midnight on July 8, 1945, Pvt. Clarence V. Bertucci, a five-year Army veteran, climbed into the guard tower overlooking Camp Salina, where several hundred German prisoners of war were sleeping. A few minutes later, he opened fire with a .30-caliber air-cooled light machine gun, spraying 30 of the 43 tents with 250 rounds of deadly fire.

Eight prisoners died immediately, and another succumbed later to his injuries. Twenty were wounded.The "why" of this brutal attack on prisoners occupied military investigators for weeks. Bertucci's action was a horrible aberration from the usually humane treatment prisoners of war received in Utah during World War II. After several weeks of evaluations at Bushnell Army Hospital in Brigham City, 9th Service Command examiners declared the private insane and sent him to an Army hospital for the mentally ill in New York.

His victims were buried in the Fort Douglas cemetery, with Protestant services conducted in English by Chaplain Frank E. Ed-wards. The 17-man choir from the Ogden POW camp attended, and 15 of the dead men's compatriots from the Salina camp were allowed the trip to Salt Lake City to bid them farewell.

A representative of the Germans was allowed to speak. He said, in his native tongue, that he was sorry the dead had experienced such an awful accident, "but God wanted them to go that way." The victims were buried in American khaki in the same sort of caskets used for American war casualties. No German songs were allowed. "Taps" was played as the caskets were lowered into the ground.

Years later, in September 1977, Dieter Lampe returned to Salina to confront his memories of the event. He was one of those Bertucci wounded. He had been sent to the Kearns Army Camp hospital where he "received excellent care," he said. His war experiences, including his imprisonment in Utah, had engendered in him a strong antipathy for war of any kind, he told Salina acquaintances.

Bertucci's victims, however, were not the first burials of German war prisoners in the Fort Douglas Cemetery. The remains of some World War I prisoners also are interred in the cemetery. In all, one Japanese, 12 Italian and 41 German POWS had been buried there as of 1978, a Deseret News report said.

For years, a "mystery woman" put flowers on the grave of a deceased German prisoner. The Deseret News, trying to identify the woman, sent letters of inquiry to about 35 "Mrs. Gonzalezes." In the end, the newspaper learned that Gonzalez was not her real name. Hanging onto her anonymity, a woman did come forward and say she was a niece of the German prisoner buried in the plot. He had been decorated by his country for valor in 1939, she said.

A baron imprisoned at Fort Douglas sent for his wife to live in Utah until he was freed, and a chemistry professor spent his prison time teaching classes to other POWS.

In December 1918, a questionnaire was sent to World War I POWs who had spent time at Fort Douglas. Four hundred refused to answer, but of those who did, 169 said they wanted to go back home, while 131 said they would prefer to stay in the United States.

Over the course of World War II, 425,806 prisoners of war were sent to camps in the United States, including 11,660 who spent time in camps in Utah and Idaho. The two states were considered ideal for internment because of their inland locations, work opportunities and their remoteness from industrial centers where sabotage was a concern.

The attitude toward POWs in America was to treat them with dignity in accord with the Geneva Convention guidelines, said Utah hsitorians Ralph A. Busco and Douglas D. Alder, who wrote an article on the prisoners for the Utah Historical Quarterly's Winter 1971 editiion. Such treatment was intended to impress the prisoners with the advantages of democracy.

Many prisoners who spent time at the Utah and Idaho camps later reported that they had, in fact, been treated well.

Hans Johann Gruenheit, who spent time at Camp Preston, Idaho, was taken by American forces who invaded his German home town of Gellsenkirchen. He had been sent home to recuperate from wounds received in fighting between the Germans and Russians. He reported to Busco and Alder that his time in the Preston camp was "the most carefree time in all my life."

Some Italians being held at Fort Douglas, however, were not so happy. In May 1945, they went on strike, refusing to work because they were not allowed to end their day until 4:30 p.m., while civilian workers left the job at 4 p.m. They neglected to say that they had an hour lunch break, while the "civvies" had only a half hour, so their actual work day was the same.

The brass at Fort Douglas sent the 184 striking prisoners outside with a single blanket each and put them on bread-and-water rations. "They will remain in the open until they capitulate," said 1st Lt. Robert Koller.

As the situation became public, Koller actually had to defend himself against charges that his prisoners - who included the most trou-ble-some of the Italian POWs in Utah - were being coddled.

The Fort Douglas prisoners had refused to sign parole agreements with the United States after the capitulation of Italy on Sept. 8, 1943. Those who refused to sign such agreements usually continued to support Benito Mussolini's regime and were treated as regular prisoners of war.

Koller insisted American treatment of the prisoners was "coolly cordial." Fraternization between guards and prisoners was strictly forbidden. The general opinion about prisoners was that they worked better when they were content, he said.

Ultimately 11 of the Fort Douglas prisoners were transferred to more stringent POW camps in Texas for being agitators in the strike and the rest went back to work.

Over the course of the war, prisoners were held at nine main camps in Utah and Idaho.

Camp Ogden Army Service Forces Depot Utah, which could handle 1,000 prisoners at a time, was characteristic. The camp had two separate stockades with 20- by 100-foot barracks 1,000 feet apart. A guard house stood at each of the four corners, and double graduated "hog wire" fencing was topped with a barbed wire over-hang.

In keeping with international rules, prisoners' food had to be equal in quantity and quality to that provided for U.S. servicemen. Prisoners often had their own gardens, with the produce turned over to the camp quartermaster.

Branch camps were smaller and located primarily in agricultural areas where prisoners could work on farms that were suffering from manpower shortages because of the war. Local farmers could request prison workers only if they could demonstrate a need for workers. One of the Utah jobs often relegated to prisoners was thinning sugar beets.

When a camp was set up in Logan, farmers were warned against fraternizing with their prisoner workers. "Prisoners of war are not a curiosity," military overseers said. In Provo, employers were told they must protect their German workers against "abuse of idle curiosity seekers." Workers went to the fields in groups of 10, each with a guard.

The Ogden camp provided workers for the California Packing Corp., which sold 45 percent of its product to the Army. The prisoners were put to work painting "pro-coating" on cans of fruit and vegetables to discourage rust and corrosion.

Prisoners received standard wages, but the bulk of their money was sent to the U.S. Treasury to help offset the cost of the camps. The men received 80 cents a day in canteen coupons for their own use.

Occasionally prisoners escaped, but they usually didn't go far beyond the barbed wire before turning back. A couple who left the Ogden camp and hopped a train soon gave themselves up to a Denver housewife.

The camps were provided with books, magazines and other educational materials - censored, of course - with an emphasis on items that could be used for "propaganda." Teachers tried to teach "proper German history" to help prisoners gain a better perspective of events that led to the war.

There were prison soccer teams and other athletic opportunities, and the men also had access to religious services. The pride of the Ogden camp was a 30-piece band. Aside from being away from home and under the control of the enemy, Utah war prisoners had little to complain about.