It is almost forgotten history that during World War II 425,871 prisoners of war were brought to the United States and housed in 686 camps throughout the nation.
One of those POW camps was in Salina. This site had previously been a Civilian Conservation Corps camp which was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program during the Great Depression. The CCC program was cancelled with the onset of World War II and the facility was used to hold German prisoners of war. Unlike most POW camps located in isolated areas in the United States, Camp Salina was located right in town on the east end of Main Street.
The Salina POW camp was used to house 250 German soldiers captured while serving under Erwin Rommel’s Afrikorps in North Africa. They were paid a small sum to work in the local farm fields. It was common to give them passes to visit stores and shops in town. They were friendly with the local people and considered low risk for escape.
At midnight on July 8, 1945, Army Private Clarence Bertucci climbed to the camp guard tower to begin his night shift. A few minutes later he loaded 250 rounds of ammunition into a .30 caliber M1917 Browning machine gun and began firing into tents with sleeping German soldiers.
It took about 15 seconds to empty the machine into 30 of the 43 tents. American officers rushed the tower and Private Bertucci surrendered peacefully. Nine German soldiers died and 20 were injured. It was the worst POW camp Massacre in U.S. History. Bertucci’s only explanation was that “he hated Germans, so he had to kill Germans.”
The victims were buried with full military honors at the Fort Douglas Cemetery on July 12. Their caskets did not have a flag because the Nazi flag had been banned; however, two flower wreaths adorned each casket. Fifteen members from the Salina POW Camp attended the memorial service.
A choir from the Ogden POW Camp sang “Song from the Monk”, Good Comrade”, and Down in the Valley.” At the time of the massacre Germany had surrendered and the wounded Germans were sent back to Germany as soon as they were healthy. A military court found Bertucci to be insane and he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital in New York until his death in December of 1969.
In 2016 a museum was opened in Camp Salina that commemorates the CCC and POW camps and the historical event that occurred in the small town of Salina. The museum has numerous artifacts and recreations of the barracks and guard tower. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. A unique and interesting piece of Utah history. (Helmick is a Serve Daily contributor.)