War Crime? Utah Camp Guard Opened Fire on German POWs After War was Over

 
 
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Prisoners of war come part and parcel with the human institution of warfare.  If an enemy combatant surrenders, he (or she) is to be accorded a certain amount of civility, courtesy of the Geneva Convention.  Before this, it was considered to be smart political conduct, as foreknowledge that surrender shortly brought death thereafter meant there would be absolutely no surrender.

Both of these reasons were why the murder of German prisoners after the completion of the second world war will be remembered in a new museum at Salina, Utah.

At its height, the United States prisoner of war camps acted as the temporary home for nearly 426,000 German and Italian soldiers.  In Utah alone, the Naval Supply Depot in Clearfield, Hill Field in Layton, Tooele, Utah Army Service Forces Depot in Ogden, the Deseret Chemical Warfare Depot, Bushnell General Hospital in Brigham, Dugway Proving Grounds, Logan, Orem, Tremonton, and Salina were all used as the prisoner of war camps.

Camp Swift entrance during World War II
Camp Swift entrance during World War II

Any prisoners deemed to be potentially subversive were otherwise sent to Fort Douglas.

Fort Douglas Reserve Center, Soldier’s Circle. By Mangoman88 CC0
Fort Douglas Reserve Center, Soldier’s Circle. By Mangoman88 CC0

Dee Olsen and his daughter are busy restoring three remaining buildings from the prisoner of war camp, and soon the story of the massacre will be heard at the museum.  Salina was the site of one of many camps across the United States that had held prisoners both during and after the war prior to being sent home.

Prisoners would frequently work as free day workers for local farming families like Dee Olsen’s.  While the older German prisoners kept to themselves, the younger prisoners whose English was better would often become quite social.

Chimney and water tower remaining at site of Camp Atlanta a German prisoner of war camp.
Chimney and water tower remaining at site of Camp Atlanta a German prisoner of war camp.

It was mid summer in 1945 when Clarence Bertucci, Army Private First Class, was busy flirting with a girl at a local city café when he dropped an ominous hint about something he was planning on doing later on that night.  When he got back to the camp, he hauled a .30-caliber machine gun up to the top of a tower to start his regular guard duty and started gunning down German prisoners of war while they slept in their tents.

He fired off 250 rounds in 15 seconds and hit 30 of the 43 tents in the camp. Other soldiers raced to stop the slaughter, but in the end, nine prisoners lay dead, and many more were left wounded.  The only justification Bertucci gave was that he hated the Germans, and therefore, he had to kill them.

The camp was closed, and the dead were interred at the military ceremony at Fort Douglas.  A military court discerned that Bertucci was clinically insane at the time of the shooting, and he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital until he died in December of 1969.

A US soldier takes aim with a tripod-mounted M1919A4 Machine gun in Korea, 1953
A US soldier takes aim with a tripod-mounted M1919A4 Machine gun in Korea, 1953

Germany had already surrendered at the time of Bertucci’s rampage, and the surviving POWs were transported back to Germany when they had sufficiently recovered enough to travel securely.  The massacre at Utah soon disappeared from the headlines when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Japan.

Many of Olsen’s friends in the community did not support the project.  They did not want to turn the camp into a place of remembrance, while another friend thought the project was ridiculous and that the building should have been destroyed.

Mushroom cloud over Hiroshima (left)  Atomic Cloud Rises Over Nagasaki (right)
Mushroom cloud over Hiroshima (left)  Atomic Cloud Rises Over Nagasaki (right)

Read another story from us: No Cotton Candy and Pony Rides – WWII POWs Housed in U.S. Fairgrounds

Olsen’s daughter, Tami Olsen-Clark disagrees and is in support of the project.  According to Olsen-Clark, these were young men who were captured doing what their country asked of them, and it’s of the utmost importance that we remember the lessons of history, even when it’s unpleasant.

The grand opening of the museum will also honor a Civilian Conservation Corps camp located at the same site.

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