Tragedy Finds Resting Place in Fort Douglas

The jagged rows of grave markers represent the muted stories of soldiers who fought in the valleys of the western United States from foxholes dug in foreign lands.

Most of those buried in the Fort Douglas Cemetery lived and fought as Americans. Tucked in opposite corners of the graveyard lie the enemy dead, prisoners of war who died far from home while interned in Utah. The story of prisoners of war at Fort Douglas begins in 1917 and reaches a disastrous climax on July 8, 1945.

Private First Class Clarence Bertucci spent that evening drinking beer at a bar in downtown Salina, Utah. Earlier he promised caf waitresses that “something exciting” would happen that night.

Just after midnight on July 9, something did.

Bertucci climbed to the top of a guard tower at the Salina prisoner-of-war camp where he served as a guard. He swung the barrel of a mounted .30 caliber machine gun toward tents housing 250 sleeping German prisoners. He pulled the trigger.

In 15 seconds of firing, Bertucci managed to hit 30 of the 43 tents. He killed six men outright and three died later at hospitals. Nineteen were wounded.

American soldiers buried their fallen enemies in somewhat military fashion. They dressed the dead in American khakis. With a ban on display of the Nazi flag and the post-war German flag still unavailable, nothing draped the caskets.

Fellow prison guards overpowered Bertucci as he reloaded. The unrepentant 23-year-old voiced a hatred for Germans when explaining his actions. Some rumors described Bertucci’s crimes as an act of vengeance following the death of a relative fighting in Europe or Japan. Members of Bertucci’s family debunked the rumor.

The closest the New Orleans native came to combat duty was in an eight-month stint with an artillery unit in England. His low rank for a soldier enlisted since 1940 hints at past problems with the Army.

Forgoing a court martial, a panel of military officials declared Bertucci insane. Hospitalized in New York for an undisclosed amount of time, he died in 1969.

Smooth, white headstones now occupy the southeast corner of the Fort Douglas Cemetery. Only the matching date of death?July 8, 1945?and German-sounding names distinguish the graves of Bertucci’s victims from the others.

The incident blemished the record of a U.S. military with hundreds of thousands of enemy soldiers interned in 45 states. It was the largest unprovoked killing of enemy prisoners by an American on record, and it happened two months after Germany’s surrender.

During World War II, the military established Utah’s prisoner-of-war camps in rural areas. The prisoners often worked in beet fields or canneries, filling the shortage of laborers caused by the war. Prisoners only reached Fort Douglas when they died. The German, Italian and Japanese names engraved on the faces of headstones marks their final resting place.

On a pedestal in the cemetery’s southwest corner crouches the stone, nude male figure. Funded by Salt Lake City’s German-American community in the 1930s, it marks the graves of German prisoners from earlier in the 21st Century.

Land-locked and removed from sensitive industrial centers, Fort Douglas served as one of America’s primary military prison camps during World War I. The fort housed more than 500 captured German sailors starting in 1917. However, only one of the 21 bodies buried at the memorial belonged to a military man.

Fort Douglas also interned nearly 800 enemy “aliens.” Most were undocumented German and Austro-Hungarian immigrants suspected of having pro-enemy sympathies, Leftist or socialist leanings, or of being involved in any activities deemed un-American. Most succumbed to disease. They are a few of several civilians buried in the cemetery.

Tragedy and controversy christened the cemetery placed at the federal outpost originally named Camp Douglas. The violence of war sometimes blurs the distinction between the righteous and the villainous. The original occupants of the cemetery accent the dichotomy of armed conflict.

The first American combatants buried in Fort Douglas died during the Battle of Bear River in 1863. Now deemed a massacre by modern standards, the clash between federal troops from Camp Douglas and members of the Shoshoni tribe resulted in heavy fatalities among American Indian women and children. With the nation distracted by a Civil War, one of the largest massacres of American Indians by U.S. troops eluded public scrutiny. The lopsided victory earned Camp Douglas’ founding commander, Edward Connor, a promotion to brigadier general. His grave now rests near the center of the cemetery.

The German dead, on the losing end of both world wars and forever associated with the Nazi regime, carry the greatest stigma.

The German soldiers killed by Bertucci ranged in age from 24 to 48. Some surrendered in their primes on the battlefields of North Africa in 1943. The oldest and most recent arrival was captured in Germany, defending a nation that already sacrificed most of its fighting men. Many considered themselves German, not Nazis. They fought for a nation, not a political party.

However, U history Professor Richard Smelser said the Germany many fought for was embodied by Adolf Hitler.

“They weren’t fighting for the Nazi Party. On the local level, the Nazi Party was venal and corrupt?Criticism of the local government was usually followed with ‘If only the Fuhrer knew, he would do something about it,'” Smelser said. Although the soldiers fought for Germany, it was still Hitler’s Germany.

With funding from the German Air Force, the memorial statue in Fort Douglas Cemetery was refurbished and rededicated in 1988. It now honors the deceased prisoners and victims of despotic governments worldwide.

The ceremony fell on the third Sunday of November. The German national day of mourning coincides roughly with the American Veteran’s Day. Both have their genesis in a moment in 1918 when the Great War ended?on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

cfroehlich@chronicle.utah.edu