It should have been a routine night at the temporary prisoner of war camp that had been set up at the end of Main Street in Salina, Utah. Two months following Germany's formal surrender on May 7, 1945, the 250 German prisoners of war who were still housed at the camp were waiting to be repatriated back to Europe. Due to the limited space available, the prisoners were kept in 43 tents scattered across the camp grounds with guards posted on towers to watch them. On July 8, 1945, Private Clarence Bertucci climbed one of the guard towers and relieved the guard there to begin his midnight shift. Bertucci then took this regulation .30-caliber machine gun, threaded in the belt of cartridges, and took aim at the tents where the prisoners were sleeping. He methodically fired 250 rounds and managed to hit thirty tents in his fifteen-second rampage. By the time a corporal managed to disarm Bertucci, six prisoners were dead and an additional twenty-two were wounded (three would later die of their injuries).
Beginning in World War I, camps in Utah were frequently used to house German nationals and prisoners of war. With the 38th Infantry located at Fort Douglas near Salt Lake City, Utah's location seemed ideal for housing German POWs following the United States' entry into World War II. Hundreds of German prisoners were held in the camps during the course of the war and often housed in tents due to the limited space available. Guarding the prisoners was not a popular duty for the soldiers stationed at the camps. Due to low morale and the general poor quality of training that the guards were provided, discipline was a continuing problem. According to one well-known history of the Utah prison camps, many of the guards were described as being "of low mentality, non-intellectual, (who) could neither understand nor see the reason for the Geneva Convention. Many drank and went AWOL. They read comic books rather than listening to news. They liked to think of themselves as heroes, their one desire being 'to shoot a Kraut'." While guards with more military experience and better training became common towards the end of the war, numerous guards with disciplinary problems still remained.
Clarence Bertucci was definitely one of them.
Born in New Orleans in 1921, Bertucci was a sixth-grade dropout who enlisted in the army in 1940. Despite his long service in the military, he seemed incapable of being promoted beyond the rank of private and was a frequent discipline problem (including facing a court-martial on two occasions). He never served overseas except for an eight-month stint with an artillery unit in England and, like many other problem cases, was eventually transferred to Fort Douglas to serve as a guard. Despite his pathological hatred of Germans, he seemed to manage his duties well enough.
According to later testimony, Bertucci had reportedly felt "cheated" due to being unable to serve in combat. He was also quoted as saying, "Someday I will get my Germans; I will get my turn." If he was upset by the news of the war's end and that the prisoners he had been guarding would soon be going home, he kept it to himself. When Bertucci went out drinking on the evening of May 7, he showed no indication of what he was planning. According to the waitresses at his favourite bar, he simply told them that "something exciting" would happen that night and then he went back to the fort to begin his shift.
After Bertucci was taken into custody, he was completely unrepentant about what he had done. As far as he was concerned, the killings were justified due to their being German. Following his placement in a local hospital for a psychiatric assessment,the military was forced to deal with the political fallout. The killing of nine prisoners by a U.S. soldier was a public relations disaster during what should have been a time of celebration. Despite the absence of any real evidence of mental impairment, Clarence Bertucci was declared insane by a military panel and sent to a New York mental hospital. There is little information available on what happened to him afterward or how long he spent in hospital. He died in 1969.
His victims, ranging in age from 24 to 48, were buried at Fort Douglas Cemetery. Dressed in U.S. military khaki uniforms, they were buried with military honours (there was no military flag on the caskets since the new German flag wasn't available). Only their common death date and and the inscription on their tombstones distinguish their graves from all the others in the military cemetery. The other injured soldiers were repatriated when they were declared medically fit for travel. Bertucci's rampage marked a sad end to the otherwise successful internment of hundreds of thousands of enemy soldiers in U.S. territory during World War II and is still remembered as the worst massacre at a POW camp in U.S. history.
In 1988, the German Air Force funded the refurbishment of the memorial statue at Fort Douglas Cemetery. A moving ceremony was held on the third Sunday in November (the German national day of mourning) and the statue was rededicated in honour of the deceased prisoners and all victims of despotic governments around the world.