In the first hour of July 8, 1945, six-year-old Rodney Rasmussen was startled awake in his bed in Salina, Utah, by the unmistakable rhythm of machine gun fire a mere 300 feet away. He dressed and hustled to the front porch in time to see the flash of the .30-caliber Browning in the guard tower across the street still raining bullets into the compound where 250 German prisoners of war had been peacefully sleeping in neat rows of canvas tents.
Salina, a town of 2,600 people tucked between the Pahvant and Wasatch Mountains, where the dirt gradually brightens from beige to the signature burnt orange of southern Utah, seems an unlikely location for the largest mass murder of German prisoners on U.S. soil during World War II. The biggest hazards I encounter on my visit are the Tootsie Rolls still clinging to the sidewalks two weeks after a classic small-town, candy-tossing Fourth of July parade.
The darkest moment of Salina’s history would still be largely forgotten were it not for the homegrown effort that launched the CCC & POW Camp Salina museum in 2016. I step inside the camp’s slightly renovated and relocated command post to meet Rasmussen, now 83, who still lives in his childhood home and caretakes the museum, which also includes a restored guard barracks and the original motor pool garage. Rasmussen extinguishes the loud fans battling the dry morning heat to walk me through Salina’s past.
In 1863, 28 Mormon families moved south from Salt Lake City to settle the north Sevier River valley. Salt, or “sal” in Spanish, became Salina’s namesake industry, later to be supplanted by farming and coal mining. The command post’s exhibits tell how in 1933 the Civilian Conservation Corps—President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s effort to employ young men slighted by the Great Depression while also advancing public works—set up a camp here on the eastern end of Salina, where Main Street disappears into dusty shrub-speckled foothills. With the U.S. entry in World War II, the CCC dissolved and most of the Salina camp buildings were dismantled and moved 80 miles northwest to Delta, Utah, for use in the Topaz War Relocation Center, one of 10 camps in the western U.S. interior where Japanese Americans would be detained for fear of their possible sympathy toward Japan.
In 1943, the United States began to host prisoners of war captured in Europe and North Africa and launched construction of a vast network of camps—primarily in rural inland areas—to house them. The army opened a large camp in Ogden, Utah, with nine small branch camps strategically located throughout the state to ease war-caused non-military labor shortages. The remains of Salina’s CCC camp became Branch Camp No. 4. Although Germany would surrender in May 1945, it would take the United States more than a year to return the nearly 400,000 German and Italian prisoners in its care to war-ravaged Europe. Meanwhile, on June 7, 1945, 250 German prisoners previously held in Arizona arrived in Salina to work on the many local farms that were producing sugar beets in a labor-intensive effort to thwart the national sugar shortage. Six days a week, trucks hauled the men in small groups to fields where they thinned and harvested beets for 5 to 10 cents per day.
Rasmussen opens the doors to the restored guard barracks to reveal an intricate scale model of the camp. Forty-three tents on wooden platforms surrounded a latrine, a kitchen where prisoners prepared meals, and a mess hall. Two layers of wire fencing enclosed the compound, with a wooden guard tower rising over each corner, save the southeast, where a natural hill provided the foundation for a small guardhouse.
I cross the road and scramble up that hill to project the museum’s model across the few acres that once housed the camp. Today, it is half-rodeo arena for the Salina Riding Club, half empty asphalt parking lot. The only surviving camp structure still in place is the unrecognizable mess hall. Years ago, the Riding Club tacked corrugated tin over the hall’s lath and tar paper siding and used it as their office building.
Back in the pine-sided motor pool garage, which still houses original tools soldiers used to maintain the few vehicles assigned to the camp, a plaque tells me the museum was largely the vision of the late Dee Olsen, who was a teenager when prisoners came to work on his family farm seven miles up the road in Axtell. “His sister and mother would make chicken lunches for the prisoners,” says Olsen’s daughter, Tami Beach.
Prompted by Salina’s mayor, in 2014 Olsen, a retired engineer, recruited Beach and a few others to help raise funds and restore the salvageable buildings into a museum. Locals pitched in a variety of remnants now on display, from a box of original tent pegs to a slightly tattered prisoner uniform to a jewelry box one prisoner crafted from matchsticks and toothpicks and gifted to a farming family for whom he worked.
U.S. soldiers assigned to Branch Camp No. 4 had the monotonous duty of guarding compliant prisoners in the quiet fields and tents. Private Clarence V. Bertucci, a short and slight 23-year-old from New Orleans, loathed the job. In his five years of army service, he had seen no combat and had twice faced courts-martial on charges of neglecting his duties. The few locals who knew Bertucci would later report his desire to “get his Germans someday.”
On Saturday night, July 7, Bertucci had coffee at Salina’s Mom’s Cafe, mentioned to a waitress that something exciting was about to happen, then walked the seven blocks to camp. After downing a cup or two in the still thriving sandy-bricked café myself, I do the same. In a single block, the awninged stucco-and-glass storefronts of downtown give way to tidy single-story residences. A teenage boy watering hanging pots of petunias smiles at me, and I wonder whether anyone that fateful night noticed Bertucci ascending the gradual grade of Main Street.
At midnight, Bertucci checked in for his shift and climbed the southwestern guard tower. He removed a 250-round cartridge belt from storage, loaded the machine gun, and emptied it in a barrage that hit 30 of the tents and briefly enveloped the camp in dust.
“We came out on the front porch and we could hear the cries of the prisoners,” Rasmussen recalls. As I stand in the spot where Bertucci committed his crime, the only sounds are cattle lowing from the Riding Club’s stock pens and the faint buzz of dirt bikes climbing the trails that weave through the rust-colored hills rising to the east.
Startled fellow soldiers bounded up the tower and subdued Bertucci just as he was reaching for more ammunition. Six prisoners were dead in their bunks. The 22 wounded were staged on mattresses on the green lawns of neighboring homes, then trucked 12 blocks west to the city’s 14-bed hospital. The ruckus drew nearly the whole town out of bed hours before the rising sun would reveal the trail of blood down Main Street.
While the most severely wounded were squeezed inside the hospital, Salina’s lone doctor and a pair of nurses valiantly treated the others on the lawn that today is an empty gravel lot destined to be the home of Salina’s new city hall. Most of the victims were transferred to military hospitals the next day for advanced care or recovery. Three of the wounded would die, bringing Bertucci’s death toll to nine.
On July 9, the front pages of Utah’s largest newspapers told the gruesome story of the guard gone mad who had made a mockery of the safe conduct promised to prisoners from a nation that had surrendered two months earlier. Bertucci showed no remorse and revealed no motive for his crime beyond his deep disdain for Germans. Army doctors declared him mentally unstable. He was discharged and confined to Mason General Hospital, a U.S. Army psychiatric facility in New York. He would spend much of the rest of his life in mental health facilities.
Fifteen Salina prisoners served as pallbearers when the dead were laid to rest in unmarked khaki American uniforms at Salt Lake City’s Fort Douglas Cemetery. A choir of prisoners from the nearby Ogden camp sang German hymns.
With the Allies slowly repatriating prisoners and the fall beet harvest complete, the Salina camp was empty by December 1945. It would house other farm laborers for a few years before lower-maintenance corn and alfalfa crops replaced sugar beets and the buildings were left mostly to the whims of nature. Soon this short chapter of Salina’s story was covered in the Utah dust, waiting to be unearthed decades later.