The Midnight Massacre (1945)

german-crossesOn July 8, 1945, two months to the day after the Allies declared victory in Europe, 29 German POWs were shot while peacefully residing in a prison camp in Salina, Utah.

The Shooter

Private Clarence V. Bertucci was 23 years old at the time of the shooting. Stationed at the Salina camp, Bertucci had been born and raised in New Orleans, LA. A grammar school dropout, Private Bertucci never saw combat. During his tenure with the Army, which began in 1940, Private Bertucci had been court martialed and convicted twice for minor infractions.

Described as “slight, dark-haired,” Private Bertucci had spent eight months in 1944 stationed in England. During leave from that posting, taken at the family home in New Orleans, Bertucci is said to have written, “live & let live” on a doorsill.

An unverified report holds that, at some point, Private Bertucci had told others: “Someday I will get my Germans.”

The Prisoners

From 1944 to 1945, in addition to thousands of Italian prisoners of war, Utah was home to 8,000 German POWs. In July 1945, over 200 were sent to work the harvest around Salina. Accounts vary as to whether the German soldiers had originally served in the Wehrmacht, Waffen-SS or as part of Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

Waiting repatriation back to Germany, few of the POWs were committed Nazis and nearly all were well behaved. Of the 29 wounded or killed by Bertucci, all were between the ages of 24 and 48.

The Camp

Due to limited space, POWs were housed in tents, 43 of which were scattered across the grounds at the time of the shooting.

Near Fort Douglas, the camp was an undesirable posting, and often was manned by inferior soldiers:

Guarding the prisoners was a 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. . . . 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 liked to think of themselves as heroes, their one desire being to “shoot a Kraut.”

The Shooting

Prior to taking up his post in one of the three guard towers that night, Private Bertucci had spent his evening drinking in town, and at some point, had promised a waitress that “‘something exciting’ would happen that night

Returning for his midnight guard duty, Bertucci was left alone with a regulation issue, mounted Browning .30 caliber machine gun. Waiting until those soldiers he replaced had found cover, Bertucci loaded the weapon with a 250-round ammunition belt that was kept in the tower, and began firing. Methodically sweeping the automatic weapon across the 43 tents, it took only 30 seconds for Bertucci to exhaust the belt. When his commanding officer hailed him, Bertucci is quoted as saying: “Send up more ammo! I’m not done yet!

When the smoke cleared:

Nine POWs were killed. The wounded were taken to the Salina hospital where it’s remembered that blood flowed out the front door. One prisoner, nearly cut in half, would survive six hours.

The Aftermath

Bertucci demonstrated no remorse. According to the Piqua Daily Call, the private said he had been tempted several times to “turn the tower gun on the prisoners and was ‘not at all’ sorry for what he had done.”

Desperate to sweep the matter under the rug, and “despite the absence of any real evidence of mental impairment, Clarence Bertucci was declared insane by a military panel at Busnell Army Hospital and sent to a New York mental hospital.” It is not known how long he remained institutionalized and little is known about what happened to him after his incarceration. He died in 1969.

The German dead were buried in Fort Douglas Cemetery with military honors, although no German was spoken or sung; “Taps” was played.

After the wounded recovered, they were repatriated to Germany.

In 1988, the German Air Force refurbished a memorial statute in Fort Douglas to honor “the deceased prisoners and all victims of despotic governments around the world.

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Bonus Facts:

  • About 130,000 Americans were held as prisoners of war, and another 14,000 American civilians were interred, during World War II.
  • The VA claims that 93,941 POWs were held in Europe and around the Mediterranean. Over 14,000 died while in captivity.
  • During the Battle of the Bulge in Ardennes, France (December 1944 – January 1945), 23,554 Americans were captured.
  • Nearly 14,000 American civilians and 27,000 American POWs were held by Japan. Of those forces captured in the Bataan-Corregidor combat zone, 30% died during their first year as a POW.
  • Between 1942 and 1945, nearly 400,000 Axis POWs were incarcerated in the United States. Five hundred POW camps were constructed in the South, Southwest and Midwest.
  • The Geneva Convention provides a set of guidelines for the treatment of POWs. During World War II, it prohibited forced labor, the use of prisoners as human shields and the taking of prisoners’ possessions (weapons excluded). Prison camps were to be as comfortable as the camps in which a country’s soldiers would be housed, and adequate food, clothing, medical facilities, sport and intellectual diversions were to be supplied. Not every country complied.
  • In 1942, the United States detained over 100,000 Japanese American citizens, some for nearly four years, in concentration camps.
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