For two former German prisoners of war, memories of their confinement in a Utah POW camp haven't dimmed much in 43 years.
"It was like lightning from heaven," recalled Karl Altkruger as he reflected back 43 years to the night of July 8, 1945. "There was simply no reason for the shooting."Altkruger has reason to remember that night in Salina. He still walks with a cane, a daily reminder of the wounds he received during a 15-second burst of machine gun fire that sprayed 250 rounds into the tents of sleeping German prisoners shortly after midnight.
Nine German prisoners died and 19 others were wounded during the shooting, which occurred nearly two months after the end of World War II in Europe. While the war with Japan still raged in the Pacific, the war with Germany was supposedly over.
Altkruger and Herbert Barkhoff, another former POW, returned to Utah this week with their wives and Wednesday toured the Salina prison camp site where they were wounded. Their visit was part of a living history tour sponsored by the Utah Historical Society. The two former prisoners will participate Sunday in the rededication of a memorial monument at the Fort Douglas cemetery where the nine dead prisoners are buried.
Memories remain bittersweet. Altkruger said his memories of Utah are not good because of the suffering caused by his wounds. But, he reflects, there were others more seriously wounded and there were nine who did not make the trip home.
Barkhoff recalls, "Even during that night of horror, when I looked up and saw Bertucci's (the American guard who fired the gun) face frozen in the searchlight of the tower, I did not experience any anger or resentment against him. To this day I have continued to hope that the Lord would give him strength to carry his burden.
"I was a soldier, and I learned that especially in a war situation, one winds up at a point where `hosanna' and `crucify him' are no longer two terms, but become one. Right and wrong are not that clear."
Why Pvt. Clarence V. Bertucci climbed to the guard tower and opened fire that night remains unclear. An investigating teamdeclared him insane and he was sent to a New York asylum. He died in 1969.
Livestock pens and a small rodeo arena crowd against the hillside east of the town. The ground is hard and barren. There are no tents, there are no guard towers, no fence. To the uninitiated, it is a typical rural Western scene.
For Barkhoff and Altkruger it is different; a mental trip through time. The camp quickly unfolds before their eyes, they see the guard towers, the rows of tents and the wooden kitchen and mess hall. While tour group members struggle with maps for bearings, Altkruger and Barkhoff survey the site with knowing glances. To the northwest they see the guard tower, the source of the deadly fire. Altkruger stands with hands clasped behind his back, the ever-present cane a reminder of the shooting. He is content to survey the site from the crest of a small incline.
Barkhoff moves between small clusters of tour group members and townspeople who have also gathered at the site. He points to the maps and then gestures excitedly. After a few minutes he walks away from the group. A handful of people follow. He picks up a chunk of broken concrete and surveys the land. He moves cautiously and places the rock on the ground. He looks around and then retrieves the rock and moves slightly to the east. He bends and places the rock carefully then straightens again. Through an interpreter, the small group learns that the rock marks the spot where he and Altkruger shared a tent with other prisoners.
Later, the former prisoners visit area cemeteries to place flowers on the graves of the nurse and doctor who first treated their wounds and on the grave of the man who was responsible for overseeing their work assignments with area farmers. A trip is also to be taken to the hospital. But Wednesday's healing was far removed from the hospital. Instead, it was found in the dirt and dust of the former camp site and the cemeteries. Those who were there in 1945 gathered with the visitors, reminisced, shook hands and hugged. Old memories of broken and bloodied bodies were replaced with new pictures, pictures of friends gathered to bury the tragedy of the past.
"After 43 years, allow us to thank all of those who stood by us, took care of our wounds and pain _ thank you from the bottom of our hearts," Barkhoff said. "Let us now join together and fight for peace. May the symbols of Utah along with the Stars and Stripes stand together over the land of the free."