SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Six years ago, Scott Porter was filming his grandmother telling her life history when she reminisced about watching German prisoners of war get off the bus.
It was the 1940s. Karla Cottrell was living on her family's farm in the little northern Utah town of Lewiston. Cache County. Five thousand miles away, World War II was raging.
The thought did not escape her 10-year-old mind that these were the men trying to kill her uncles.
And now they were in Cache Valley, with orders to help with the farm work.
Scott's grandmother went on to remember how later that summer one of the Germans reached in his pocket and showed her a picture of his daughter — a little girl who looked a lot like her.
It turned out the enemy wasn't really any different than us.
The entire reflection, a snapshot in a lifetime of snapshots, took maybe two minutes, but that was more than enough time to convince Scott that somebody ought to do a movie about war prisoners being in our midst — and that somebody ought to be him.
Six years later, his documentary film, "Splinters of a Nation, German Prisoners of War in Utah," debuted this week on PBS.
The 57-minute movie focuses on a time when 371,000 captured Axis soldiers were shipped to America, winding up in hundreds of prison camps scattered among 46 states.
Among them were 8,000 Germans who made their way to Utah, reported the Deseret News (http://bit.ly/2fg9aZb).
Porter tells their story: how they climbed off trains at the defense depot in Ogden, most of them draftees still in their teens; how they were put to work building their own camps, erecting movie houses, soccer fields and other amenities to make life as pleasant as possible considering the circumstances; how they were well-fed and well-housed according to the Geneva Convention's rules for treatment of POWs; and how they assimilated into the Utah landscape, working for wages, first at military depots and later in the fields, to shore up a serious manpower shortage on account of a majority of able-bodied American men being precisely where these men came from.
Along the way, as Scott's grandmother attested, the men who wore "PW" markings on their clothes turned into flesh-and-blood human beings who developed relationships with their "captors" and, not incidentally, "saved the sugar beet crop."
Also told is the story of the largest World War II massacre on American soil, a catastrophe that occurred in Salina, Utah, in the summer of 1945 when a U.S. Army soldier on guard duty inexplicably turned his machine gun on the residents of the prison camp there, killing nine German POWs and wounding 19 others.
Sadder yet, the war was already over when it happened. The men in the camp were just waiting to be delivered back to their homeland.
The guard, who came from New Orleans, had a history of mental problems. The Army sent him to Utah to get him as far from the front as possible. Apparently distraught at not being in the action, he waged his own war. The men he killed had spent the day in the fields, helping Salina farmers, several of whom appear in the documentary, delivering their accounts of that fateful day. (The guard was judged insane and spent the rest of his days in mental hospitals; the remains of the dead soldiers are interred in the Fort Douglas Cemetery in Salt Lake).
The rest of the thousands of German soldiers made their way safely out of Utah, sent back where they came from.
Scott was able to find a handful of these former Utah POWs still alive in Germany. They're in their 80s and 90s now. Three of them, Kurt Schnepper, Paul Bartsch and Josef Berghoff, spent their war years living together in Ogden. In their on-air interviews, they speak of their time in Utah as something akin to the good old days. Things didn't get really rough until they left — when they returned to a Germany in ruins. They ran to find their homes, and their homes were no longer there.
"We don't tend to think much about what it was like for the people who lost the war," says Scott. Nor, for that matter, do we tend to think much about what it was like when war prisoners once lived side-by-side with Utahns.
In "Splinters of a Nation" he opens the door to that mostly forgotten era — and the "life-changing" human exchanges that were the result.
Information from: Deseret News, http://www.deseretnews.com
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This article was written by Lee Benson from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.