Kaysville man doing documentary on Utah German POWs

May 3 2014 - 7:46pm

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Scott Porter (second from right) poses for a photograph with former German soldiers who were held in a prisoner of war camp in Ogden. The Kaysville man is producing a documentary about POWs in Utah during World War II. STEFANIE REINELT
Scott Porter (second from right) poses for a photograph with former German soldiers who were held in a prisoner of war camp in Ogden. The Kaysville man is producing a documentary about POWs in Utah during World War II. STEFANIE REINELT

Scott Porter knows the clock is ticking on his very first full-length film.

Two years ago, when the 30-year-old Kaysville man hit on the idea to produce a documentary about German prisoners of war held in Utah during World War II, all the experts said it couldn't be done.

"Well, you're about 10 years too late," scholars told him. "It's just not going to happen."

The problem? It's becoming increasingly difficult to find survivors from that era 70 years ago. The youngest WWII veterans are already in their 80s and 90s, and they're dying at a rate of 555 a day (down from a high of 1,115 a day back in 2001), according to Veterans Administration estimates. It is believed that most or all participants in that war will be gone by 2020.

Undeterred, Porter began researching the topic. If all goes as planned, sometime next year -- the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II -- his documentary "Splinters of a Nation" will run on public television. Porter also hopes to do some free community screenings in Ogden, Salt Lake City and elsewhere. 

Finding eyewitnesses to the subject wasn't easy, but Porter did manage to track down four Germans who had been held at the POW camp in Ogden. Last year, he traveled to Germany and interviewed these aging men. He's now looking for a little help with his documentary, and believes folks in the Ogden area can provide it. Porter is looking for anyone with personal recollections, photographs, 8mm film or other information and artifacts relating to prisoners of war held in Utah.

'The enemy'

Indeed, it was one such personal recollection that started this documentary journey for the budding filmmaker.

Two years ago, Porter -- a video producer for USANA Health Services in West Valley City -- was documenting his grandmother's life for a family history project when she shared something he'd never heard before.

"She told this little five-minute story about how, in 1945, these busloads of German prisoners of war would come to her family's farm (in Lewiston, Idaho), almost every day, and would work on the farm there," Porter said.

She also explained how, as a 10-year-old child, she didn't like these men.

"These were the enemy, these were the guys who were fighting her uncles overseas, so she hated them," Porter said.

However, over the course of the summer, his grandmother realized that these prisoners were human beings, with families just like hers.

"She remembers this experience of learning that they had kids her age," Porter said. "They would show her photos; they would show her pictures of their little girls, back home, that were her age."

At this point, Porter was taken aback.

"I stopped her," he recalls. "I said, 'Holy cow! I've never heard this before. We had German prisoners of war in Utah? And on your farm?' This was shocking to me."

Filling the void

Porter became intrigued and began to research the subject. He came across Taylorsville author Kent Powell's 1991 book, "Splinters of a Nation: German Prisoners of War in Utah," and after a little poking around realized there had never been a documentary film done on prisoners of war in America.

Porter intends to fill that void -- at least here in Utah.

"I'm telling the story of Utah, but this will be the first of any such documentary in the nation," he said. "I could not believe there'd never been a film on it. Nearly half a million German prisoners of war in America -- held in 46 of the 48 states -- and it had never been done."

Here in Utah, there were more than 8,000 prisoners of war held, in at least 12 camps scattered from Logan to Salina. The Ogden camp, in the former Defense Depot Ogden, was the largest in the state.

"I quickly learned that my grandmother's story, although incredible, was not unique," Porter said. "There were prisoners all over the state."

Porter's documentary borrows its title from the Kent Powell book. Powell says he's only too happy to share that name with Porter.

"He came across my book, read it and, as I understand, that's what made him decide to push ahead and make a documentary," Powell said. "I think it's a great subject, and I think Scott will do a great job with it."

'Splinters'

The term "splinters of a nation" comes from one of the prisoners at the Ogden POW camp. According to Powell, the prisoners at most of the larger camps were allowed to publish a camp newsletter in German. The newsletter at the Ogden camp was called "Unser Leben" -- "Our Life."

"As I read through that newsletter, I came across the account of one of the prisoners of war, talking about his experience," Powell said. "And that was the way he described it -- that they were like splinters of a nation that had been blown all over the world. And so that seemed to me to be a good title for the book."

Powell's interest in the subject began when he was in Germany, serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"I got interested in the German prisoners of war through tracting on the doors there," he said. "Every once in a while someone would say, 'I was a prisoner of war there in Utah.' "

Back in the 1980s, Powell was able to interview some 30 former prisoners of war for his book. None of those subjects is alive today.

"If Scott had done this back when he was 2 years old -- when I wrote my book -- there would have been a lot more people to interview," Powell quipped.

Powell is supportive of Porter's documentary, and believes it's a story worth telling.

"Even if there were none left (to interview), it would still be a worthwhile project," he said.

Although Powell's "Splinters of a Nation" is no longer in print, both he and Porter have spoken with the University of Utah Press about the possibility of reprinting it and making it available when the documentary comes out next year.

"Hopefully that will happen," Powell said.

In all the research he's done, Porter says the vast majority of German prisoners of war had positive experiences in America.

"This was paradise, in many ways, for them," he said. "The Germans I interviewed were 16-, 17-, 18-year-old boys captured at Normandy, and having the opportunity to escape the horrific things happening at Normandy was a dream-come-true for many of these soldiers."

Porter said one of the prisoners he interviewed said he fired one shot in the direction of a muzzle flash, fell asleep in a foxhole, and was awakened by his captors.

"That was his entire experience in World War II," Porter says. "The next thing he knew, he was here in Ogden."

And Powell believes the very positive treatment the prisoners received in America was "an important part of the reason Germany has been such a strong ally of the United States since the end of the war."

Salina shooting

Porter says the documentary's climax revolves around a tragic event that took place at the POW camp in Salina. In July 1945, two months after the war in Europe ended, a prison guard from New Orleans climbed to the top of a guard tower in the middle of the night and used a newly installed .30 caliber machine gun to open fire on 250 prisoners sleeping below. Nine men died -- they're buried at Fort Douglas -- and 19 were wounded; many of the wounded were transferred to the Ogden camp for treatment.

"I think it was intentional," Powell said of the shooter, who was subsequently institutionalized. "It was pretty much premeditated. He told people that he wanted to go to Germany; he wanted to kill Germans."

Porter says the incident shows both the worst and the best of human nature.

"You have the worst, with this American guard who brings shame to the entire nation by murdering these German prisoners -- the worst massacre of its kind in the entire nation during World War II," Porter explained. "And you have the best, with these local townspeople who were trying to saves the lives of their enemies. It's a great climax for the film. You learn to understand your enemies. You see the beauty of people helping each other."

How to help

For those who may have stories, images, 8mm film or other artifacts from one of the Utah prisoner of war camps, Porter invites them to contact him through his website, splintersofanation.com; on Facebook at www.facebook.com/splintersofanation; or at 801-317-8076.

Porter says it's interesting that the George E. Wahlen Ogden Veterans Home is built on land where the prisoner of war camp was located.

"Ironically, the area by the nursing center is still federally owned land, and that's where the camp was," he said. "We may even get some calls from that very piece of land where the prisoners were held."

And Porter knows the clock continues to tick. He says he's looking to do interviews in the Ogden area in May and June.

"We need to finish up these interviews -- before these people pass on, quite frankly, and while they're in good health," he said. "A lot of these folks are in their late 80s and early 90s, and you never know if they're going to be able to tell their stories."

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.

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