World War I Years
War Prison Barracks #3
War Prison Barracks Three was constructed at Fort Douglas to house both German prisoners of war and enemy aliens living west of the Mississippi River.
The War Department announced that Fort Douglas was to be an Interne Camp on 2 May 1917. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that it was "generally understood that Fort Douglas will be used as a concentration camp where German reservists, known enemies of the government, interned sailors, and other undesirables from the Pacific coast section of the country will be held under military restraint until the war is ended."
Construction of War Prison Barracks Three began on the lower parade ground of Fort Douglas, just east of the University campus. The compound was on fifteen acres of land. It measured 922 feet by 748 feet, and consisted of four rows of twelve buildings each; the first row was private quarters for officers; the second, mess halls; the third, barracks; and the fourth, bathhouses. Each barracks was 217 feet long and 20 feet wide equipped with 50 double bunk beds with metal springs.
The compound was surrounded by two ten-foot barbed wire fences spaced twenty feet apart and the inner fence was at least 75 feet from the nearest barracks. A "dead line", beyond which the prisoners were not permitted to walk, was marked ten feet from the inner fence and the outer fence was electrified at the top. Each corner of the square compound had a guard tower; the two on the northwest and southwest corners were 35 feet tall and equipped with a searchlight, while the other two were only 15 feet tall. All four towers were equipped with water-cooled machine guns.
The first group of prisoners arrived by train in Salt Lake City on 10 June 1917. The 320 prisoners were German sailors who had been captured near Guam when their German ship, the SMS Cormoran, had been scuttled. The prisoners were transported to Fort Douglas by street car. Enemy aliens began plotting their escape almost from the very moment they arrived at the prison compound. During the three years the War Prison Barracks Three was in operation, there was constant trouble between the prison administration and the internees. Prisoners constantly caused problems by refusing to work, refusing to obey orders, throwing stones at the guards, shouting obscenities, and singing provocative and insulting songs. Scores of tunnels were discovered that had been dug by the prisoners. As the personal property of the prisoners was searched, wire cutters and other equipped used to escape was found. On several occasions prisoners attempting to get between the security fences were shot and wounded with shotguns.
Matters got so bad that punishments of bread and water rations were given to the prisoners. The Swiss Legation group was called in to mediate between the administration and the prisoners.
Perhaps the most important factor that caused the declining of tension between the prisoners and the administration was the outbreak of Spanish Influenza in the fall of 1918. A prisoner brought from California to the Fort introduced the flu into the Barracks in November and from late November until mid-December the dispensary had handled hundreds of cases of the flu. By the end of December, the epidemic began to diminish but nearly 400 prisoners had contracted the disease and fourteen had died. Many of the prisoners were fearful of being repatriated back to Germany and did not want to go so they made renewed efforts to escape the Fort. Seventeen prisoners were successful in escaping from the Fort on 14 September. Four of the prisoners were captured trying to board a train. The rest were never recaptured. The Prison War Barracks Three officially closed on 8 December 1920. Fort Douglas was not an ideal place for a prison barracks because of its nearness to a large metropolitan population and abundant rail and highway transportation which made escape not only tempting, but easier. The intermixing of prisoners of war and very antagonistic enemy aliens was another big mistake that caused numerous problems for the three years that the prison was in operation.