Just after midnight on the morning of June 13, 1942, twenty-one-year-old coastguardsman John Cullen was beginning his foot patrol along the coast of Long Island, New York. Although this particular stretch of beach was considered a likely target for enemy landing parties, the young Seaman was the sole line of defense on that foggy night; and his only weapon, a trusty flashlight, was proving ineffective against the smothering haze. As Cullen approached a dune on the beach, the shape of a man suddenly appeared before him. Momentarily startled, he called out for the shape to identify itself.
"We’re fishermen from Southampton," a voice responded. A middle-aged man emerged from the soupy fog, and continued, "We’ve run ashore." This sounded plausible to Cullen, so he invited the fisherman and his crew to stay the night at the nearby Coast Guard station. The offer appeared to agitate the man, and he refused. “We don’t have a fishing license,” he explained.
Just as Cullen's suspicions began to grow, a second figure appeared over the dune and shouted something in German. The man in front of Cullen spun around, yelling, “You damn fool! Go back to the others!” Then he turned back to Cullen with an intensity in his expression that left the Seaman paralyzed—for he was now almost certain that he was alone on the beach with a party of Nazi spies.
The German agent stood close, and hissed, "Do you have a mother? A father?" As Cullen nodded, he continued, "Well, I wouldn’t want to have to kill you." He held out a wad of cash. "Forget about this, take this money, and go have a good time." Cullen, realizing this might be his only chance to walk away alive, decided to accept. As he reached for the roll of bills, the man suddenly lunged forward and seized Cullen’s flashlight. He then pointed the light toward his own face. “Do you know me?” he asked.
“No sir, I never saw you before in my life.”
“My name is George John Davis. Take a good look at me. You’ll be meeting me in East Hampton sometime.” With that, he released his grip on the flashlight and the money, and disappeared back into the fog. The shocked coastguardsman took a few hesitant paces backward, then whirled around and set off at a run for the Coast Guard station to inform his superiors that their fears had been realized.
Cullen’s suspicion was correct, but the man he’d confronted was no hardened military commander. His real name was George John Dasch, a waiter and dishwasher who’d come to the attention of the German High Command for the time he’d spent living in America before the war. He and a team of three similarly inexperienced agents had been given several weeks of intense training at a secret farm near Berlin before being ushered onto a U-boat bound for the US coast. Their mission, led by Dasch, was to sabotage America’s manufacturing and transport sector, and to terrorize the country’s civilian population. It would be known as Operation Pastorius.
The evening's events had already damaged Dasch’s tenuous hold on the group. Unbeknownst to Seaman John Cullen, two armed sailors had been crouched in the darkness during the conversation on the beach, awaiting the signal to attack. The landing party had been left with standing orders to kill anyone who confronted them during the landing. But Dasch had chosen to let the man go, and his assurances that he had “buffaloed” the coastguardsman did not convince his men. After some nervous arguing back and forth, the saboteurs finished burying their supplies in the sand, and set out for the nearby Long Island Railroad Station.
In the meantime, John Cullen reached the Coast Guard post and breathlessly recited what he’d seen, handing over the bribe money as evidence. Though skeptical, and concerned about raising a false alarm, his superiors agreed to send out an armed patrol to investigate. They were led back to the site by Cullen, where any doubts were quickly dispelled; in the pre-dawn light, the men could see the outline of a German submarine dislodging itself from a sandbar just offshore. Once it had gone, a quick search of the area revealed a series of small crates buried under a shallow layer of sand. Inside were large quantities of explosives, detonation equipment, Nazi uniforms, and quality German liquor.
Once the news reached FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover around noon, his excitement could hardly be contained. As Attorney General Francis Biddle later recalled, “All of Edgar Hoover’s imaginative and restless energy was stirred into prompt and effective action. He was determined to catch them all before any sabotage took place.”
Here at last was a chance for Hoover to prove his organization’s value to the war effort. But the situation was delicate; making the story public would put every American citizen on the lookout for the Germans, but it would also alert the suspects to the hunt and might cause public hysteria—not to mention considerable embarrassment for Hoover and his Bureau if the search should fail. It was therefore decided that a media blackout be imposed. Quietly, with only the most professional degree of panic, the FBI began the largest manhunt in its history.
By this time, the four would-be terrorists were settled in New York City, preparing for their task from the comfort of fancy hotels and fine restaurants. They had $84,000 in mission funds to enjoy—equivalent to over $1 million today—and in the great melting pot of New York City their German accents raised nary an eyebrow. They remained completely unaware that their essential supplies had already been confiscated and that the entire might of the FBI was secretly on the lookout for them.
But George John Dasch, the group’s daring leader, had a secret of his own. The day after the landing he called Ernst Peter Burger, the most guarded and disciplined member of the team, into the upper-storey hotel room the two men shared. He walked over to the window and opened it wide.
“You and I are going to have a talk,” Dasch said, “And if we disagree, only one of us will walk out that door—the other will fly out this window.”
He then revealed the truth to Burger: he had no intention of going through with the mission. He hated the Nazis, and he wanted Burger on his side when he turned the entire plot over to the FBI. Burger smiled. Having spent seventeen months in a Nazi concentration camp, his own feelings for the party were less than warm. He, too had been planning to betray the mission. They were agreed.
The two men were uncertain how best to proceed with their plan. They were reluctant to contact the authorities, having been told by their handlers that the Nazis had infiltrated the FBI. Eventually, Dasch concluded that their best option was an anonymous phone call to test the waters and arrange for further contact. He called the FBI’s New York Field Office, and after several transfers was put in touch with a special agent. Identifying himself as “Pastorius,” the name of the mission, Dasch carefully recited his story. Then, ominously, the man on the other end of the line hung up. Dasch was stricken with panic. Had he just exposed himself to a Nazi spy? Had the call been traced?
In fact, he had been speaking to the office’s “nut desk,” the post responsible for fielding calls from Cleopatra and the wolf-man. In the midst of the most important case in the Bureau’s history, the agent on duty had dismissed their only lead as a prank.
Shaken but not discouraged, Dasch ordered Burger to stay put and keep an eye on the other men while he headed for Washington D.C. to set things straight. The morning of June 19, a week after his landing at Long Island, Dasch stepped into the FBI’s headquarters carrying a briefcase. He explained who he was and asked to speak with Director Hoover.
The agents in the building, however, were too busy catching spies to be bothered with every crackpot off the street who happened to know classified details about secret Nazi landings. Dasch was bounced from office to office until finally Assistant Director D.M. Ladd, the agent in charge of the manhunt, agreed to humor him with five minutes of his time. Dasch angrily repeated his story, only to find himself greeted once again with patronizing nods and glances toward the door. Fed up at last, he lifted the briefcase he had been carrying, tore open its straps, and dumped the entire $84,000 of mission funds onto the Assistant Director’s desk. Ladd blinked with astonishment and began to reconsider Dasch’s claims.
For the next week, Dasch was the subject of an intense interrogation, and he happily revealed all he knew. His operation, he explained, was just the first of a long series of sabotage missions planned by the Germans to cripple the American war effort. They were scheduled to land every six weeks, with the second team expected imminently. Dasch exposed the targets he had been instructed to hit as well as the methods he had been trained to use. He revealed key information about German war production, plans, and equipment. He turned over a handkerchief upon which the names of local contacts had been written in invisible ink—although Dasch, who had snoozed his way through spy school, couldn’t remember how to reveal it. Most important of all, Dasch disclosed the locations of his three accomplices and their aliases, taking care to note Burger’s role in the defection.
The three men who had landed with Dasch were quickly located using the information he’d supplied. Dasch knew little about the second four-man team, but with the help of his handkerchief contacts—which the FBI’s lab quickly discovered could be revealed by ammonia fumes—they were soon tracked down and arrested. Just two weeks after the first landing, and without a single attempt at sabotage, all eight men were in custody.
Hoover broke the media blackout on the evening of June 27. Across the nation, American citizens were astonished to wake up to front-page headlines declaring “U-BOATS LAND SPIES; EIGHT SIEZED BY FBI.” But it wasn’t the story known to those on the inside. Hoover reasoned that letting the truth be known now would do nothing to discourage the Germans from making further sabotage attempts. It was better to perpetuate the myth of an invincible FBI that had halted the plot through its own ingenuity and all-seeing eye—a story that also happened to fit nicely into Hoover’s personal agenda.
At his press conference, Hoover therefore made no mention of the defection of Dasch, or indeed of any details on how the case was broken. He opted instead to praise the brilliance and efficiency of his FBI. “The detective work of the century,” Hoover called it, referring perhaps to agent Ladd’s astute observation of $84,000 cash bouncing off of his forehead. Further details, he explained, would have to wait until after the war. The unsatisfied press room erupted with speculations about elite FBI agents infiltrating the Gestapo and the High Command. Hoover refused to confirm any such wild theories, but his triple-eyebrow raises, exaggerated winks, and menacing cackles encouraged the reporters to adopt their own conclusions.
With the last of his accomplices rounded up, it was time at last for Dasch to get his due. On July 3, his contacts at the FBI greeted him with smiles and handcuffs, and tossed him into a cell alongside his men. It was not the response Dasch had been expecting, but the arresting agents assured him it was little more than a formality. If he just went along with it, he was told, J. Edgar Hoover would ensure that he received a presidential pardon within 6 months.
Hoover had indeed already spoken to President Roosevelt about the arrest, but his conversation had nothing to do with advocating Dasch’s release. The president was given an account similar to the one furnished to the press, with no mention of Dasch or Burger’s role in the investigation. According to Hoover, Dasch had been “apprehended” two days after his accomplices; and the arrest had been made in New York, not Washington, implying that the arrest of the subordinates had led to the capture of their leader rather than the other way around. Hoover’s revisions to the story may have had something to do with the river of letters and telegrams later received by the president urging him to award the FBI Director with the Congressional Medal of Honor. As it turned out, the majority of these messages came from the FBI’s own Crime Records Division, the office just a few doors down from Hoover's. The campaign, however, was unsuccessful.
Whether Operation Pastorius’s slapdash team of blue-collar workers and government pencil-pushers ever posed much of a threat is somewhat debatable. At the time of their capture, most of the saboteurs were too busy visiting gambling establishments and prostitutes to be planning any major acts of sabotage. Several were reuniting with family they’d left behind in America, while another had met up with an old girlfriend and was in the process of planning his wedding. The German High Command had perhaps misjudged the wisdom of sending naturalized citizens to attack their own adopted country. Nevertheless, the only concern of the US government was in reassuring its citizens and sending a powerful message to the Nazis. Since the men hadn’t actually committed any crime, a normal court could sentence them to at most a few years in prison—or even acquit them entirely. To President Roosevelt, this was unacceptable. In a memorandum sent to Attorney General Biddle, he wrote: “Surely they are as guilty as it is possible to be and it seems to me that the death penalty is almost obligatory.” A military tribunal, he felt, was the only way to ensure this outcome. “I won’t give them up,” he told Biddle, “I won’t hand them over to any United States marshal armed with a writ of habeas corpus.”
He would find no objections among the American populace. As shown in polls and editorials across the country, the general public was overwhelmingly in favor of execution for all eight terrorists. A letter printed in one newspaper called for the men to be fed to Gargantua, the Ringling Brothers’ famous giant circus gorilla.
Within a month of the initial landing at Long Island, the eight saboteurs were put before a closed-door US military tribunal—the first to be assembled since the days of the Civil War. It was presided over by a panel of seven generals; there would be no jury, no press, and no appeal. During the trial, none of the defendants denied their involvement with the plot, instead claiming that they were forced into the mission by the Nazis, or that they had joined as a means to escape from Germany. Due to his unique circumstances, Dasch was defended separately. His counsel argued competently in his favor, noting that the case would never have been broken without him, that the FBI had promised him his freedom, and that he clearly had been planning to betray the mission from the start. Not only had he disobeyed orders by sparing coastguardsman Cullen, he had also deliberately revealed his face and assigned name—George John Davis—to the man.
After 16 days in session and two rejected constitutional appeals from the defense, both sides had said their piece. A verdict was signed and sent directly to the president, who was to be the final arbiter of the sentencing. It was unanimous: the Germans, all eight of them, were guilty. The recommended sentence was death.
It was only upon reading the transcript of the trial that Roosevelt learned how Hoover had misled him. Regardless, it apparently didn’t shake the foundation of his opinion on the case. At the urging of defense counsel, FDR gave only enough ground to commute Dasch's sentence to 30 years of hard labor, and Burger's to life. George John Dasch, a man who had envisioned himself being welcomed as a hero by the American people and perhaps earning his own Medal of Honor, would instead spend what was likely to be the rest of his life in prison. His six accomplices were not so fortunate. Five days after the trial’s end, they were marched to the electric chair in alphabetical order. Within two months of landing in America, the men had been captured, charged, tried, and executed. The official verdict of the tribunal wouldn’t be released for another three months.
Dasch and Burger were locked away in a federal penitentiary, their true story only known to a handful of military and government officials. But as ethically suspect as J. Edgar Hoover’s deception may have been, his cover-up worked. Hitler was infuriated at the news of his men’s capture, and he refused to risk another submarine for further missions. Just as he had intended, Hoover effectively stopped any attempts at German sabotage for the remainder of the war.
Burger and Dasch’s stories didn’t end in prison. After the Allied victory in Europe, the documents pertaining to their case were released to the public despite the strenuous objections of J. Edgar Hoover. With the truth out in the open, and after a further three years of squirming, President Harry S. Truman finally agreed to commute the two men’s sentences. Having spent six years in federal prison, they were released and deported to Germany.
The consequences of the 1942 Nazi sabotage plot remain very much present today. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States government approved the use of military tribunals to try captured terrorist suspects. The major precedent for these tribunals is the case of Ex parte Quirin—the trial of George John Dasch and his seven Nazi agents. Their hastily assembled tribunal will also be looked to as the model for any future prosecution of "unlawful combatants."
Stepping off the plane onto German soil, Dasch and Burger found themselves two men without a home: criminals in America and traitors in Germany. Burger turned against his former commander, publicly blaming him for the entire debacle before disappearing several years later. For his part, Dasch refused to run; he spent the rest of his life campaigning for acceptance in Germany and for a chance to return to America. He never received either. Dasch died in Germany in 1992, still awaiting the pardon promised him by J. Edgar Hoover half a century earlier.