Much has been written about the eight central characters in this story. These individuals have been described in contemporary and subsequent sources alike, as Saboteurs, Nazis and Spies. Certainly to call them such, fed into the political expectations of the day. Yet their country had chosen them for this mission based on unique qualifications, separate and apart from whatever devotion they felt for the fatherland, or to the Nazi party. It may be that these guys deserve every evil name that’s been heaped upon them. Or maybe they were just eight guys who got caught up between two nations at war. It’s an interesting story. You decide.
The German submarine U-202 came to the surface in the small hours of June 12 at Amagansett, New York, near Montauk Point. The inflatable that came out of its hatch was rowed to shore at what is today Atlantic Avenue beach, Long Island. Four figures stepped onto the beach wearing German military uniforms. If they’d been captured at that point, they wanted to be treated as enemy combatants, rather than spies.
Their mission was to sabotage American economic targets and damage defense production. Their targets included hydroelectric plants, train bridges, and factories. They had almost $175,000 in cash, some good liquor, and enough explosives to last them through a two year campaign.
German plans began to unravel as they buried their uniforms and explosives in the sand. 21-year old Coast Guardsman John Cullen was a “sand pounder”. Armed only with a flashlight and a flare gun, Cullen had the unglamorous duty of patrolling the beaches, looking for suspicious activity.
It was “so foggy that I couldn’t see my shoes”, Cullen said, when a solitary figure came out of the dunes. He was George John Davis, he said, a fisherman run ashore. Something seemed wrong and Cullen’s suspicions were heightened, when another figure came out of the darkness. He was shouting something in German, when “Davis” spun around, yelling, “You damn fool! Go back to the others!”
With standing orders to kill anyone who confronted them during the landing, Davis hissed, “Do you have a mother? A father? Well, I wouldn’t want to have to kill you.”
It was Cullen’s lucky day. “Davis'” real name was George John Dasch. He was no Nazi. He’d been a waiter and dishwasher before the war, who’d come to the attention of the German High Command because he’d lived for a time in America. “Forget about this, take this money, and go have a good time” he said, handing over a wad of bills. $260 richer, Cullen sprinted two miles to the Coast guard station.
Four days later, U-584 deposited a second team of four at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, south of Jacksonville. As with the first, this second group had lived and worked in the United States, and were fluent in English. Two of the eight were US citizens.
George Dasch had a secret. He had no intention of carrying out his mission. He summoned Ernst Peter Burger to an upper-level hotel room. Gesturing toward an open window, Dasch said “You and I are going to have a talk, and if we disagree, only one of us will walk out that door—the other will fly out this window.”
Burger turned out to be a naturalized citizen, who’d spent 17 months in a concentration camp. He hated the Nazis as much as Dasch, and the pair decided to defect.
Dasch tested the waters. Convinced the FBI was infiltrated with Nazi agents, he telephoned the New York field office. Put on hold with the call transferred several times, Dasch was horrified to have the agent who finally listened to him, quietly hang up the phone. Had he reached a German mole? Had the call been traced?
Dasch could not have known, he’d been transferred to the ‘nut desk’. The FBI thought he was a clown.
Finally, Dasch went to the FBI office in Washington DC, where he was treated like a nut job. Until he dumped $84,000 on Assistant Director D.M. Ladd’s desk, equivalent to about a million, today. Dasch was interrogated for hours, and happily gave up everything he knew. Targets, German war production, he spilled it all, even a handkerchief with the names of local contacts, written in invisible ink. He couldn’t have been a very good spy, though. He forgot how to reveal the names.
All eight were in custody within two weeks.
J. Edgar Hoover announced the German plot on June 27, but his version had little resemblance to that of Dasch and Burger. As with the brief he had given President Roosevelt, Hoover praised the magnificent work of FBI detectives, and the Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction which led Assistant Director Ladd to the $84,000. Dasch and Burger’s role in the investigation was conveniently left out, as was the fact that the money had basically bounced Ladd off the head.
Neither Dasch nor Burger expected to be thrown in a cell, but agents assured them it was a formality. Meanwhile, a credulous and adoring media speculated on how Hoover’s FBI had done it all. Did America have spies inside the Gestapo? German High Command? Were they seriously that good?
Attorneys for the defense wanted a civilian trial, but President Roosevelt wrote to Attorney General Francis Biddle: “Surely they are as guilty as it is possible to be and it seems to me that the death penalty is almost obligatory”. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the decision “Ex parte Quirin” became precedent for the way unlawful combatants are tried, to this day. All eight would appear before a military tribunal.
It’s unclear whether any of the eight were the menace they were made out to be. German High Command had selected all eight based on a past connection with the United States, ordering them to attack what they may have regarded as their adopted country. Several were arrested in gambling establishments or houses of prostitution. One had resumed a relationship with an old girlfriend, and the pair was planning to marry. Not exactly the behavior patterns of “Nazi saboteurs”.
The trial was held before a closed-door military tribunal in the Department of Justice building in Washington, the first such trial since the Civil War. All eight defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death. It was only on reading trial transcripts, that Roosevelt learned the rest of the story. The President commuted Burger’s sentence to life and Dasch’s to 30 years, based on their cooperation with the prosecution. The other six were executed by electric chair on August 8, in alphabetical order.
After the war, Burger and Dasch’s trial transcripts were released to the public, over the strenuous objections of J. Edgar Hoover. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman bowed to political pressure, granting them executive clemency and deporting both to the American zone of occupied Germany. The pair found themselves men without a country, hated as spies in America, and traitors in Germany.
The reader may decide, whether Hoover and Roosevelt operated from base and venal political motives, or whether the pair was playing 4-D chess. Be that as it may, Hitler rebuked Admiral Canaris, and seems to have bought into Hoover’s version of FBI invincibility. There would be no further missions of this type, save for one in November 1944, when two spies were landed on the coast of Maine to gather information on the Manhattan project.
George Dasch campaigned for the rest of his life, to be allowed to return to what he described as his adopted country. Ernst Burger died in Germany in 1975, Dasch in 1992. The pardon Hoover promised both men a half-century earlier, never materialized