June 22, 1918 Showmen’s Rest

The Michigan Central locomotive smashed into the rear of the stalled circus train at 60mph.  Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly and others horribly maimed, as wooden circus cars telescoped into one another. 

In the circus world, the term “First of May” describes the first season when an employee comes to work with the circus.

There’s an oft-repeated but mistaken notion, that the circus goes back to Roman antiquity.  The panem et circenses, “bread and circuses” of Juvenal (circa A.D. 100), refers more to the ancient precursor of the modern racetrack, than to the modern circus. The only common denominator is the word itself, as the Latin root ‘circus’, translates into English, as “circle”.

Astleys_royal_amphitheatreThe father of the modern circus is the British Sergeant-Major turned showman, Philip Astley.  A talented horseman, Astley opened a riding school near the River Thames in 1768, where he taught in the morning and performed ‘feats of horsemanship’ in the afternoon.

Astley’s afternoon shows had gained overwhelming popularity by 1770, and he hired acrobats, rope-dancers, and jugglers to fill the spaces between equestrian events.  The modern circus, was born.

Equestrian and trick riding shows were gaining popularity all over Europe at this time, performers riding in circles to keep their balance while standing on the backs of galloping horses.  It didn’t hurt matters, that the “ring” made it easier for spectators to view the event.

In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown of Somers New York replaced the wooden structure common to European circuses with a canvas tent, around the time when a cattle dealer named Hachaliah Bailey bought a young African elephant, which he exhibited all over the country.  The exotic animal angle was a great success.  Other animals were added and soon farmers were leaving their fields, to get into the traveling menagerie business.

The unique character of the American traveling circus emerged in 1835, when 135 such farmers and menagerie owners combined with three affiliated circuses to form the American Zoological Institute.

Phineas Taylor Barnum and William Cameron Coup launched P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus in 1871, where the “museum” part was a separate exhibition of human and animal oddities.  It wouldn’t be long, before the ‘sideshow” became a standard feature of the American circus.

There have been no fewer than 81 major circuses in American history, and countless smaller ones.  ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ broke down its tent for the last time last month, when the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus ended a 146-year run.  There was a time though, when the circus really Was, the greatest show on earth.

The American war machine was spinning up to peak operational capacity in 1918, as the industrial might of the nation pursued the end to the war ‘over there’.hagenbeck-wallace-circus

At 3:56 on the morning of June 22, 1918, an engineer with the Michigan Central Railroad was at the controls of an empty 21-car troop train.  Automatic signals and flares should have warned him that there was a stalled train on the track ahead.  A frantic flag man tried and failed to get him to stop.  Alonzo Sargent had been fired before, for sleeping on the job.  Tonight, Sargent was once again, asleep at the wheel.

The Hagenbeck-Wallace circus was a big deal in those days.  The famous lion tamer Clyde Beatty was a member, as was a young Red Skelton, on this night tagging along with his father, who worked as a clown.

The 26-car Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train was enroute from Hammond Indiana to Monroe Wisconsin, when an overheated axle box required them to make an unscheduled stop.

Most of the 400 circus employees were asleep at that early hour, in one of four rear sleeping cars.  The Michigan Central locomotive smashed into the rear of the stalled train at 60mph.  Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly.  Others were horribly maimed, as wooden sleeping cars telescoped into one another.  Confused and bleeding survivors struggled to emerge from the wreckage, as gas-fed lanterns began to set all that wood on fire.

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Those lucky enough to escape looked on in horror, as friends and family members were burned alive.  Some had to be physically restrained from rushing back into the inferno.

127 were injured and an estimated 86 crushed or burned to death in the wreck.  Hours afterward a clown, his name was Joe Coyle, could be seen weeping inconsolably, beside the mangled bodies of his wife and two children.

The rumor mill went berserk.  Wild lions and tigers had escaped and were roaming the streets and back yards of Gary, Indiana.  Elephants died in the heroic attempt to put out the flames, spraying water on the burning wreckage with their trunks.  None of the stories were true.  The animals had passed through hours earlier, on one of two additional trains, and were now waiting for the train that would never come.

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The Showmen’s League of America was formed in 1913, with Buffalo Bill Cody its first President.  The group had  purchased a 750-plot parcel at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois only a year earlier, calling it “Showmen’s Rest”.  They had no idea their investment would be used so soon.

Only thirteen were ever identified.  A mass grave was dug for the unidentified and unidentifiable.  Most of the dead were roustabouts or temporary workers, hired just recently and known only by nicknames.  Some performers were known only by stage names, their gravestones inscribed with names like “Baldy,” “4-Horse Driver”, “Smiley,” and “Unknown Female #43.

Only one show had to be canceled, as erstwhile ‘competitors’ Barnum & Bailey, Ringling brothers and others lent workers, performers and equipment.  The show would go on.

Today, the International Circus Hall of Fame is located in the former Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus winter headquarters in Peru, Indiana.

In the elephant world, an upraised trunk symbolizes joy.  Five elephant statues circumscribe the Showmen’s Rest section of Woodlawn cemetery.  Each has a foot raised with a ball underneath.  Their trunks hang low, a symbol of mourning.  The largest of the five bears the inscription, “Showmen’s League of America.”  On the other four, appear these words.  “Showmen’s Rest”.

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 June 20, 1782 The Great Seal

Some states adopted the eagle as their symbol as early as 1778.  The Continental Congress officially adopted the current design for the seal on this day in 1782. 

When the Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, several pieces of unfinished business remained.  Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were appointed to a committee to take care of one such detail.  The creation of an official seal.   The three came up with a first draft but Congress rejected it, approving only the “E pluribus Unum”, (of the many, one), attributed to Thomas Jefferson.

Six years and two such committees later, it was May 1782.  The brother of a Philadelphia naturalist provided a drawing showing an eagle displayed as the symbol of “supreme power and authority.”  An earlier submission used the phoenix instead of an eagle, representing a nation risen from the ashes of the American Revolution.  That bird would be replaced by the eagle in the final design.

Greatseal

Some states adopted the eagle as their symbol as early as 1778.  The Continental Congress officially adopted the current design for the seal on this day in 1782.  The final design of the obverse (front) side of the seal, depicts a Bald Eagle, the symbol of liberty and freedom.  The eagle grasps thirteen arrows in its right talon, symbolizing a strong defense of the thirteen colonies.  An olive branch symbolizing peace is held in the other claw.  A banner containing Jefferson’s E pluribus Unum, is held in the eagle’s beak.

Prominently displayed on the eagle’s breast is a shield, the thirteen red and white stripes symbolizing the states, all of which support the federal government, represented in blue.

In 1782, the federal government had yet to morph into the all-consuming leviathan which it has since become.

Finally, a constellation of thirteen stars breaks out of the clouds above, signifying a new nation, ready to take its place among the sovereign nations of the earth.

Benjamin Franklin objected to the selection of the eagle, preferring that the turkey made the national symbol.  He complained that the eagle tended to steal its dinner from other birds, and that he’d seen them driven away by the tiny Kingbird, no larger than a sparrow. Franklin later wrote to his daughter, saying, “For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

Some versions of the symbol used between 1916 and 1945 showed an eagle facing to its left, toward the arrows, giving rise to the urban legend that the seal is changed to have the eagle face towards the olive branch in peace, and towards the arrows in wartime.

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On the reverse (back) side of the Great Seal, the pyramid represents strength and duration, like the great Pyramids at Giza.  The Roman numeral MDCCLXXVI at the base of the pyramid, stands for 1776. A Latin phrase, “Novus ordo seclorum”, translates as “New Order of the Ages.”  The pyramid itself has thirteen levels, atop which is the Eye of God, with the Latin phrase “Annuit Cœptis,” loosely translating as “favors undertakings.”  The hand of Providence, or God, would favor the undertakings of the United States, for all time.

The militant atheist type who’d like to divest himself of all that “church & state” stuff may at this point feel free to send his dollar bills, to me.  I’m happy to help.  I’m in the book.

June 17, 1775 Bunker Hill

“On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.” – Dr. Joseph Warren

Charlestown, Massachusetts occupies a hilly peninsula to the north of Boston, at the point where the Mystic River meets the Charles. Like Boston itself, much of what is now Charlestown was once Boston Harbor.  In 1775 the town was a virtual island, joined to the mainland only by a thin “neck” of land.

Thousands of Patriot Militia poured into the area following the April battles of Lexington and Concord, hemming in the British who controlled Boston and its surrounding waterways.Bunker Hill, 2

Reinforced and provisioned from the sea over which the Crown held undisputed control, British forces under General Sir Thomas Gage could theoretically remained in Boston, indefinitely.

The elevation of Breed’s and Bunker’s Hill across the river, changed that calculation.  Should colonial forces obtain artillery of their own, they would be able to rain down hell on British forces bottled up in Boston.  It was just this scenario that led Henry Knox into a New England winter later that year, to retrieve the guns of Fort Ticonderoga.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress received word on the 13th that the British planned to break out of Boston within the week, taking the high ground of Dorchester Heights to the south and Charlestown to the north. Major General Israel Putnam was directed to set up defenses on Bunker Hill, on the northwest end of the Charlestown peninsula.

Colonel William Prescott led about 1,200 men onto the peninsula on the night of the 16th. Some work was performed on the hill which gives the battle its name, but it was farmer Ephraim Breed’s land to the southeast, which offered the more defensible hill from which to defend the peninsula.Bunker_Hill_by_Pyle

Shovels could be heard throughout the night.  The sun rose on June 17 to reveal a 130′ defensive breastwork across Breed’s hill. Major General William Howe was astonished. “The rebels,” he said, “have done more work in one night than my whole army would have done in one month.”

The warship HMS Lively opened fire on the redoubt shortly after 4am, with little effect on the earthworks. 128 guns joined in as the morning bore on, including incendiary shot which set fire to the town. Militia continued to reinforce the high ground throughout the morning hours, as Regulars commanded by General Howe and Brigadier General Robert Pigot crossed the Charles River and assembled for the assault.

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First Assault

The British line advanced up Breed’s Hill twice that afternoon, Patriot fire decimating their number and driving survivors back down the hill to reform and try again. Militia supplies of powder and shot began to give out as the British advanced up the hill for the third assault.

“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”. The quote is attributed to Prescott, but the order seems to have originated with General Putnam and passed along by Prescott, Seth Pomeroy, John Stark, and others, in a desperate attempt to conserve ammunition.

Finally, there was nothing left with which to oppose the British bayonets.  The Militia was forced to retreat.

Bunker_hill_second_attack
Second Assault

Most of the colonists’ casualties occurred at this time, including Boston physician and President of Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress, Dr. Joseph Warren.  Dr. Warren had been appointed Major General on June 14, but the commission had not arrived as of yet.  On this day, he fought as a private soldier. He had been  but the commission had not yet taken effect.

Two months before the battle, Dr. Warren had spoken to his men. “On you depend the fortunes of America”, he said. “You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”

Act worthy of yourselves.  That they did.

Bunker_hill_final_attack
Final Attack

The Battle of Bunker Hill ended in victory for the British, in that they held the ground when the fighting was over. It was a Pyrrhic victory. Howe lost 226 killed and 828 wounded, over a third of their number and more than twice those of the Militia.

One Eighth of all the British officers killed in the Revolution, died on Ephraim Breed’s Hill. General Henry Clinton wrote afterward, of the battle:  “A few more such victories” he said, “would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America”.

June 15, 1904  P.S. General Slocum

In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9′ stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble.  The relief sculpture shows two children, beside the words “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.” 

Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany”, occupied some 400 blocks on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in what is now  the East Village.  “Dutchtown”, as contemporary non-Germans called it, was home to New York’s German immigrant community since the 1840s, when they first began to arrive in significant numbers. By 1855, New York had the largest ethnically German community in the world, save for Berlin and Vienna.

General Slocum tokenIt was 9:30 on a beautiful late spring morning when the sidewheel passenger steamboat General Slocum, left the dock and steamed into New York’s East River.

She was on a charter this day, carrying German American families on an outing from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Over a thousand tickets were sold for that day’s harbor cruise and picnic, not counting the 300+ children on board who were sailing for free. There were 1,342 people on board, mostly women and children, including band, crew and catering staff.

The fire probably started when someone tossed a cigarette or match in the forward section lamp room. Fueled by lamp oil and oily rags on the floor, the flames spread quickly, being noticed for the first time at around 10:00am.  A 12-year old boy had reported the fire earlier, but the Captain did not believe him.

Slocum 3

The ships’ operators had been woefully lax in maintaining safety equipment.  Now it began to show. Fire hoses stored in the sun for years were uncoiled, only to break into rotten bits in the hands of the crew. Life preservers manufactured in 1891 had hung unprotected in the sun for 13 years, their canvas covers splitting apart pouring useless cork powder onto the floor.  Survivors reported inaccessible life boats, wired and painted into place.Slocum 4

Crew members reported to Captain William van Schaick that the blaze “could not be conquered”  It was “like trying to put out hell itself.” The captain ran full steam into the wind trying to make it to the 134th Street Pier, but a tug boat waved them off, fearing the flames would spread to nearby buildings. The wind and speed of the ship itself whipped the flames into an inferno as Captain van Schaick changed course for North Brother Island, just off the Bronx’ shore.

Many jumped overboard to escape the inferno, but the heavy women’s clothing of the era quickly pulled them under.  Desperate mothers put useless life jackets on children and threw them overboard, only to watch in horror as they sank. One man, fully engulfed in flames, jumped screaming over the side, only to be swallowed whole by the massive paddle wheel. One woman gave birth in the confusion, and then jumped overboard with her newborn to escape the flames. They both drowned.

A few small boats were successful in pulling alongside in the Hell’s Gate part of the harbor, but navigation was difficult due to the number of corpses already bobbing in the waves.

Slocum-ablaze

Holding his station despite the inferno, Captain van Schaick permanently lost sight in one eye and his feet were badly burned by the time he ran the Slocum aground at Brother Island.  Patients and staff at the local hospital formed a human chain to pull survivors to shore as they jumped into shallow water.

1,021 passengers and crew either burned to death or drowned.  It was the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster, in American history.  There were only 321 survivors.General Slocum Casualties

The youngest survivor of the disaster was six month old Adella Liebenow. The following year at the age of one, Liebenow unveiled a memorial statue to the disaster which had killed her two sisters and permanently disfigured her mother. The New York Times reported “Ten thousand persons saw through their tears a baby with a doll tucked under her arm unveil the monument to the unidentified dead of the Slocum disaster yesterday afternoon in the Lutheran Cemetery, Middle Village, L.I.”

Both her sisters, were among the unidentified dead.

Youngest_Slocum_Survivor

Less than one per cent of Little Germany’s population was killed in the disaster, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families.  There were more than a few suicides.  Mutual recriminations devoured much of the once-clannish community, as the men began to move away.  There was nothing for them, there.   Anti-German sentiment engendered by WW1 finished what the Slocum disaster had begun. Soon, New York’s German-immigrant community, was no more.

In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9′ stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble.  The relief sculpture shows two children, beside the words “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.”

Once the youngest survivor of the disaster, Adella (Liebenow) Wotherspoon passed away in 2004, at the age of 100.  The oldest survivor of the deadliest disaster in New York history, until September 11, 2001.

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June 14, 1775  Happy Birthday, United States Army

The Continental Congress established the ‘American Continental Army’ on June 14, 1775, authorizing 10 companies of ‘expert riflemen,’ to serve as light infantry in the siege of Boston.

On May 10, 1775, twelve colonies convened the second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  One colony was absent at the time, Georgia would come later, arriving on July 20 following their own Provincial Congress.

The Revolution had begun in April that year, with the battles of Lexington and Concord.  A primary focus of the Second Continental Congress was to manage the war effort.Regulars

The fledgling United States had no Army at this time, relying instead on ad hoc militia units organized by the colonies themselves. At this time there were approximately 22,000 such troops surrounding British forces occupying Boston, with another 5,000 or so in New York.

ContinentalThe Continental Congress established the ‘American Continental Army’ on June 14, 1775, authorizing 10 companies of ‘expert riflemen,’ to serve as light infantry in the siege of Boston. The next day the Congress unanimously selected George Washington to be General and Commander in Chief of all continental forces.

Most of the Continental Army was disbanded after the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1783. The 1st and 2nd Regiments remained to become the basis of the Legion of the United States in 1792, under General Anthony Wayne. These two became the foundation of the United States Army, in 1796.

The formation of other branches of the Armed Forces was quick to follow. The first organized merchant marine action had taken place two days earlier on June 12, 1775, when a group of Machias Maine citizens boarded and captured the schooner British warship HMS Margaretta.

The Navy was formed later that year, in October 1775, the Marine Corps in November. 18th century revenue cutter and rescue operations led to the formation of the United States Coast Guard in January 1915.  The Air Force spun off of the Army Air Corps in September 1947.Military Branches

Speaking on Armed Services Day in 1953, President Dwight David Eisenhower said: “It is fitting and proper that we devote one day each year to paying special tribute to those whose constancy and courage constitute one of the bulwarks guarding the freedom of this nation and the peace of the free world.”

On the other days of the year, you might say that you can thank a teacher if you can read this essay.  Today, you can thank a soldier that you can read it in English.  Happy birthday, United States Army.

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June 13, 1777 Marquis de Lafayette

The two men bonded almost immediately, forming a relationship that closely resembled that of father and son. The fatherless young French officer, and the father of his country who went to his grave, childless.

There are a handful of men who were indispensable to the American Revolution, men without whom the war effort would have been doomed to fail.

One, of course is George Washington, who became commander in chief before he had an army.  Before he even had a country. Knowing full well that the penalty for high treason against the British Crown was death, Washington took command of an army with enough powder for an average 9 rounds per man, in a contest against the most powerful military of its time.

Another indispensable man has to be Benjamin Franklin, whose diplomatic skills and unassuming charm all but single-handedly turned France into an indispensable ally.

Marquis_de_Lafayette_2A third would arguably be Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, better known as the Marquis de Lafayette.

Lafayette was all of nineteen when he landed on North Island South Carolina on June 13, 1777.

The French King had forbidden his coming to America, fearing his capture by British agents. Lafayette wanted none of it. His own father, also the Marquis de Lafayette, was killed fighting the British when the boy was only two. The man was determined to take part in this contest, even if he had to defy his King to do so. Lafayette disguised himself on departure, and purchased the entire ship’s cargo, rather than landing in Barbados and thus exposing himself to capture.

Franklin had written to Washington asking him to take on Lafayette, in hopes that it would secure an increase in French aid to the American war effort. The two men bonded almost immediately, forming a relationship that closely resembled that of father and son. The fatherless young French officer, and the father of his country who went to his grave, childless.

Lafeyettes wife Marie_Adrienne_Francoise
Marie Adrienne Francoise, wife of Lafayette

Lafayette wrote home to his wife Marie Adrienne in 1778, from Valley Forge. “In the place he occupies, he is surrounded by flatterers and secret enemies. He finds in me a trustworthy friend in whom he can confide and who will always tell him the truth. Not a day goes by without his talking to me at length or writing long letters to me. And he is willing to consult me on most interesting points.”

Lafayette served without pay, spending the equivalent of $200,000 of his own money for the salaries and uniforms of staff, aides and junior officers. He participated in several Revolutionary War battles, being shot in the leg at Brandywine, going on to serve at Barren Hill, Monmouth Courthouse, Rhode Island, and the final siege at Yorktown. All the while, Lafayette periodically returned to France to work with Franklin in securing thousands of additional troops and several warships to aid in the war effort.

Adrienne gave birth to their first child on one such visit, a boy they named Georges Washington Lafayette.

It was a small force under Lafayette that took a position on Malvern Hill in 1781, hemming in much larger British forces under Lord Cornwallis at the Yorktown peninsula.

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Lafayette’s sabre as general of the Garde nationale. On display at the Musée de l’Armée, Paris.

The trap was sprung that September with the arrival of the main French and American armies under Marshal Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau & General George Washington, and the French fleet’s arrival in the Chesapeake under Lieutenant Général des Armées Navales François-Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse.

Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781, after which Lafayette returned to France.

The Marquis played an important role in his own country’s revolution, becoming a Commander of the French National Guard. When the Bastille was stormed by an angry mob in 1789, Lafayette was handed the key.

Lafayette sent the key to the Bastille to George Washington, as a “token of victory by Liberty over Despotism”. Today that key hangs in the main hallway at Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon.

There came a time when the French Revolution morphed into the Reign of Terror, and began to eat its young.  The Marquis de Lafayette was captured by Austria in 1792 and imprisoned under verminous conditions, while his wife was taken into custody by the French Republic.

Lafayette_Prison_reunionSecretary of State Thomas Jefferson found a loophole that allowed Lafayette to be paid, with interest, for his services in the late Revolution. An act was rushed through Congress and signed by President Washington, the resulting funds allowing both Lafayettes some of the few privileges permitted them, during their five years’ captivity.

Georges Washington Lafayette was smuggled to America out of France in 1795, while his father was held prisoner.   Adrienne was released after four, and persuaded Emperor Francis to permit her and her two daughters to join her husband in prison. After a brutal year in solitary confinement, Lafeyette’s cell door opened on October 15, 1795.  He must have been astonished to see his wife and daughters walk in. The four would spend his last year in captivity, together.

Adrienne died on Christmas day, 1807.  She had slipped into delirium the night before, her final words spoken to her husband:  “Je suis toute à vous“.  I am all yours.

Lafayette remained staunchly opposed to both the Napoleonic regime and the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, feeling that both had come to power by undemocratic means.

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1824 portrait by Scheffer, hangs in the U.S. House of Representatives

In 1824, President James Monroe and Congress invited Lafayette to visit the United States, for the nation’s upcoming 50th birthday. Crowds of cheering citizens greeted the French Marquis and his son Georges Washington on their return to Boston, Philadelphia and New York.

Harlow Giles Unger wrote in his 2003 book Lafayette, “It was a mystical experience they would relate to their heirs through generations to come. Lafayette had materialized from a distant age, the last leader and hero at the nation’s defining moment. They knew they and the world would never see his kind again.”

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier died in Paris on May 20, 1834, and was buried next to his wife at the Picpus Cemetery.  He was seventy-six.  President Andrew Jackson ordered that he be accorded the same funeral honors which President John Adams had bestowed on George Washington himself, in 1799. John Quincy Adams delivered a three-hour eulogy in Congress, saying “The name of Lafayette shall stand enrolled upon the annals of our race high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind.”

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Lafayette Burial Place, Picpus Cemetery, Paris

In obedience to his one of his last wishes, several feet of earth were dug up from Bunker Hill, and shipped to France.  The man had always wanted to be buried under American soil.

June 12, 1942 Operation Pastorius

The German submarine U-202 came to the surface in the small hours of June 12 at Amagansett, NY, near Montauk Point. The inflatable that came out of its hatch was rowed to shore at what is today Atlantic Avenue beach, Long Island.

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.Pastorius

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.

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Seaman John Cullen, left, received the Legion of Merit from Rear Adm. Stanley V. Parker for his service in WW2

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.Pastorius-Plaque

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.Pastorius-8

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.

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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