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.

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.


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

June 11, 1837 Broad Street Riot

Ancient animosity were on display that day, and words were exchanged between the groups.  A fight broke out and it turned into a brawl. Very quickly, the brawl became a full-scale riot.

180 years ago today, fire engine #20, “The Extinguisher” crossed paths with an Irish Catholic funeral procession, returning from a blaze in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

The fire company was entirely comprised of “Yankees”:  protestants of old English stock. Ancient animosity were on display that day, and words were exchanged between the groups.  A fight broke out and it turned into a brawl. Very quickly, the brawl became a full-scale riot.

There were fifteen hundred combatants at the height the melee. Houses were broken into, furniture smashed and thrown into the street. Mattresses were slashed, their contents thrown to the winds. Bricks, stones and anything else that could be picked up and thrown was used as a weapon, or hurled by one side at the other. It’s a wonder that more weren’t killed, there were scores of injured.

The fighting went on for hours, until Mayor Samuel Atkins Eliot called out the military to restore order.

Several participants were tried in the days that followed, and police courts sentenced several to periods of hard labor at the House of Correction.  Police and military forces were stationed at Faneuil Hall, armories and churches around the city to prevent a recurrence, as local homeowners and shopkeepers petitioned the City of Boston for reimbursement of their losses.

There were a number of further confrontations, the latest on the 18th as crowds “hissed and hooted” at fire companies returning from a South Boston blaze. A number of combatants tried to re-ignite the brawl in the days that followed, none of them successfully.

The Baltimore Sun reported on June 12 that “four of the Irishmen were killed; a great number were badly injured and probably mortally”. The article went on to report that “It commenced with a funeral, and closed in sending its victims to a dishonored grave. Hereafter, let Boston hang her head in silence, and avoid the condemning verdict of the world. Let her in future prate no more about her devotion to morality, religion, and law; and last of all, let her not open her mouth, or the jaws of her press, to reproach the city of Baltimore”.


I know not what sort of inter-city rivalry existed between Baltimore and Boston at that time.  In light of the “Black Lives Matter” riots of a couple years ago and the performance of that city’s Mayor and District Attorney, perhaps the editors of the Baltimore Sun need not have been quite so smug.

A “New England oyster bar & Atlantic Coast cookery” opened in November 2014, in Boston’s financial district, calling itself “Broad Street Riot”. Too bad they closed a year later, I would have liked to try them. There’s never a bad time for a belly full of cold water oysters.

June 10, 1944 Oradour-sur-Glane

The women and children were locked in a village church while the German soldiers looted the town. The men were taken to a nearby barn, where the machine guns had already been set up.

Oradour-sur-Glane-StreetsIt was D+4 in the invasion of Normandy, and the 2nd SS Panzer Division (“Das Reich”) had been ordered to stop the Allied advance. They were passing through the Limousin region in west central France, when SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann received word that Waffen-SS officer Helmut Kämpfe was being held by French Resistance forces in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres.

Diekmann’s battalion sealed off the nearby village of Oradour-sur-Glane, unaware that they had confused it with the other village. Everyone in the town was ordered to assemble in the village square to have their identity papers examined. The entire population of the village was there, plus another 6 unfortunates who were riding their bicycles in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

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The women and children were locked in a village church while German soldiers looted the town. The men were taken to a nearby barn, where machine guns had already been set up.

The Germans aimed for the legs when they opened fire, intending to inflict as much pain as possible. Five escaped in the confusion before the SS lit the barn on fire. 190 men were burned alive.

Nazi soldiers then lit an incendiary device in the church, and gunned down 247 women and 205 children as they tried to get out.

642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane, age one week to 90 years, were murdered in a few hours, the village razed to the ground. After the war, French President Charles de Gaulle ordered that the village remain as is; a memorial to the cruelty of collective punishment, and the savagery committed by the Waffen-SS in countless places: the French towns of Tulle, Ascq, Maillé, Robert-Espagne, and Clermont-en-Argonne; the Polish villages Michniów, Wanaty and Krasowo-Częstki, Warsaw; the Soviet village of Kortelisy; the Lithuanian village of Pirčiupiai; the Czechoslovakian villages of Ležáky and Lidice; the Greek towns of Kalavryta and Distomo; the Dutch town of Putten; the Yugoslavian towns of Kragujevac and Kraljevo, and the village of Dražgoše, in what is now Slovenia; the Norwegian village of Telavåg; the Italian villages of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and Marzabotto. And on, and on, and on.

French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour”. The village stands today as the Nazis left it, 73 years ago today. It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

The story was featured in the 1974 British television series “The World at War”, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier. The first and final episodes of the program began with these words: “Down this road, on a summer day in 1944. . . The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years. . . was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road . . . and they were driven. . . into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then. . . they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War”.


June 9, 1772 The Gaspée Affair

The customs schooner H.M.S. Gaspée sailed into Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island in early 1772, to aid with customs enforcement and collections. She was chasing the packet boat Hannah through shallow water on the 9th of June, when she ran aground in shallow water, near the town of Warwick at what is now Gaspée Point.

The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) was in many ways a world war, experienced in the American colonies as the French and Indian War.  The cost to the British crown was staggering, and Parliament wanted their colonies in America to pay for their share of it. The war had been fought for their benefit, after all, had it not?

intolerable-actsSeveral measures were taken in the 1760’s to collect these revenues. In one 12-month period, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act, and the Declaratory Act, and deputized the Royal Navy’s Sea Officers to help enforce customs laws in colonial ports.

American colonists hated these measures.  They had been left to run their own affairs for decades.  Many of them bristled at the heavy handed measures being taken by revenue and customs agents. Rhode Islanders attacked HMS St. John in 1764.  In 1769 they burned the customs ship H.M.S. Liberty in Newport harbor.  In a few short months, the “Boston Massacre” would unfold only a few miles to the north.

The customs schooner H.M.S. Gaspée sailed into Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island in early 1772, to aid with customs enforcement and collections. She was chasing the packet boat Hannah through shallow water on the 9th of June, when she ran aground in shallow water, near the town of Warwick at what is now Gaspée Point.GaspeePtaerial

A number of local Sons of Liberty met that afternoon at Sabin Tavern, opposite Fenner’s Wharf, from which the daily packet ship sailed to Newport Harbor. There they formed a plan to burn the Gaspée, and spent their evening hours casting bullets in the tavern.

They rowed out to the ship at dawn the next morning. There was a brief scuffle when they boarded, in which Lieutenant William Dudingston was shot and wounded. The vessel was then looted, and burned to the waterline.

Earlier attacks on British shipping had been dealt with lightly, but the Crown was not going to ignore the destruction of one of its military vessels on station. Treason charges were prepared, planning to try the perpetrators in England, but the crown was never able to make the case.  Unsurprisingly, it seems that nobody saw anything.

Lexington ReenactorsA few days later, a visiting minister in Boston, John Allen, used the Gaspée incident in a 2nd Baptist Church sermon. His sermon was printed seven times in four colonial cities, one of the most widely read pamphlets in Colonial British America.

The King’s “Tea Act” would lead to the Boston Tea Party the following year.  The blizzard of regulations that came down in 1774, the “Intolerable Acts”, would pave the way to the Battles of Lexington & Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill later in 1775.

The fuse to Revolution had been lit.  It was not going to be put out, easily.