August 14, 1945 A Kiss in Times Square

The lit message running around the Times Building read, “VJ, VJ, VJ, VJ” as George Mendonsa grabbed a stranger and kissed her. Two seconds later the moment was gone, but Alfred Eisenstaedt and his camera had been in the right place at the right time.

The most destructive war in history ended this day in 1945, with the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan.

It was morning on the East Coast.  President Harry Truman had not yet received the formal surrender. The White House official announcement was still hours away, but rumors had been flying since the early morning hours.

Born and raised in Austria, Greta Zimmer was 16 in 1939. Seeing the war bearing down on them, Greta’s parents sent her and her two sisters to America, not knowing if they would ever see them again. Six years later she was a dental assistant, working at the Manhattan office of Dr. J. L. Berke.

Greta’s lunch break came just after 1:00 that day.  Patients had been coming into the office all morning with rumors that the war was over. She set out for Times Square, knowing that the lit and moving type on the Times news zipper would give her the latest news.

Mendonsa, Zimmer
George Mendonsa, Greta Zimmer-Friedman

Petty Officer 1st Class George Mendonsa was on his last day of shore leave, spending the day with his new girlfriend, Rita Petry. They had heard the rumors too, but right now they were enjoying their last day together. The war could wait until tomorrow.

The couple went to a movie at Radio City Music Hall, but the film was interrupted by a theater employee who turned on the lights, announcing that the war was over. Leaving the theater, the couple joined the tide of humanity moving toward Times Square. The pair stopped at the Childs Restaurant on 7th Ave & 49th, where bartenders were pouring anything they could get hands on into waiting glasses.  Revelers were scooping them up as fast as the glasses were filled.

Mendonsa’s alcohol-powered walk/run from the restaurant left Rita trailing behind, but neither one seemed to mind. Times Square was going wild.

The sailor from the USS Sullivans had seen bloodshed. He’d been there on May 11, as kamikaze planes smashed into the USS Bunker Hill.  Explosions and fires killed 346 sailors that day.  43 of their bodies would never be found. Mendonsa had helped to pull the survivors, some of them hideously burned, out of the water. He had watched while Navy nurses tended to the injured and the dying.

When the sailor spotted Greta Zimmer, the dental assistant was dressed the same way.  To him, she must have seemed like one of those white-clad angels of mercy from those earlier months.

kiss-in-times-square-leica-2Reporters from the AP, NY Times, NY Daily News and others descended on Times Square to record the spontaneous celebration.

As a German Jew in the 1930s, Alfred Eisenstaedt had photographed the coming storm. He had photographed Benito Mussolini’s first meeting with Adolf Hitler in Venice in 1934. Now he and his Leica Illa rangefinder camera worked for Life Magazine, heading to Times Square in search of “The Picture”.

The lit message running around the Times Building read, “VJ, VJ, VJ, VJ” as George Mendonsa grabbed a stranger and kissed her. Two seconds later the moment was gone, but Eisenstaedt and his camera had been in the right place at the right time.Times Square Kiss

The image of the sailor kissing the nurse would become as famous as Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, but not until years later.

The German made camera which took the iconic image recently went to auction at the Westlicht auction house in Vienna, where it was expected to sell for $30,000. The winning bid was almost $150,000.

After the war, Greta Zimmer learned that both of her parents had died in the camps. She later married and made her home in Frederick, Maryland.  Greta Zimmer Friedman never returned to Austria, and passed away last September, at the age of 92.

George Mendonsa and Rita Petry later married. George never saw the famous photograph until 1980.  At first he wasn’t sure he recognized himself.  Today, framed copies of it hang on the wall of their Rhode Island home.

MendonsaThis year, the couple celebrates their 68th wedding anniversary.  Rita says she wasn’t angry that her husband kissed another woman on their first date.  She points out that she can been seen grinning in the background of the famous picture.  She will admit, however, ‘In all these years, George has never kissed me like that.’

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August 9, 1945 Nagasaki

The 10,000lb, 10’8″ weapon was released at 28,900′. Seconds later, a perfect circle of 64 detonators exploded inside the heart of the bomb, compacting the plutonium core into a supercritical mass and  exploding with the force of 20,000 tons of high explosive.

Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds“.

Trinity_Test_Fireball_16ms
Trinity Test Fireball

The line comes from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic which Mohandas Gandhi described as his “spiritual dictionary”. On July 16, 1945, these words were spoken by J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, as he witnessed “Trinity”, the world’s first nuclear detonation.

The project had begun with a letter from prominent physicists Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt, warning that Nazi Germany may have been working to develop a secret “Super Weapon”.  The project ended with the explosion of the “Gadget” in the Jornada del Muerto desert, equaling the explosive force of 20 kilotons of TNT.Trinity_site_plaque

The Manhattan Project, the program to develop the Atomic Bomb, was so secret that even Vice President Harry Truman was unaware of its existence.

President Roosevelt passed away on April 14, and Harry Truman was immediately sworn in as President. He was fully briefed on the Manhattan project 10 days later, writing in his diary that night that the US was perfecting an explosive “great enough to destroy the whole world”.

Nazi Germany surrendered on May 7, but the war in the Pacific theater, ground on. By August, Truman faced the most difficult decision ever faced by an American President. Whether to drop an atomic bomb on Imperial Japan.

The morality of President Truman’s decision has been argued ever since. In the end, it was decided that to drop the bomb would end the war faster, with less loss of life on both sides, compared with the invasion of the Japanese home islands.

So it was that the second nuclear detonation in history took place on August 6 over the city of Hiroshima, Japan. “Little Boy”, as the bomb was called, was delivered by the B29 Superfortress “Enola Gay”, named after the mother of United States Army Air Forces pilot Lieutenant Colonel Paul Tibbets. 70,000 Japanese citizens were vaporized in an instant.  Another 100,000 later died from injuries and the delayed effects of radiation.

FatMan
Fat Man

Even then the Japanese Government refused to surrender. ‘Fat Man’, a plutonium bomb carried by the B29 “Bockscar”, was dropped on Nagasaki, on August 9.

The three cities originally considered for this second strike included Kokura, Kyoto and Niigata. Kyoto was withdrawn from consideration due to its religious significance. Niigata was taken out of consideration due to the distance involved.

Kokura was the primary target on this day, but local weather reduced visibility.  Bockscar criss-crossed the city for the next 50 minutes, but the bombardier was unable to see well enough to make the drop.  Japanese anti-aircraft fire became more intense with every run, and Second Lieutenant Jacob Beser reported activity on the Japanese fighter direction radio bands.

In the end, 393rd Bombardment Squadron Commander Major Charles Sweeney bypassed the city and chose the secondary target, the major shipbuilding center and military port city of Nagasaki.

The 10,000lb, 10’8″ weapon was released at 28,900′.  43 seconds later at an altitude of 1,650′, a perfect circle of 64 detonators exploded inside the heart of the bomb, compacting the plutonium core into a supercritical mass which exploded with the force of 20,000 tons of high explosive.

In the early 1960s, the Nagasaki Prefectural Office put the death count resulting from this day, at 87,000.  70% of the city’s industrial zone was destroyed.

Japan surrendered unconditionally on the 14th of August, ending the most destructive war in history.

Nazi Germany was, in fact, working on a nuclear weapon, and had begun before the allies. They chose to pursue nuclear fusion, colliding atomic particles together to form a new type of nuclear material, instead of fission, the splitting of the atom which resulted in the atomic bomb.

That one critical decision, probably taken in some laboratory or conference room, put Nazi Germany behind in the nuclear arms race. How different would the world be today, had Little Boy and Fat Man had swastikas painted on their sides.

July 30 1945 USS Indianapolis

“This is Captain McVay’s dog tag from when he was a cadet at the Naval Academy. As you can see, it has his thumbprint on the back. I carry this as a reminder of my mission in the memory of a man who ended his own life in 1968. I carry this dog tag to remind me that only in the United States can one person make a difference no matter what the age. I carry this dog tag to remind me of the privilege and responsibility that I have to carry forward the torch of honor passed to me by the men of the USS Indianapolis”.

The heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis set out on its secret mission on July 16, 1945, under the command of Captain Charles Butler McVay, III.  She was delivering “Little Boy” to the Pacific island of Tinian, the atomic bomb which would later be dropped on Hiroshima.

USS_Indianapolis_at_Mare_IslandIndianapolis made her delivery on July 26, arriving at Guam two days later and then heading for Leyte to take part in the planned invasion of Japan. She was expected to arrive on the 31st.

Japanese submarine I-58, Captain Mochitsura Hashimoto commanding, fired a spread of six torpedoes at the cruiser, two striking Indianapolis’ starboard bow at fourteen minutes past midnight on Monday, July 30. The damage was massive. Within 12 minutes she had rolled over, gone straight up by the stern, and sunk beneath the waves.

About 300 of Indianapolis’ 1,196-member crew were killed outright, leaving almost 900 treading water. Many had no life jackets and there were few life boats.  There had been too little time.Indianapolis Sub

For four days they treaded water, alone in open ocean, hoping for the rescue that did not come.   Shark attacks began on the first day, and didn’t let up for the entire time they were in the water. Kapok life vests became waterlogged and sank after 48 hours, becoming worse than useless.

Exhaustion, hypothermia, and severe sunburn took their toll as the days went by. Some went insane and began to attack shipmates.  Others found the thirst so unbearable that they drank seawater, setting off a biological chain reaction which killed them in a matter of hours.

Some simply swam away, following some hallucination that only they could see. Through it all, random individuals would suddenly rise up screaming from the ocean, and then disappear from sight, as the sharks claimed another victim.

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Caribbean Reef sharks circling the sailors in reenactment scene after USS Indianapolis had been sunk by Japanese submarine. As seen on OCEAN OF FEAR: WORST SHARK ATTACK EVER.

At Naval Command, there was confusion about where Indianapolis was to report when it arrived.  When the cruiser failed to arrive on the 31st, there was no report of the non-arrival.  Perhaps worst, a message which could have clarified Indianapolis’ expected arrival on Monday came through garbled, and there was no request to repeat it.

As it was, only the barest of chances led to Indianapolis’ survivors being located at all.   Lieutenant Wilbur Gwinn, pilot of a Ventura scout-bomber, had lost the weight from a navigational antenna wire.  Belly-crawling through the fuselage to fix the thrashing antenna, Gwinn noticed an oil slick.  Back in the cockpit, he dropped down to have a better look.  Only then did he spot men floating in open ocean.

Lieutenant R. Adrian Marks and his PBY Catalina amphibious patrol aircraft were the first on the scene.  Horrified to see sharks actually attacking the men below, Marks landed his flying boat at sea.   The last Indianapolis survivor was plucked from the ocean Friday afternoon, half dead after almost five days in the water.  Of the 900 or so who survived the sinking, only 317 remained alive at the end of the ordeal.

The Navy had committed multiple errors, from denying McVay’s requested escort to informing him that his route was safe, even when the surface operations officer knew at least two Japanese submarines operated within the area.  No Matter.  A capital ship had been lost and someone was going to pay.  A hastily convened court of inquiry was held in Guam on August 13, leading to Captain McVay’s court-martial.

No less a figure than Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz (CINCPAC) and Admiral Raymond Spruance, for whom the Indianapolis had served as 5th Fleet flagship, opposed the court-martial, believing McVay to be guilty of an error in judgement at worst, not gross negligence. Naval authorities in Washington saw things differently, particularly Navy Secretary James Forrestal and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King.

Captain McVay’s orders were to “zigzag” at discretion, a naval maneuver most effective at avoiding torpedoes already in the water.   No Navy directives in effect at that time or since have so much as recommended, let alone ordered, zigzagging at night or in poor visibility.

Prosecutors flew I-58 commander Hashimoto in to testify at the court-martial, but he swore that zigzagging would have made no difference.  The Japanese Commander even became part of a later effort to exonerate McVay, but to no avail. Charles Butler McVay III was convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag”, his career ruined.

Captain Charles Butler McVay, III
Captain Charles Butler McVay, III

McVay had wide support among Indianapolis’ survivors, but opinion was by no means unanimous. Many family members held him personally responsible for the death of loved ones.  Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays would come and go.  There was almost always hate mail from some family member. One Christmas missive read “Merry Christmas! Our family’s holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn’t killed my son”.

As the years went by, McVay began to question himself.  In time, he came to feel the weight of the Indianapolis’ dead, a soul crushing burden from which there was no escape.  On November 6, 1968, Charles McVay took a seat on his front porch in Litchfield Connecticut, took out his Navy revolver, and killed himself.  He was cremated, his ashes scattered at sea.

The ULTRA code-breaking system which revealed I-58’s presence on Indianapolis’ course, would not be declassified until the early 90s.

Afterward:

Hunter Alan Scott was 11 and living in Pensacola when he saw the movie “Jaws”, in 1996. He was fascinated by the movie’s brief mention of Indianapolis’ shark attacks.  The next year, he created his 8th grade “National History Day” project on USS Indianapolis’ sinking.

The boy interviewed nearly 150 survivors and reviewed 800 documents.  The more he read, the more he became convinced that Captain McVay was innocent of the charges for which he’d been convicted.

Scott’s National History Day project went up to the state finals, only to be rejected because he used the wrong type of notebook to organize the material.

He couldn’t let it end there. Scott began to attend Indianapolis survivors’ reunions, at their invitation, and helped to gain a commitment in 1997 from then-Representative Joe Scarborough that he would introduce a bill in Congress to exonerate McVay the following year.

Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire joined Scarborough in a joint resolution of Congress.  Hunter Scott and several Indianapolis survivors were invited to testify before Senator John Warner and the Senate Armed Services committee on September 14, 1999.

Holding a dog tag in his hand, Scott testified “This is Captain McVay’s dog tag from when he was a cadet at the Naval Academy. As you can see, it has his thumbprint on the back. I carry this as a reminder of my mission in the memory of a man who ended his own life in 1968. I carry this dog tag to remind me that only in the United States can one person make a difference no matter what the age. I carry this dog tag to remind me of the privilege and responsibility that I have to carry forward the torch of honor passed to me by the men of the USS Indianapolis”.

The United States Congress passed a resolution in 2000, signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 30, exonerating Charles Butler McVay, III of the charges which had led to his court martial, humiliation and suicide.

The record cannot not be expunged – Congress has rules against even considering bills which alter military records.  Yet Captain McVay had been exonerated, something that the Indianapolis survivors had tried for years to accomplish, without success.  Until the intervention of a 12-year-old boy.

The last word on the whole episode belongs to Captain Hashimoto, who wrote the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1999 on behalf of Captain McVay.  “Our peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences“, wrote the former submarine commander, now a Shinto Priest.  “Perhaps it is time your peoples forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction“.

July 25, 1944 V2

When Wernher von Braun showed Adolf Hitler the launch of the V2 on color film, Hitler jumped from his seat and shook Braun’s hand with excitement. “This is the decisive weapon of the war. Humanity will never be able to endure it,” Hitler exclaimed. “If I had this weapon in 1939 we would not be at war now.”

V-1_cutaway
V! “Doodlebug”

In the early years of WWII, Nazi Germany fired 10,000 V1″Doodlebug” rockets at England, killing over 6,000 Londoners by 1943. The subsonic V1 was an effective terror weapon, but the “low and slow” trajectory and short range of the weapon lacked the strategic power to end the war in the Nazi’s favor.

The V2 was different.  It was the dawn of the ballistic missile era, and Nazi Germany was first off the starting line.

The Peenemünde Aggregat A4 V2 was an early predecessor of the Cruise Missile, delivering a 2,148-pound payload over a 236 mile range at 5 times the speed of sound. You could hear the V1 “Buzz Bomb” coming and seek shelter.  Not so the V2.  Victims of the V2 didn’t know they were under attack until the weapon had exploded.

When Wernher von Braun showed Adolf Hitler color film of the launch of a V2, Hitler jumped from his seat and shook Braun’s hand with excitement. “This is the decisive weapon of the war. Humanity will never be able to endure it,” Der Fuhrer exclaimed. “If I had this weapon in 1939 we would not be at war now!”

V2 diagram
V2 Diagram

About that, Hitler may have been right.  The Allies were anxious to get their hands on one.  In early 1944, they had their chance. A V2 crashed onto a muddy bank of the River Bug, in Nazi occupied Poland. The Polish underground had been waiting for such a situation, and quickly descended on the rocket, covering it with brush. Desperate to retrieve the missile, the Germans conducted a week-long aerial and ground search, but failed find the weapon under its camouflage.

After the search came to an end, partisans returned to the site. This time they brought four Polish scientists who carefully disassembled the weapon, packing the pieces in barrels. The parts were then shipped to a barn in Holowczyce, just a few miles away.

The allied effort to retrieve the stolen missile, code named “Most III”, got underway on this day in 1944, when Royal New Zealand Air Force 1st Lieutenant Stanley George Culliford landed his Dakota C47 in the early morning darkness, at a secret air strip near Tarnow.

They loaded the rocket chassis and several technical experts on board, but it was too much weight.  The overloaded C47 couldn’t move on the wet, muddy field.  The port-side wheel was stuck fast in the mud.  Everything had to be offloaded, Polish partisans working desperately to free the aircraft as dawn approached. They stuffed the wheel track with straw, and then laid boards in the trench.  Nothing worked.V2 in flight

Co-pilot Kazimierz “Paddy” Szrajer thought the parking brake must be stuck, so they cut the hydraulic lines supplying the brake. That didn’t work, either. In the end, partisans were frantically digging trenches under the aircraft’s main wheel. There were two failed attempts to take off.  Culliford was considering blowing up the plane and burning all the evidence, but agreed to one last attempt. The aircraft lumbered off the ground on the third try. The headlights of Nazi vehicles could be seen in the darkness as the last of the Polish partisans scattered into the night.

There would be 5 hours of unarmed, unescorted flight over Nazi territory, and an emergency landing with no brakes, before the V2 rocket components finally made it to England.

Today, few remember their names.  We are left only to imagine a world in which Nazi Germany remained in sole possession, of the game changing weapons of World War Two.

July 13, 1943 Kursk

Fighting between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had long since taken on shades of a race war, Slav against Teuton, in a paroxysm of mutual extermination that is horrifying, even by the hellish standards of WWII.

WWII has been rightly described as the deadliest conflict in human history. Yet to the extent that WWII history is taught at all, it is largely based on the Western and Pacific theaters of the war. The “Ostfront” is less well understood, at least in the West:  the war as it was fought between the Soviet Union and Germany, on the Eastern theater of the war.

It may have been governments who started the war.  It was the every-day “Fritz” and the “Ivan” down the street, who did the fighting and the dying.totenkopf-SS-division-nazi-germany-elite-classic-fiercest-warriors-006

The greatest tank battle in history started this day on the Eastern Front. It began as a “Battle of a Bulge”, six months before the last German offensive began in the snow-covered forests of the Ardennes. The five-months long Battle for Stalingrad had ended with a decisive Soviet victory in February of that year, resulting in a “Bulge”, or salient in the Soviet lines, near the city of Kursk.

The Germans planned to shorten their battle lines by eliminating the Kursk salient, and commenced a series of strategic attacks in March, retaking Kharkov and Belgorod. Offensive operations ceased by the end of March due to the onset of the spring “rasputitsa” (mud season) and the exhaustion of both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army.

Field Marshal Erich von Manstein sent to Germany for massive reinforcements of Panther medium and Tiger heavy tanks, while Soviet forces prepared the “Defense in Depth” strategy which would prove decisive in July.

Kursk-1943-Plan-GE.svgThe Kursk salient was of little or no strategic value to the German war effort.  Both Manstein and General Walter Model argued for a tactical defense. Even Heinz Guderian, arguably the father of modern armored tactics, argued against the offensive, but Hitler would not hear of it. Der Fuhrer was going to have his offensive.

“Operation Citadel” started with a series of two offensives beginning on July 5. The Soviet’s defensive preparations began to take their toll almost immediately.

Minefields, fortifications, pre-sighted artillery fire zones and anti-tank strong points extended over 190 miles into the Soviet perimeter. By July 13, the Red Army had regained the offensive. Accounts of the battle vary wildly, with most estimates around 6,000 tanks, 2,000,000 troops, and 4,000 aircraft being involved in the fight.

Estimated losses are difficult to learn, due to the obsessive secrecy of both Nazis and Communists. Sources indicate over a quarter of a million German casualties and four times that number on the Soviet side.  1,083 tanks & assault guns were lost to the German side, over 8 times that number for the Russians.

The battle is considered to be a decisive victory for the Soviet union, representing the final German initiative of the Eastern Front. Though Soviet losses were far higher than those of Germany, the vast resources of the Soviet Union were far better positioned to replace those losses than that of the 3rd Reich.

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Fighting between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had long since taken on shades of a race war.  Slav against Teuton, in a paroxysm of mutual extermination that is horrifying, even by the hellish standards of WWII.  The war on the Ostfront, was yet to grind out another year.

July 9, 1943 Chips

Chips attacked the four Italians manning the machine gun, single-handedly forcing their surrender to American troops. The dog sustained a scalp wound and powder burns in the process, indicating that they had tried to shoot him during the brawl.  In the end the score was Chips 4, Italians Zero.

The United States Armed Forces had an extensive K-9 program during World War II, when private citizens were asked to donate their dogs to the war effort. One such dog was “Chips”, a German Shepherd/Collie/Husky mix who ended up being the most decorated K-9 of WWII.

Chips belonged to Edward Wren of Pleasantville, NY, who “enlisted” his dog in 1942. He was trained at the War Dog Training Center, Front Royal, Virginia, and served in the 3rd Infantry Division with his handler, Private John Rowell. Chips and his handler took part in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.  He served as a sentry dog for the Roosevelt-Churchill conference in 1943, and the team was part of the Sicily landings later that year.

The Allied invasion of Sicily was a large scale amphibious and airborne operation, beginning this day in 1943 and lasting through the 17th of August.  Six weeks of land combat followed, in an operation code named “Operation Husky”.

Chips, War DogDuring the landing phase, private Rowell and Chips were pinned down by an Italian machine gun team. The dog broke free from his handler, running across the beach and jumping into the pillbox.  Chips attacked the four Italians manning the machine gun, single-handedly forcing their surrender to American troops. The dog sustained a scalp wound and powder burns in the process, demonstrating that they had tried to shoot him during the brawl.  In the end, the score was Chips 4, Italians Zero.   He helped to capture ten more later that same day.

Chips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart, but the awards were later revoked.  At that time the army didn’t permit commendations to be given to animals. His unit awarded him a Theater Ribbon with an Arrowhead for the assault landing anyway, along with eight Battle stars.  One for each of his campaigns.

Chips was discharged in December, 1945, and returned home to live out his days with the Wren family in Pleasantville. Disney made a TV movie based on his life in 1990.  They called it “Chips, the War Dog”.

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.

Cullen
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.

Pastorius-Sentinel

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