On the morning of June 13, 1942, a German submarine stole up to the coast of New York. Inside was Hitler’s hope of an America in flames. Four Nazi saboteurs with crates of explosives, costumes, and money, climbed out of the hatch and moved to shore in a rowboat with two German sailors.
Their objective was to cripple the power of America to make war, primarily by disabling industrial necessities like aluminum and hydroelectric power production but also by terrifying the American populace so they’d vote to get out of it.
As the men made their way in the rowboat to the New York coast, another team was in the Atlantic, bearing down on Florida. Operation Pastorius, the German invasion of the U.S. by sabotage, was in effect.
The New York and Florida teams were each composed of four men. All were German, all had spent time in America, and all were trained in a special school for sabotage.
The leader of the first team was George J. Dasch, a veteran of World War I who had fought for Germany but emigrated to America after the war. In 1939, he had returned to Germany and was recruited into the sabotage plot soon after America joined the war.
Dasch had three more men on his team. Ernest P. Burger was a long-time Nazi who had taken part in Hitler’s first grab for power at the Munich Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. He fled to America to escape brawling charges, living there for six years and becoming a citizen. Heinrich Heinck and Richard Quirin were machinists who had lived in America for 12 years each.
If it sounds like the team members were misfits, it’s because they were. Burger, the long-time Nazi and veteran of the Beer Hall Putsch, had even spent time in a concentration camp for writing a college paper critical of the Gestapo.
They had received only 18 days of special training, mostly Jiu Jitsu, weapons, and explosives instruction in the German woods with some field trips to power plants. Dasch, the team leader, was known to nap through much it.
The first team lands in New York and the mission immediately goes awry
The Florida team left from a submarine base at Lorient, France on May 26, 1942. Dasch and the New York team left on May 28, but since the New York route was shorter, they arrived at the American coast first on June 13.
The mission faced problems from the start. The submarine they were riding in accidentally ran aground 200 meters off the coast before launching the rowboat. So, as the saboteurs were approaching the shore, the German captain was struggling to get his boat out to sea before the rising sun exposed it to growing traffic on the coastal road.
On the boat, the saboteurs were dressed as German marines. When they arrived on the coast, they immediately changed into civilian cloths. While the rest of the team began burying their crates of explosives and money, Dasch and another man crossed over a nearby dune. After cresting the hill, they saw a flashlight approaching the group through thick fog.
Coast Guard Seaman 2nd Class John Cullen came upon the wet German on his normal foot patrol. Dasch claimed he was part of a fishing party that had run ashore. When Cullen offered them shelter and food at the nearby Coast Guard station, Dasch refused and claimed the men were worried because they had been fishing without a license.
Cullen was already suspicious, but then Dasch asked if Cullen would like to ever see his mother and father again. As Cullen realized they were threatening to murder him, a third German came over the dune with a sea bag and yelled something to the first two in German.
Cullen realized then what he was dealing with: German spies or saboteurs. Dasch ordered the third man back behind the sea dune and turned back to Cullen. “We’ll give you some money, and you forget about this,” Dasch said according to Cullen’s account in a Coast Guard History interview. He took the money to prove his story and ran back to the Coast Guard station.
Using the money as proof, Cullen convinced the other men at the station and four of them returned to the beach to find it empty except for a pack of German cigarettes. As the men searched the beach, they smelled diesel exhaust. Suddenly, they felt a large vibration as the German submarine escaped the sand bar and headed out to sea.
They called another station to report the incident, and soon, the island was swarming with soldiers and artillery. Coast Guardsmen and a Naval intelligence officer dug up the buried explosives cache and turned it over to the FBI, who then took over the investigation.
As the island was being locked down, the FBI was beginning the largest manhunt in its history and George Dasch was putting his own plan into motion.
Dasch betrays the conspiracy
The FBI rushed to keep the story quiet while hunting down the men as fast as they could, but they didn’t have any real leads. Still, they needn’t have worried. Dasch had been ordered to kill anyone who saw them, and the reason he didn’t appears to be because he was already planning on betraying the mission.
Once they had stowed the gear on the beach, the Germans moved to a train station and split up. Dasch revealed his plan to Burger, the saboteur who had spent time in a German concentration camp. Dasch wanted to turn all the evidence over to the FBI, expecting to be accepted as heroes by the American government. Burger agreed to the new plan and Dasch called FBI headquarters.
Unfortunately, the agent on duty who fielded the call thought it was a prank and hung up on Dasch. Dasch slowly made his way to D.C. to reveal the plot.
When he arrived, he was punted from agent to agent who all thought he was pulling their leg until, in frustration, he dumped the entire bag mission money, $84,000 (worth $1 million today) onto the agent’s desk. Finally, he had their attention and was able to expose the whole plot.
Dasch handed over a handkerchief that showed where all of the mission’s American contacts lived, but he couldn’t remember how to make the invisible ink appear since he had slept through those classes. Agents in the FBI’s lab eventually figured the ink out, and agents staked out all the addresses listed. They quickly captured the rest of the New York team as well as all four members of the Florida team.
J. Edgar Hoover, when reporting the events to President Franklin Roosevelt, failed to mention that one of the German’s had turned evidence and claimed full credit for the FBI. Roosevelt ordered military tribunals and sought the death penalty against each spy, including Dasch and Burger.
Trials and executions
A short trial was held in a Washington, D.C. basement and all eight men were given the death penalty. Roosevelt read the transcripts from the trial and, learning that Dasch and Burger had betrayed the plot and turned state’s evidence, commuted their sentences to 30 years of hard labor for Dasch and life imprisonment for Burger.
In secret, the other six members of Operation Pastorius were executed.
Burger and Dasch would serve six years in prison before being released by order of President Harry Truman and deported to Germany where they were received as traitors. Cullen received a Legion of Merit from the Army for his part in stopping the Germans.
Hitler attempted one more time to send spies into America, landing two spies on the coast of Maine. Those men were caught after the FBI received a tip from a Boy Scout.
(h/t Stuff You Should Know podcast)