Operation Pastorius; That Time Nazis Infiltrated the United States
It was the dog days of summer, August 8, 1942, in Washington, D.C. when six Nazi saboteurs served out the sentences of their military trial. For attempted sabotage of the United States, they would sit in the electric chair.
The two men who outed them would serve time in prison.
It was almost a case of mayhem, so created by the leadership under Hitler. In effect, the Nazi’s penetrated the U.S. border, but it was the very act of storming our shores that unraveled their terrorist plot.
It was the Coast Guard who caught them making landfall. That mistake combined with a little personal conflict over the mission would be their undoing.
By the time two of the original crew opted to turn themselves in, the FBI was already on their trail. With their help, however, it was a short bit of work to catch the others.
Operation Pastorius, had it been a success, would have inflamed a panic amongst Americans who believed the war was something far away. It would have undermined the sense of safety maintained in the U.S. since the Civil War.
It was almost a real pain in the rear end.
The name of the German intelligence arm of the Nazis was the Abwehr. Of the five departments of the Abwehr, the one who organized the Pastorius plot was the sabotage team. It was they who found the four Germans that would sneak into the United States via Long Island.
The long term strategy of the Abwehr was to deploy teams of four men at a time, every six weeks, filling the U.S. with terrorists. The first would land in June of 1942.
Under a thick fog, on June 12, a German submarine made it to the coast of New York with the first team. The four-man team of German men who paddled ashore that night had all been residents of the United States before the war.
Because of this, they would be able to blend in without trouble, taking orders from the Abwehr, and creating mayhem in the streets. Their first mission, land on Long Island, set the explosives, then disappear into the night.
When they made landfall, a Coast Guardsman, John C. Cullen, discovered the crew while performing his rounds.
George Dasch, the mission leader, convinced Cullen to take a bribe for his silence. Cullen took the bribe, then reported what he saw to his superiors anyway. The Coast Guard notified the FBI.
The manhunt for the men kicked off the night of the 12, but they had not yet discovered any more of their scattered trail. The four men were to reconvene around July 4 in Cincinnati to coordinate, but George Dasch had other plans.
He called one of the other men, Ernst Burger to his hotel room, where he opened a window. According to Dasch, he 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 hated the Nazis. He’d spent seventeen months in a concentration camp, and could not resist double-crossing the mission. Dasch called the FBI to turn himself in, but seeing he was getting nowhere on the phone, hopped on a train to D.C.
At the FBI offices, Dasch struggled to get anyone’s attention until he spilled a briefcase of the mission’s cash on a table.
Three days later four more men landed in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. There were now eight men in the States. The FBI had to act quickly.
The FBI picked up Burger along with the rest of Dasch’s team on July 22. To preserve secrecy, they kept Dasch and Burger’s betrayal a secret at the time. It would seem they’d caught the whole crew using FBI intelligence.
Then, on the 27th of July, 1942, they caught the Florida crew. President Franklin D. Roosevelt arranged a military tribunal to try the men.
Seven generals were part of that tribunal, which handed down the sentence of guilty for all eight men. Dasch and Burger west go to jail until 1948 when President Harry Truman released them to Germany after the war. The other six men… got the chair.
The FBI uncovered no other crews of German saboteurs from Operation Pastorius, save two who landed in Maine, but those two spies were part of another operation. It too failed.
Despite the best efforts of the Abwehr, no Germans ever successfully attacked the U.S. at home.