The saboteurs all spoke English well, having lived
in the United States for considerable periods before the war. Indeed, two of the eight were naturalized American citizens.
And they had been carefully trained both in sabotage techniques and in blending into the local population to escape detection.
Regardless, they made a total hash of it when the coastguardsman showed up. The leader of the saboteurs, George Dasch, told
Cullen they were fishermen who had run aground. When one of the four men, incredibly, spoke in German, Cullen knew something
was up. Dasch gave him $260, saying, “Forget about this. Forget you ever saw us.” Cullen took the bribe to assuage
the men’s fears, faded back into the fog, and ran to the Coast Guard station to give the alarm.
By the time the Coast Guard got to the spot where
Cullen had encountered the saboteurs, however, they had made their way to the Amagansett train station and boarded an early
morning train to New York City. There they took hotel rooms. The Coast Guard was, however, able to find the buried equipment.
Once in New York City, Dasch got cold feet. He talked
one of his compatriots, Ernest Peter Burger, into alerting the American authorities and called the FBI, giving his name as
“Pastorius.” He told them he had recently come from Germany and would call FBI headquarters in Washington the
The four men who were put ashore in Florida had better
luck. After they changed into civilian clothes and buried their equipment for later retrieval, they made their way to Jacksonville
undetected and from there went by train to Cincinnati. Two then went to Chicago and two to New York.
On June 19 Dasch traveled to Washington, checked into
a hotel, and called FBI headquarters. He told them he was Pastorius, and where he could be found. He was immediately taken
into custody and told the FBI all he knew. (Their plan had been to sabotage aluminum and magnesium plants and canals, waterways,
and locks, as well as to plant bombs in Jewish-owned department stores.) On June 20, the other three saboteurs who had landed
on Long Island were taken into custody. The two saboteurs who had traveled from Florida to New York were arrested on June
23, and the two in Chicago on June 27. Almost all their money was recovered and later deposited in the Treasury.
Brought to Washington, the eight were tried before
a military commission (after the Supreme Court had unanimously decided that such a means of dealing with unlawful combatants
was proper). President Roosevelt wanted a high-profile trial to send a message to Germany about what happens to saboteurs,
and that was exactly what he got. The story of the capture and trial was front-page news all over the country.
The trials, held in the Department of Justice building,
ran from July 8 to August 4. The prosecution was headed by the Attorney General himself, Francis Biddle, and the Army Judge
Advocate General, Maj. Gen. Myron Cramer. The defense lawyers were also distinguished; they included Col. Kenneth Royall,
who would later serve briefly as President Harry S. Truman’s Secretary of War, and Maj. Lauson Stone, the son of Chief
Justice Harlan Fiske Stone.
With the evidence overwhelming and two of the eight
defendants cooperating, the results of the trials were never in doubt. On August 4 all eight men were condemned to death,
to be executed in the electric chair at the District of Columbia jail. Biddle and the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, both
asked Roosevelt to commute the sentences of the two saboteurs who had made the capture and conviction of the others possible.
Dasch was sentenced to 30 years and Burger to life in a federal penitentiary. The other six were executed on August 8, less
than two months after their landing on American soil. Many of those the men had contacted before their apprehension were arrested,
and some were tried and convicted of treason or other crimes.
There were no further incidents of attempted sabotage
during the war, although late in the war two men whose mission was spying, not sabotage, were landed by submarine in Maine
and captured about a month later. Evidently Roosevelt’s message had been received loud and clear, for it was learned
after the war that the Germans had never again tried to put saboteurs ashore.
In 1948 President Truman granted Burger and Dasch
clemency, provided that they agreed to deportation to the American Zone of occupied Germany.
In the end the affair was a minor one, thanks to a
little luck and a case of cold feet. Had luck gone the other way and had Dasch had more backbone, serious damage to the war
effort might well have resulted.
—John Steele Gordon
writes “The Business of America” for American Heritage magazine. His most recent book
is An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power (HarperCollins).