FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the Nazi Saboteur
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FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the Nazi Saboteur

WWII

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the Nazi Saboteur

ca. 1942, USA --- Armed soldiers guard the ambulances that are carrying the bodies of six executed Nazi saboteurs who plotted against the United States away from Washington jail. --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Did FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover cover up the events that led to the capture of German agents in the U.S.? Find out more below.

by David Alan Johnson

It was just about midnight on June 12, 1942, and the Abwehr (Nazi Germany’s intelligence agency) hoped that Dasch and his three men, along with another four-man group to be put ashore on the coast of Florida, would be able to destroy factories of the Aluminium Company of America (ALCOA) located in the United States. The ALCOA plants supplied the American aircraft industry with much of its metal for manufacturing fighters, bombers, and other airplanes for the military forces and were considered well worth the risk and expense of a sabotage operation.

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But Dasch knew something that the others did not—he had already decided that he was going to make the sabotage operation fail, even before he met the other men assigned to Operation Pastorius, the code name given to the sabotage mission. He and the other men had taken an accelerated course in the practical aspects of sabotage—how to make fuses, how to make incendiary bombs, the most efficient way of blowing up railway lines and bridges—at Quenzsee, the Abwehr’s sabotage school not far from Berlin. Because he had made up his mind that he was going to derail Operation Pastorius, however, Dasch found it very difficult to pay attention to the training program.

Repaying a Debt to the USA

His motives for wanting to undermine Operation Pastorius were fairly simple. Dasch had lived in the United States for 19 years, from 1922 to 1941, and had served in the U.S. Army. He felt a very strong emotional attachment to his adopted country, and he married an American girl, Rose Marie Guilli. For most of these 19 years Dasch lived in New York City, where he worked as a waiter. Although Dasch was not entirely happy as a waiter—he thought that tipping was demeaning—he and his wife were happy enough until his mother arrived from Germany in 1939. Mrs. Dasch was anything but happy when she found out that her son was only a waiter; she and her husband had sent their son to a good school and expected him to have a much better job than that, especially in the “land of opportunity.” As far as she was concerned, waiting on tables was a menial job, on the same level as sweeping floors.

Mrs. Dasch insisted that George return to Germany and get a better job. Her brother Adolph was a senior chemist at the huge I.G. Farben conglomerate in Ludwigshafen; he could get George a good job there. Everything was booming in Hitler’s new Germany, she said, and the Nazis would leave him alone if he minded his own business.

After listening to his mother’s line of persuasion for several weeks, Dasch decided to go back to Germany. By the time he filled out all the necessary papers and left New York, the war had started. There was then no direct travel between the United States and Germany. Dasch went by way of Japan, China, and Russia, which took six weeks. He finally arrived in Berlin in June 1941. His wife Marie would follow a few weeks later, by a different route aboard a neutral ship.

German saboteur George Dasch, who believed his information revealing the German landing would be gratefully received, appears in this photograph to be perplexed at the turn of events.

German saboteur George Dasch, who believed his information revealing the German landing would be gratefully received, appears in this photograph to be perplexed at the turn of events.

Hitler’s Germany was not the place that Mrs. Dasch had described, at least not to Dasch’s way of thinking. After living in the United States, Nazi Germany was hard and restrictive, and Dasch did not like either the restrictions or the life. But he realized that getting out of Nazi Germany would be next to impossible. The Gestapo watched everybody and would arrest Dasch if he tried to make any attempt to return to the United States.

A minor government official named Walter Kappe discovered that Marie’s ship had been stopped by British warships and that she had been taken to Bermuda for internment, where she would spend the rest of the war. Kappe also persuaded Dasch to work for his radio monitoring station in Berlin, where he would translate radio broadcasts from the United States. Translating broadcasts for Kappe was better for Dasch than working for the Farben conglomerate; for one thing, it would make him exempt from serving in the German Army.

After about six months as a radio monitor and shortly after Germany went to war with the United States, Kappe offered Dasch another job—taking part in a sabotage operation in America. Dasch jumped at the chance of returning to the States, but he had no intention of going through with any sabotage. As far as he was concerned, he owed it to his adopted country to wreck the sabotage plot. He had enjoyed his 19 years in America and hated living in Germany. He regretted listening to his mother’s advice. If he could find a way to destroy the Nazi sabotage scheme, it would be his way of repaying the debt he owed to America. As an American, he felt it was the least he could do.

Preparing for Operation Pastorius

In February 1942, Dasch was officially transferred from his radio monitoring job to the training phase of Operation Pastorius. Later, Dasch found out that the project was named for Franz Daniel Pastorius, the first German immigrant to come to America in the 1700s. At Quenzsee, all of the men assigned to the operation attended lectures and demonstrations on the handling of explosives. Every one of the men had lived in the United States for a number of years. Two were U.S. citizens. In May, the men were taken on a field trip to I.G. Farben factories, which were very similar to the ALCOA plants they were being sent to destroy. The Farben officials went out of their way to be as cooperative as possible with the saboteur trainees.

“We were shown the various bottlenecks existing in each plant,” explained Ernest Burger, a member of Dasch’s four-man group. The simplest way of shutting down production, the men were instructed, would be to destroy a high tension tower that supplied the plant’s electricity. A tower in the middle of a forest or woods, miles away from the plant, would be best—the saboteurs would be less likely to be to be seen, and it would take more time for a crew to find and repair the tower. By that time, any aluminum sitting in electrolytic baths would have solidified into one solid, useless block of metal.

Crates containing TNT, coal bombs, and fuses recovered from the boxes buried by German saboteurs on Long Island.

Crates containing TNT, coal bombs, and fuses recovered from the boxes buried by German saboteurs on Long Island.

The Farben engineers estimated that it would take between eight and 10 months to repair the damage. The American aircraft industry would have lost a considerable percentage of its aluminium supply during this time and would have no choice but to cut back on production of all types of planes for the armed forces. The ALCOA plants at Massina, New York; Alcoa, Tennessee; and East St. Louis, Illinois, were the main targets for the two Operation Pastorius groups. Other objectives were also assigned, including the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad’s Horseshoe Curve at Altoona, Pennsylvania; the Hell Gate Bridge in New York; and the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in Newark, New Jersey. Low-priority “nuisance” targets, such as lockers inside rail and bus stations and New York department stores, were also assigned. Discretion as to which targets to sabotage first would be left to the leaders of the two groups.

George Dasch was the leader of his group, which included Burger, Richard Quirin, and Heinrich Heinck. The four men were to be put ashore by U-boat on Long Island. The second group, led by Edward Kerling, included Herbert Haupt, Werner Thiel, and Hermann Neubauer. They would land on the coast of Florida. Dasch and Kerling were to meet in the Grill Room of the Hotel Gibson in Cincinnati on July 4, 1942, the date set by Walter Kappe. At the meeting, they would discuss the choice of objectives. Dasch suspected that the choice of July 4 was Kappe’s idea of a joke.

Blending In

When training ended, it became evident that departure for the United States was now only days away. There were several important details that had to be taken care of before the men could leave Germany, however. One major item was a new identification and cover story for each of the men. Dasch became George John Day, born in San Francisco in 1900—before the earthquake and fire—so that he could claim that his birth records had been destroyed in the fire. Edward Kerling became Edward J. Kelly, also born in San Francisco before the earthquake. Dasch always thought that Kerling looked like an Irish bartender, which was the reason behind this particular cover name.

Everyone had to have new papers—passports, draft cards, Social Security cards—to go with their new names. American slang was also drilled into the men, including phrases like “get lost” and “beat it,” which never would have been picked up in any conversational English class. The latest copies of Time, Newsweek, Life, and other American magazines were also delivered to Quenzsee and read avidly—especially the advertisements for things like whiskey and cigarettes, which were all but impossible to get in Germany. American pop tunes were also played, including records by Glenn Miller, Harry James, and Jimmy Dorsey. By the end of their training course, the men were as Americanized as anyone in Nazi Germany could hope to be.

From Berlin to Long Island

On May 20, the men were notified that they would be leaving Berlin within 48 hours. Two days later, they boarded a train for the submarine base at Lorient, France, on the Bay of Biscay. Edward Kerling’s group sailed first, aboard U-584. Dasch and his three men squeezed through the hatch of U-202 on May 26. They took over $80,000 in cash along with them, as well as assorted fuses, detonators, and blocks of plastic explosives.

The trip across the Atlantic in U-202 lasted 17 days. As leader of the group, Dasch at least had the privilege of going to the bridge for some fresh air once in a while. Burger, Quirin, and Heinck spent most of the crossing cooped up in the forward torpedo room with the rest of the crew. A few days after leaving Lorient, the rubber raft that would put the four men ashore was taken out and inflated to make sure that it worked and then stowed below again. Dasch also met with the other men to discuss the landing and what to do with the explosives. Everything they brought with them, except the money, was to be buried on the beach. Later, after more specific plans had been made regarding targets and objectives, they would come back and dig everything up.

The empty beach at Ponte Vedra, Florida, was the location where German saboteurs led by Edward Kerling wwere put ashore by the submarine U-584. This stretch of coastline was essentially unpatrolled, and the Germans were not detected there.

The empty beach at Ponte Vedra, Florida, was the location where German saboteurs led by Edward Kerling wwere put ashore by the submarine U-584. This stretch of coastline was essentially unpatrolled, and the Germans were not detected there.

Dasch was still not exactly sure what he was going to do to make Operation Pastorius fail. He thought of going to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or possibly the police, or maybe some high-ranking military officer. There was also a question of timing. Should he go to the authorities immediately or wait a while to make certain that Kerling and his men had come ashore in Florida?

On June 12, U-202 reached the coast of Long Island. The boat submerged and spent the daylight hours in 100 feet of water at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Burger had made comments that seemed to suggest that he might be an anti-Nazi as well. If Burger was with Dasch, it would be a great help—if nothing else, he would at least have someone in whom he could confide. But Dasch was determined to put an end to Operation Pastorius, with or without Burger’s help.

At about midnight, the U-boat surfaced and headed toward the beach at dead slow speed until it touched bottom. The boat’s captain decided to use the electric motors instead of the diesel engines—the battery-powered motors were much quieter. Wearing Navy work clothes, Dasch and his men, along with two members of the U-boat’s crew, loaded the crates of explosives into the rubber raft. Finally, the six men climbed in and paddled toward the shore. It took several minutes to make their way to the beach, but Dasch was relieved to be back in the United States. It was his first time on American soil in over a year.

Spotted on the Shore

While the others unloaded the raft, Dasch took a walk up the beach. After a short time, he saw “a boy in an American sailor’s uniform” walking toward him. His instructions on dealing with intruders were short and to the point—kill them and send the body back to the U-boat. “You bring the bodies back,” the captain told him, “and we’ll feed them to the fish when we get out to sea again.”

Dasch deliberately disobeyed orders.

The “sailor” was Coast Guardsman John Cullen, who was making a routine beach patrol from the Coast Guard station at Amagansett. Cullen thought Dasch was a fisherman who had run aground and invited him and his companions to spend the night at the station—it would be a lot warmer and drier than waiting on the beach until sunrise.

Dasch’s response came as a complete surprise. “Look here, boy, I can’t tell you what’s going on just now,” he said. “This is a matter for Washington.” He then asked Cullen how old he was and advised him to do exactly as he was told if he ever wanted to see his father and mother again. Dasch also gave Cullen some money he had in his pocket and asked Cullen to shine his light in his face “so that you’ll recognize me when I have you called in Washington.”

Thoroughly frightened, Cullen ran back up the beach toward the station to report the incident. When the money was counted, it came to $260. Dasch had saved Cullen’s life and had also taken the first step toward revealing the plot.

“Yesterday Napoleon Called”

The six men buried the crates on the beach along with their work uniforms. As soon as they finished their chore, the two U-boat crewmen took the rubber raft back to U-202, and Dasch, Burger, Heinck, and Quirin changed into civilian clothes. Dasch left a shovel sticking upright in the sand as a marker to make the crates and uniforms easier to find. He did not know it, but Burger had also left a couple of markers of his own—in plain sight, he left a half-filled bottle of German brandy, a packet of German cigarettes, and a German Navy rating’s cap, complete with swastika insignia.

Dasch, Burger, Quirin, and Heinck walked off the beach and made their way to the Amagansett rail station with quite a bit of difficulty—every town along the entire Eastern Seaboard was completely blacked out. They managed to find the station in the dark largely by luck. From Amagansett, the four men took a train to Jamaica, Queens. At Jamaica, they split up. Heinck and Quirin went off on their own, while Dasch and Burger took a train into Manhattan.

Dasch knew the city very well from prewar days and showed Burger some of the sights, including Radio City Music Hall. He did not determine Burger’s state of mind regarding Operation Pastorius until their second day in the United States. Both had registered at the Governor Clinton Hotel, Dasch under his cover name George John Day. He called Burger into his room and asked him point blank about his feelings toward sabotaging American factories and railways.

Burger’s reply took Dasch completely by surprise. He thought that Dasch was an American agent and went on to say that he only became involved with Operation Pastorius to get away from the Gestapo. He had already been arrested by the Gestapo on trumped-up charges and was afraid that they might lock him up permanently if he stayed in Germany. Reporting the sabotage operation to the FBI sounded like a good idea to Burger.

Dasch called the FBI’s New York office from a telephone booth while Burger waited outside. The conversation did not go the way Dasch thought it would. He told the agent who answered the telephone, Dean McWhorter, that he had a “message of importance” and asked him to identify himself. McWhorter refused, which rattled Dasch and made him defensive— at Quenzsee, everyone had been told that the FBI had been infiltrated by German agents. Dasch said that his name was Franz Daniel Pastorius and that he and three other men had come ashore from a German submarine the day before. The agent assured Dasch that he would contact Washington and relay his information to FBI headquarters.

Actually, Agent McWhorter did not do anything. He dismissed Dasch as a crank and made the remark, “Yesterday Napoleon called.” For the record, he wrote a memo noting that Frank Daniel Pastorius telephoned and that he would be going to Washington on Thursday or Friday to discuss an important matter with J. Edgar Hoover. The note was then filed away and forgotten. This would not be the last time that Dasch was misled by the FBI.

Making Contact with the FBI

After his telephone conversation with McWhorter, Dasch seems to have lost all track of time. He became involved in a marathon card game with some of his old waiter friends from before the war, a session that lasted a day and a half. It did help to calm his nerves. Dasch later said that he took a train to Washington on June 17, although records show that he did not leave until the 18th. He was either so involved in the game that time got away from him or so nervous that he forgot what day it was.

At about 7 pm on June 18, Dasch arrived in Washington and went straight to his hotel, the Mayflower. Burger stayed behind in New York, waiting for something to happen. About 20 hours earlier, Kerling’s group of saboteurs had landed on the Florida coast. U-584 delivered Kerling, Thiel, Haupt, and Neubauer to Ponte Vedra, on the Atlantic coast a few miles from Jacksonville. The four men had come ashore completely undetected. They buried their crates of explosives on the beach, just as Dasch and his men had done, and headed inland. The four men went their separate ways unimpeded.

After a night’s sleep, Dasch telephoned the U.S. Government Information Service. The girl who answered the telephone asked him the nature of his business; Dasch explained that he had a statement of military and political value to make. The young woman was not at all surprised by this reply and suggested that he get in touch with Colonel H.F. Kramer of the Army General Staff. Dasch telephoned immediately, but the colonel was not in his office. He left a message with Kramer’s secretary, who promised that the colonel would return the call as soon as he returned. After waiting half an hour with no word from Colonel Kramer, Dasch’s nerves got the better of him. He telephoned the FBI.

Dasch told the agent who answered the telephone essentially the same thing he had told McWhorter in New York, that he was the leader of four men who had landed in the United States via U-boat. He also referred to his telephone conversation with McWhorter, but the agent, Duane L. “Pie” Traynor, had no idea what Dasch was talking about. Traynor told Dasch that if he had something to report, he could come over and do it in person. Dasch did not know where the FBI offices were, so Traynor sent a driver to pick him up.

Spoiling Operation Pastorius

After telling his story to the FBI, Dasch probably wished that he had waited for Colonel Kramer. Nobody believed his story. He told Traynor and another agent that he and three other men had come ashore in a rubber dinghy on the coast of Long Island and that he had been sent to disrupt America’s light metals industry. The two agents just looked at him with blank expressions.

Dasch had brought his expense money with him, a bag containing $84,000 in cash. Nobody bothered to examine the bag. Since he was getting nowhere, he opened it and dumped its contents all over the table. Traynor and his colleague were startled, to put it mildly, by the stack of $50 bills that cascaded onto the floor.

The second agent picked up the money, looked at Dasch, and asked, “Is this stuff real?” Dasch assured him that it was.

When the federal agents finally decided to listen, they made up for their initial skepticism. They began asking Dasch questions in an interrogation session that went on for eight days. His testimony was taken down by stenographers working in relays, and it ran nearly 300 pages.

Dasch was questioned on topics besides Operation Pastorius. Among the things he was asked about were other sabotage campaigns against both the United States and Britain. One topic he could discuss at length was the spy school at Quenzsee, as well as Abwehr training methods. Naval Intelligence had questions about the submarine base at Lorient and what he had observed about U-boat operations while crossing the Atlantic aboard U-202.

More important to the FBI was information about the other Pastorius agents. Information supplied by Dasch was essential in the capture of the other men in his group. Burger was in his room in the Governor Clinton Hotel, right where Dasch said he would be. Heinck and Quirin were both arrested in Manhattan, Quirin in front of a tailor’s shop, and Heinck after he left a delicatessen.

Dasch’s assistance also resulted in the tracing and ultimate arrest of Kerling and Thiel. He had given detailed descriptions of both men, which proved invaluable. They were apprehended in Manhattan. The last two Pastorius saboteurs were picked up on June 27, just 10 days after they landed in Florida. Neubauer and Haupt were arrested in Chicago. Although Dasch had not known their exact whereabouts, he did provide descriptions of the two as well as possible destinations for them. He gave the FBI a place to start looking.

Crates of explosives carried ashore by the German saboteurs who landed in Florida are shown after their discovery.

Crates of explosives carried ashore by the German saboteurs who landed in Florida are shown after their discovery.

Without Dasch’s assistance and later that of Burger, the FBI would probably never have arrested any of the Operation Pastorius agents, at least not until they had blown something up. Sabotage had already been committed in the United States. The Hercules Power Plant in Kenvil, New Jersey, was blown up by saboteurs on September 12, 1940. The FBI never found out who had caused the explosions, which rattled windows a mile away. There were other instances of sabotage as well, but the FBI classified most of these as “industrial accidents.”

After his arrest, Kerling led federal agents to the place at Ponte Vedra where the explosives had been buried. Kerling watched as the boxes were dug up. With this, and the arrest of all Operation Pastorius agents, the FBI had everyone and everything connected with the sabotage operation in its custody.

Keeping Dasch’s Role a Secret

Now that the sabotage operation had been totally destroyed, Dasch worried that the Gestapo would somehow find out that he had been responsible and would arrest his mother and family in Germany. Federal agents assured Dasch that his role in the breakup of Operation Pastorius would be kept a secret. In fact, he was told that the Bureau wanted the Abwehr to think that the sabotage plan had been discovered by the FBI alone, without any outside help.

This was absolutely true. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was not about to share credit with Dasch or anybody else. In fact, he was prepared to do everything possible to keep Dasch’s vital role an absolute secret—from the public, from the news media, and even from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Agent Traynor and his colleagues asked Dasch if he would continue to cooperate with them, even though the other men were in custody. Some of the men were refusing to answer questions. Apparently, they thought that Dasch was still at large. If they could see for themselves that he was behind bars as well, they would determine that the game was up and might be more willing to talk. This made sense to Dasch, and he agreed to play along.

Dasch was taken to New York on June 28, the day after Haupt and Neubauer were arrested in Chicago. At the Federal Court Building Dasch was placed under formal arrest, although no one informed him that he had been arrested. He was given a prison uniform and photographed with a prison number. All this was part of an act to convince the other men, he was told. Finally, he was led past the cells of the other Pastorius men, except Burger, so that they could see him, and was put in a cell by himself. FBI agents assured him that everything would be all right.

“CAPTURED NAZI SPY”

While he was alone in his cell, Dasch happened to look through the opening in the door. He saw a guard reading a copy of the New York Daily News. On the front page he could read the headline: CAPTURED NAZI SPY. Underneath the headline was his own photograph. Dasch said that when he saw the photo he “broke into a cold sweat” and did not sleep all night.

The next morning, Dasch met with three FBI agents, including Pie Traynor and T.J. Donegan, the head of the New York office. Dasch demanded to know why the newspapers were given his photograph and were allowed to call him a Nazi when the FBI had promised that nothing like that would happen. This took everyone by surprise. Donegan barked, “How the hell do you know that?”

Traynor stepped in and told Dasch that everyone knew what a great service he had done but that he would have to be put on trial with the other men if he was serious about fighting the Nazis. Traynor was convincing. He had another request as well. He wanted Dasch to plead guilty. This would lead Berlin to think that he had been captured along with the others. In the name of J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General Francis Biddle, Traynor promised that within six months of the trial, “you will be freed with a full presidential pardon.”

Dasch reluctantly agreed to plead guilty, even though he insisted that he was not guilty. What nobody bothered to tell him was that he would be committing public suicide by saying that he was guilty. Whether he pleaded guilty or was found guilty, the charge of sabotage carried the death penalty in wartime.

“Should They be Shot or Hanged?”

Dasch had an uneasy feeling about everything he had seen and heard since he had gone to the FBI. Three or four days after he had seen his picture in the Daily News, his uneasiness turned to alarm. He was formally charged with attempted sabotage, espionage, and conspiracy. There were other minor charges as well. Dasch was also informed that he and the other seven men would be tried by a military tribunal instead of a civil court. He asked a guard to send for Donegan to explain. Donegan curtly told him that he had nothing to do with the military tribunal or with the agreement he had reached with Pie Traynor. Dasch was outraged, and shouted that he wanted a lawyer and that he now refused to plead guilty. Donegan did not even bother to reply; he walked out of Dasch’s cell and slammed the door behind him.

Trying civilians under the rules of a court-martial was unusual, but it was legal. The last civilians to be tried by a military tribunal had been the conspirators in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. A military tribunal would make things much more difficult for Dasch—and easier for J. Edgar Hoover. Under military law, the accused is presumed guilty until proven innocent.

J. Edgar Hoover lied to President Roosevelt about what had taken place between Dasch and the FBI. “The leader of the group, George Dasch, was apprehended by Special Agents of the FBI on June 22, 1942 at New York City,” Hoover wrote in a memo to the president. Actually, Dasch had not been apprehended at all—he had turned himself in to the FBI in Washington, D.C., not New York, and it was on June 18, not June 22. Hoover would continue to lie to the president and everyone else about George Dasch and his role in destroying Operation Pastorius.

Along with everyone else, President Roosevelt believed Hoover. Roosevelt had approved the military trial largely because of what Hoover had told him. Roosevelt asked an aide, “What should be done about the men—should they be shot or hanged?”

A Poor Defense

On Saturday, July 4, Dasch and the other seven men were moved from New York to the District of Columbia jail. The trial began four days later, in Room 5235 in the Department of Justice Building. The case against Richard Quirin, Heinrich Heinck, Edward Kerling, Herbert Haupt, Werner Thiel, and Hermann Neubauer was fairly straightforward. They had no real basis for their defense. Haupt and Quirin insisted that they had no intention of performing any acts of sabotage but could produce no evidence to support their claim. Kerling and Heinck said more or less the same thing, but they could not back up their stories either. Thiel protested that he had been coerced into becoming part of Operation Pastorius by the Nazis. Neubauer said that he had only been following orders.

Both Dasch and Burger based their defense on the fact that they had gone to the FBI voluntarily and that their information had been directly responsible for the breakup of the sabotage plot. They had a good deal of evidence to support this argument. Pie Traynor and even J. Edgar Hoover himself could have testified that Dasch’s help had been invaluable.

Four of the German saboteurs, captured and on trial for their lives, listen attentively during the proceedings. Pictured from left to right are Werner Thiel, Richard Quirin, an unidentified U.S. sldier, Hermann Neubauer, and Edward Kerling.

Four of the German saboteurs, captured and on trial for their lives, listen attentively during the proceedings. Pictured from left to right are Werner Thiel, Richard Quirin, an unidentified U.S. sldier, Hermann Neubauer, and Edward Kerling.

As the trial progressed—it would last 24 days—Dasch was becoming convinced that the proceedings were anything but fair and unbiased. His defense counsel, Colonel Carl Ristine, did not call any of the character witness that Dasch suggested, people who had known Dasch before the war and could testify that he had always been a loyal American. Colonel Ristine also did not call Pie Traynor to ask him about the full presidential pardon that Dasch was to receive. Dasch did not think that Colonel Ristine cross-examined the prosecution’s witnesses as thoroughly as he should have done.

When Coast Guardsman John Cullen was on the witness stand, Biddle asked a number of incriminating questions regarding what Dasch had said and done on the beach at Amagansett. The objective was to make Dasch seem menacing and offensive—a foreign national coming ashore illegally from an enemy submarine. But Ristine’s cross-examination only concerned itself with proving that Dasch did not attack Cullen, which the Coast Guardsman freely admitted. He might have shown that Dasch had gone out of his way to call attention to himself and that he allowed Cullen to take a good look at him.

The questions that Colonel Ristine asked did no damage to the prosecution’s case at all and did not help Dasch. To Dasch, it seemed that his attorney “had little intention of trying to break down this damaging testimony.” Throughout the trial, Ristine’s cross-examinations had been described as “cursory” even by the prosecution.

Set Up for Failure

Toward the end of the prosecution’s case, an event took place that convinced at least one other person that Dasch’s suspicions of an unfair trial were correct. Second Lieutenant John Murdock, the officer in charge of the radar station at Montauk Point, Long Island, was called to testify. On the morning after the landing at Amagansett, Murdock had been asked by the officer in charge of the Coast Guard station to drive down from Montauk to take a look at the boxes of explosives that had been dug up. Now the prosecution wanted to ask him about what had happened at Amagansett, and what he had seen and heard.

At one point, Murdock was asked if he had seen any sign of a German submarine on the night of the landing. When Murdock replied that nothing had shown up on radar, the questioning officer got excited. He wanted to know the range of the radar set at Montauk, which was a highly classified subject.

Murdock, who described himself as a “brand new second lieutenant,” was surprised by the question. Because it involved disclosing top secret information, he was not sure if he should answer and asked for instructions. The judges did not hesitate in telling Murdock to answer the question. The range was about 150 miles.

At the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., Room 5235 was converted into a courtroom for the trial of the Operation Pastorius conspirators. The generals of the military commission that presided are in the rear, while Attorney General Francis Biddle and the Prosecution staff are on the right and defense attorneys are on the left. Behind them are the defendants.

At the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., Room 5235 was converted into a courtroom for the trial of the Operation Pastorius conspirators. The generals of the military commission that presided are in the rear, while Attorney General Francis Biddle and the Prosecution staff are on the right and defense attorneys are on the left. Behind them are the defendants.

Murdock had been in the Army long enough to realize that such information would not normally have been given in front of eight men on trial unless there was no chance that any of them would be seeing the outside world again. Had there been any possibility that George Dasch would be found not guilty, he knew that he would never have been ordered to give away such closely guarded information in his presence.

As soon as he was ordered to answer the question, Murdock knew that none of the defendants would be acquitted. The verdict was already in.

Dasch did not do anything to help his own case. He was highly strung and very nervous by nature, but at the trial his nerves were almost uncontrollable. His answers on the witness stand rambled and were frequently so badly phrased that they made no sense at all. When Attorney General Biddle asked why he had not contacted the FBI immediately after landing, Dasch said that he had three reasons. He only gave two, and only one of these—he was a “mental and nervous wreck”—made any sense. Replies to other questions were even less coherent. He also argued with Colonel Ristine, acted up, according to one source, and “created unpleasant situations.” Hoover, who attended every day of the trial, was well satisfied with Dasch’s conduct.

Burger remained calm throughout his questioning. He gave clear and straightforward reasons for turning against the Nazis and for undermining Operation Pastorius. He had been falsely jailed by the SS and was bitter about being left in prison by his so-called friends in the Nazi party. Attorney General Biddle seemed satisfied with Burger’s answers, which served to confirm that George Dasch was not a Nazi and had thoughts about opposing the sabotage operation as far back as Quenzsee.

The Fate of the Condemned

The questions and testimony went on until July 27, 1942, when the trial finally came to an end. All eight men were sentenced to death. But Biddle recommended leniency for both Dasch and Burger because they had given information to the FBI. President Roosevelt listened to Biddle and reduced the sentences of both men. Dasch’s sentence was commuted to 30 years in prison; Burger was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Roosevelt’s reduction of the two sentences both astonished and angered Hoover. Up to that time, everything had gone his way. Even though Dasch would not be executed, he would still be in prison. Hoover would do his best to make certain that no one would hear his story. Hoover never seemed to be troubled about Burger, probably because Burger was always so passive.

As it turned out, the six condemned men were neither shot nor hanged. At the District jail, the electric chair had replaced the gallows in the 1930s. On the morning of August 8, 1942, they were escorted to death row, one at a time, and then to the execution chamber about 100 yards away. The exact order in which the men were executed was kept secret, but it was customary at the District jail to perform multiple executions in alphabetical order.

This meant that Haupt was first. “Haupt was seated in the electric chair at one minute past noon,” a witness later wrote. After Haupt, it was Heinck, Kerling, Neubauer, Quirin, and finally Thiel. Each execution took an average of 10 minutes and 30 seconds. The entire procedure, from first to last, took one hour and three minutes. It was considered the fastest multiple execution on record.

Herbert Hans Haupt.

Herbert Hans Haupt.

Heinrich Harm Heinck.

Heinrich Harm Heinck.

Edward Kerling.

Edward Kerling.

Herman Otto Neubauer.

Herman Otto Neubauer.

Richard Quirin.

Richard Quirin.

Werner Thiel.

Werner Thiel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dasch and Burger were transferred to the federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut, to begin serving their sentences. Dasch was moved to several other prisons during the next few years, including Atlanta, Georgia; and Leavenworth, Kansas. He was refused permission to have any connection with the outside world. He was even refused a pencil, in case he should write down his testimony and somehow smuggle it out of prison.

Unmasking the Truth

Hoover got everything he wanted out of Operation Pastorius. He received the recognition he was looking for and was acclaimed a national hero for rounding up eight enemy saboteurs within days of their landing in the United States. President Roosevelt even authorized a bill for an “appropriate medal of honor” for Hoover.

Newspaper and magazine accounts praised Hoover and vilified Dasch. Burger was usually left out of these accounts, or mentioned only in passing. To make certain that writers used the FBI’s version of Operation Pastorius when they were researching an article, the FBI produced a five-page press release called “George Dasch and the Nazi Saboteurs.” In this account, the Bureau implies that Dasch gave evidence against the other men only after he had been “taken into custody” and had been thoroughly interrogated by FBI agents.

This release does admit that Dasch turned himself in to the FBI, but only because his group had been discovered on the beach by Coast Guardsman John Cullen. “Perhaps he thought the whole project so grandiose as to be impractical,” the release read, “and wanted to protect himself before some of his companions took action on similar doubts.” In other words, it implied that Dasch went to the FBI only because he was afraid that his companions would turn on him first.

Hoover did such an excellent job of covering up Dasch’s role and circulating the FBI version that it endured for years. In spite of his efforts, however, staff reporters at Newsweek magazine got wind of Dasch’s actual role in the sabotage plot. Hoover found out that Newsweek had the story and tried to keep it from being published. He did not kill the story but managed to have it heavily censored. The story appeared in Newsweek’s November 12, 1945, edition, and reported that Dasch and Burger were directly responsible for defusing Operation Pastorius. It did not mention Hoover’s attempts to persuade Dasch to plead guilty to sabotage or mention Hoover in any negative manner.

In 1948, both Dasch and Burger were released from prison on a pardon from President Harry S. Truman, which is customary for imprisoned spies and saboteurs when a war comes to an end. Both men were also ordered to be deported to Germany. As soon as J. Edgar Hoover found out about the pardon, he had both men rushed out of the country so quickly that neither Dasch’s American-born wife nor his attorney knew anything about what had happened until Dasch was on his way to Germany.

Throughout the rest of Dasch’s life, he always expected that he would receive some sort of pardon that would clear him of his conviction and allow him to return to the United States. He died in 1992, at the age of 88, still expecting that someone in Washington would undo what J. Edgar Hoover had done.

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