This Day in History: Nazi saboteurs invade the United States
On this day in 1942, four Nazi saboteurs invade mainland America. They’d traveled across the Atlantic aboard a German submarine, coming ashore near Amagansett, New York. Another submarine carrying four more Nazis would soon land in Florida. These eight men were on a mission: They were supposed to sabotage railroads, bridges, water facilities, and factories.
Adolf Hitler hoped to undercut America’s giant war production machine.
The eight men selected for “Operation Pastorius” were all German-Americans, specifically trained for the mission. When the first submarine surfaced in American waters just after midnight on June 13, it was carrying four saboteurs: George John Dasch, Ernest Burger, and two others. The saboteurs were to bury their explosives and other materials near the shore before making their way to New York. They could come back for the explosives later, when they were ready for them.
They were nearly foiled on the very first night! U.S. Coast Guard Seaman John C. Cullen spotted the group while he was on patrol. The Germans told Cullen that they were fishermen, but Cullen was skeptical. Dasch first threatened to kill Cullen, then offered him a bribe to forget what he’d seen.
It was perhaps the first hint that Dasch wasn’t so loyal to the Nazis. If he’d been following orders, he would have killed Cullen instead.
Cullen took the money and left, but he had no intention of being bribed. He was going for reinforcements. It took too long, though. By the time a Coast Guard team returned to the beach, the Germans were already headed to New York City. Once there, they split up, with Dasch and Burger checking into a hotel together.
According to Dasch’s version of events, the two men soon figured out that neither had ever intended to help the German effort. Burger hated the Nazi Party! And Dasch felt that America was his adopted country. Instead, the two men hatched a plan: Burger would keep an eye on the other two German operatives while Dasch contacted the FBI.
Even then, the FBI nearly bungled the whole thing. The first agent Dasch called in New York thought he was a nut case. Dasch traveled to D.C., but agents there didn’t take him too seriously, either. In fact, no one really believed anything he had to say until, in a dramatic gesture, he dumped more than $80K in cash on a desk. It was the money that the German government had given him to finance the operation.
Finally, the FBI was ready to listen. Dasch was taken into protective custody, and he was grilled for days on end. With his help, the FBI found the remaining Nazis.
Dasch would later claim that he was promised a full pardon if he would stay quiet while they sent him to jail and pretended to press charges. He was told that the FBI needed help so it could fool the other German saboteurs and scare the German government.
The FBI has never confirmed that piece of the story.
Either way, all eight men were arrested, tried, and convicted. In the end, six were given the death penalty, but FDR commuted Burger’s sentence to life imprisonment and Dasch’s to 30 years in prison. President Truman would later give them executive clemency, conditioned on deportation back to Germany.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had wanted full credit with the American public—and with the President—for foiling the Nazi attempt. For years, he successfully downplayed Dasch’s role in the FBI victory. But without Dasch, would the German sabotage attempt have succeeded?
Dasch passed away in 1992, still fighting for the pardon that he felt he deserved.
Almanac of American Military History (Spencer Tucker ed. 2013) (Vol. 1)
David Alan Johnson, Betrayal: The True Story of J. Edgar Hoover and the Nazi Saboteurs Captured During WWII (2007)
David A. Taylor, The Inside Story of How a Nazi Plot to Sabotage the U.S. War Effort Was Foiled (Smithsonian Mag; last updated June 26, 2017)
Famous Cases: Nazi Saboteurs and George Dasch (FBI website)
Jenna Goff, How a Failed German Spy Mission Turned into J. Edgar Hoover’s Big Break (Boundary Stones; June 10, 2015) (A PBS website)
Michael Dobbs, Saboteurs: The Nazi Raid on America (2004)
Thomas P. Ostrom, The United States Coast Guard in World War II: A History of Domestic and Overseas Actions (2009)