The Abwehr's Eight
Armed with hand weapons, explosives and primers, $84,000 in American currency, counterfeit birth certificates, Social Security cards, draft deferment documents, and driver's licenses, the first team of four agents (leader George Dasch, Ernest Burger, Richard Quirin, and Heinrich Heinck) arrive off the United States coast near the town of Amagansett (on Long Island, about 115 miles east of New York City) aboard the German submarine, U-202 (the second group of four will arrive in Florida at Ponte Verde Beach, just south of Jacksonville on June 16th). Coming ashore shortly after midnight, in German Navy uniforms so if immediately captured they will not be shot as spies, the team changes to civilian clothes, buries their ordinance, and heads inland intent on devastating America ... and they might have done just that had it not been for the intrepid actions of U.S. Coast Guardsman John C. Cullen.
On his regular nightly patrol, walking through the dark and summer fog about a half a mile from his lifeboat station, Cullen encounters Dasch burying boxes of explosives in the sand dunes. Unarmed and threatened with being shot, he pretends to accept a $260 bribe (all Dasch has in his pocket at the moment) to look the other way ... what he actually does though as soon as he is clear of the German is to run back to his station and tell his superiors about the mystery man on the beach. Dasch is missing by the time an armed Coast Guard team returns to the scene, but six inches under the sand at a spot pointed out by Cullen, the spy's equipment is found. The next day the word goes out to law enforcement agencies around the country (though the information is kept secret from the public) that German saboteurs are on the loose.
Frightened by his close call on the beach, and having lived in the United States for ten years (a stowaway arriving in Philadelphia in 1923, along with waiter stints in New York City, Miami Beach, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles, the former Roman Catholic seminarian and soldier in the WWI German Imperial Army actually spends a year as a member of the U.S. Army with 72nd Bombardment Squadron in Hawaii), knowing the mistake he made the night before in not murdering Cullen will result in a massive manhunt being directed his way, Dasch develops a quick case of monstrously cold feet. Deciding his wisest course is to rat out the other spies, the day after arriving in America, the German terrorist invites Burger (one of the two American citizens born in Germany) to his room to discuss a new plan ... join Dasch in telling the authorities about Operation Pastorius, or have Dasch pitch him out of the open window of his upper-story Manhattan hotel room. Window waiting and having spent seventeen months in a Nazi concentration camp, Burger decides betraying the plan to the authorities sounds like a wonderful idea.
Seemingly a simple thing, when a series of calls to the FBI fails to convince a single agent that he is the real deal, Dasch takes a train to Washington D.C., checks in to the Mayflower Hotel, and then goes looking for J. Edgar Hoover. Carrying a briefcase, at FBI headquarters the German spy runs into another set of agents who aren't buying his tale, but is finally believed when angered that Assistant Director D.M. Ladd, the agent in charge of the hunt for the spies, seems to be merely humoring him, Dasch opens the briefcase and reveals the mission money he has brought to America ... $84,000 in cash. Finally taken seriously, Dasch is interrogated for hours and armed with the information he provides, within two weeks the FBI has all eight saboteurs in custody.
And then it is time for some justice ... American style!
Fearful that a normal civilian court might be too lenient (and this was YEARS before the O.J. jury showed their stupidity), FDR issues Executive Proclamation 2561 creating a military tribunal to prosecute the Germans. And prosecute them the tribunal does! Meeting in Assembly Hall #1 of the Department of Justice building in Washington D.C., the trial of the eight begins on July 8th and lasts until August 1st ... and two days later the sentences are given out. Guilty all, though they gave themselves up and provided critical information, Dasch gets 30 years in prison and Burger is sentenced to life in prison ... AFTER FDR commutes their original death sentences! The outcome is even harsher for the other six men ... all are given the death penalty, fried to a crisp in the District of Columbia jail's third floor electric chair, and then buried without names in a nearby potter's field.
War won, with Harry S. Truman in office there is a little more lightness of the heart in the Oval Office, and in 1948 the president grants Burger and Dasch executive clemency under the condition the men are deported to the American Zone of occupied Germany. Once more in the Fatherland, the men receive no heroes welcome for their actions in America and are instead treated like pariahs for the rest of their lives ... Burger dies at the age of 69, and Dasch kicks the bucket in the city of Ludwigshafen at the age of 89 in 1992.
Why today mattered ... spies in America is why ... 6/13/1942!