by Jim Marquardt
In June 1942, a U-boat landed German saboteurs on the beach in Amagansett. Their mission — blow up U.S. aluminum plants and transportation hubs. Another group of saboteurs came ashore in Florida. Only six months at war, America was reeling from defeats in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Fortunately, the vaunted German war machine committed serious blunders in the sabotage attempt. The legal resolution of the saboteur case harked back to decisions by Abraham Lincoln, involved the U.S. Supreme Court and presaged George Bush’s “war on terrorism.”
Michael Dobbs, a reporter for the Washington Post, tells the story in Saboteurs: The Nazi Raid On America. Concerned about America’s industrial might, Hitler ordered the strike only a couple of months earlier. Quick to respond, Walter Kappe, a former official of the German-American Bund, recruited men who had lived in America, only two of whom were German soldiers. (The Bund was an American-Nazi organization of German immigrants that flourished in the 1930s.) Kappe split the men into two teams and gave them a sparse five weeks of training. John Dasch headed one group while Eddie Kerling led a Florida contingent. It made sense to find men who were familiar with the States, but a proper vetting would have revealed that most of them were reluctant warriors. Dasch had worked as a waiter in the Hamptons and had no intention of carrying out sabotage.
The Florida landing went easily and the team buried munitions for later retrieval. Amagansett was another story. On a foggy, moonless night, using its quiet electric motors, the U-boat crept up to the beach until it touched sand, then sent the saboteurs ashore in a rubber dinghy. In an uncanny bit of luck, along came U.S. Coast Guardsman John Cullen who had worked at Macy’s until Pearl Harbor.
“Who are you?” yelled Cullen.
“Fishermen from East Hampton,” yelled back Dasch.
Cullen became suspicious and asked them to come to the Coast Guard Station. Dasch refused, threatened Cullen and stuffed a wad of money in his hand. Cullen took the cash and ran back to the station.
A boatswain’s mate and his crew followed Cullen to the landing spot, but saw only the submarine temporarily stuck on a sandbar. Meanwhile the Germans walked to the Amagansett Railroad Station and caught the 6:59 to Penn Station, changing at Jamaica like ordinary commuters. They checked into New York hotels and bought clothes at upscale Rogers Peet. Dasch and Ernst Burger tried to contact the FBI.
But the bureau’s New York office ignored them and Dasch headed for Washington D.C. He called Hoover but was switched to agent Duane Traynor who had heard about Amagansett. With Dasch’s information, the FBI quickly picked up the three other members of Dasch’s squad, and by the end of June arrested the Florida men as well. Characteristically, Hoover grabbed all the credit in announcing the arrests and didn’t mention Dasch’s vital role.
President Roosevelt demanded swift punishment and agreed to a military commission rather than a court martial which would offer the Germans more protection. Army Colonel Kenneth Royale, assigned to defend the Germans, turned out to be a courageous advocate and asked FDR for a civilian trial. Instead the commission held proceedings in secret, making up the rules as they went along and denying motions by Royale.
Royale appealed to the Supreme Court, citing a court opinion in 1864 that Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War was unconstitutional.
“Habeas corpus is one of the most venerable legal procedures in the Anglo-Saxon world,” wrote author Dobbs. It says that authorities cannot hold suspects without bringing them before a legally constituted court. But none of the Supreme Court justices disputed the war powers claimed by FDR, though Justice Frankfurter noted, “The justices had agreed on a verdict without agreeing on reasons for the verdict, a reversal of normal procedure.” After 9/11, citing Lincoln and Roosevelt, President Bush suspended habeas corpus for “unlawful enemy combatants.”
The military commission rendered a decision of death by electrocution, while recommending clemency for Dasch and Burger. The sentence was carried out on August 8th and the six executed saboteurs were buried in a graveyard for unclaimed bodies, marked only by numbers on headboards. Several Bund members and families who had been in contact with the saboteurs were tried and sent to prison, but released in the 1950s.
Harry Truman pardoned Dasch and Burger in 1948 and deported them to Germany. Employed by Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Burger for years sent Christmas cards to Hoover. Dasch wanted to get back into the U.S. but was thwarted by Hoover. He died in Germany in 1992. Walter Kappe who recruited and trained the saboteurs eventually ran a souvenir shop outside the American army base in Frankfurt.