Operation Pastorius: the Forgotten Nazi Terror Plot on U.S. Soil

Nazi German U-boat submarine during World War II
Nazi German U-boat submarine during World War II

Everyone knows about the Japanese Bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, which brought America into World War II – and the Allies D-Day Invasion at Normandy in 1944, which eventually brought about its end.  But in between, few know that Nazis saboteurs actually landed on the east coast of the United States to carry out industrial sabotage and acts of terror.  

Adolf Hitler desperately wanted acts of destruction to occur on American soil.  The Abwehr, Germany’s intelligence agency, gave control of an American terrorist operation to Army Lieutenant William Kappe, a long-time Nazi supporter, who had lived in the U.S. for 12 years. It was code named “Operation Pastorius” after Francis Pastorius, who, centuries earlier, had led the first German settlement outside of Philadelphia.

Operation Pastorius’ goal was to cripple the production of U.S. military equipment and its supply chain.  Over a two year period, the team would travel to major American cities undercover.  Their aim would be to destroy U.S. targets carefully chosen by the Nazis not just to impede wartime production, but to also instill chaos and fear in the American people.

Kappe selected 8 men with working-class backgrounds who’d spent extensive time in the U.S. prior to World War II. 

They were promised generous salaries, be exempt from military service, and receive choice positions after Germany won the war. Training commencing in April 1942 at the Abwehr’s training camp at an estate in Brandenburg outside of Berlin. With only eighteen days of intensive sabotage training, it covering everything from hand to hand combat to demolition tactics. The eight men were then divided into two teams under the leadership of George Dasch (Team 1) and Edward Kerling (Team 2). They were given orders that if any of the saboteur’s resolve, or loyalty to the Nazi regime weakened, they were to ‘kill him without regret.’

Dasch, the oldest at 39, would lead Ernst Burger, Heinrich Heinck, and Richard Quirin.  They would attack several targets: the Hell Gate Bridge in New York City, the hydroelectric plants at Niagara Falls, a cryolite plant in Philadelphia, canal locks on the Ohio River, and an Aluminum Company of America factory in Illinois. Kerling’s Team 2 of Hermann Neubauer, Herbert Haupt, and Werner Thiel would also strike several targets: the water system in New York City, a railroad station in Newark, Horseshoe Bend railroad near Altoona, PA, and canal locks at St. Louis and Cincinnati. After landing separately, the teams planned to rendezvous at Cincinnati, Ohio on July 4, 1942.

The two teams left Lorient, France aboard 2 U-boats bound for the United States. Dasch’s Team 1 sailed for Amagansett, Long Island aboard U-202.  Kerling’s Team 2 left for Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida aboard U-584. To travel seamlessly within the U.S., they took along counterfeit birth certificates, drivers licenses, and Social Security cards. Their equipment included large quantities of explosives, primers, and detonation devices.  The team was also given $175,000 in American currency that would support the team’s efforts in the U.S. for the remainder of the war.  

Arriving first, Dasch’s Team 1 landed in the dark of night on June 13th, 1942.

They rowed their raft ashore on a deserted beach near Amagansett, NY.  The men purposely wore German Kriegsmarine (Marine Navy) uniforms, to avoid being shot by any patrol as spies. If the men were captured, they would be treated as Prisoners of War instead. Reaching the beach, Dasch’s men drug their raft ashore and began burying their explosives and other supplies in the sand. Dasch then watched U-202 depart in the night fog and submerge.

Patrolling the beach that night was a young Coast Guard Seaman named John Cullen. Cullen was shocked to stumble upon four men in military uniforms unloading a raft on the sandy dunes. Cullen, 21, was unarmed. Nevertheless, he rushed toward the group and called out for them to stop.  As Seaman Cullen approached, Dasch waved a friendly hand and walked calmly towards him.  He lied in perfect English, telling young Cullen that his men were stranded fisherman from nearby Southampton.

Cullen told them they could spend the night at his nearby Coast Guard Station.  But when Dasch refused, Cullen became suspicious. Dasch then attempted to bribe the young man. He grabbed his arm and shoved a wad of cash, $270 dollars!, into Cullen’s hand, saying, “Take this and have a good time. Forget what you’ve seen here.” Knowing he was outnumbered, Cullen faked compliance, took the bribe, and rapidly headed back to his station.   

Dasch and his team quickly buried their uniforms, stash of explosives, and detonators to retrieve later when needed. They then walked to the nearby train station.  At the Coast Guard Station, Cullen alerted his commanding officer of the suspicious men.  The officer initially thought the young man was joking, until he showed him the huge wad of cash.  He then led his commander back to the beach, but they were too late, all the men had vanished.

At Amagansett, Team 1 boarded a Long Island Railroad train into New York City.

Dasch and his men easily blended into with the other Manhattan-bound commuters on the 7 am train. When they reached the city, they split into two groups, checking into separate hotels. A search of the beach in the morning revealed multiple footprints leading up from the surf to a patch of freshly turned earth.  They dug down and unearthed the buried supplies of explosives, and most shocking, German uniforms! The Coast Guard immediately informed the FBI.  When Director J. Edgar Hoover learned of it, he imposed a strict news blackout, then commenced a massive east coast manhunt.

On June 16th, three days later, Kerling’s Team 2 landed off the coast of Jacksonville,  Florida.  As before, U-201 deposited the second quartet of saboteurs in the dead of night. This time, they buried their explosives and uniforms without incident.  The four men walked to Highway 1, and that morning caught a Greyhound bus for Jacksonville. There they split up, with two bound for their sabotage operations in Chicago, and the other two in Cincinnati. Operation Pastorius was well on its way.

From the comfort of five-star hotels, the teams planned their next moves between fine dining at restaurants and shopping at American department stores.  The two team’s targets were selected for maximum destruction, suffering and symbolism. Once the plotters confirmed their logistics, they would retrieve their cache of explosives near Amagansett.

At this point, events took a dramatic turn. 

George Dasch, called on one of his comrade for a private meeting. Dasch informed Ernst Burger that he secretly despised the Nazis and intended to expose the mission to the FBI and defect to the U.S.! Before doing so, he wanted Burger’s support and backing.  He knew that Berger had been persecuted at the hands of the Nazis, spending time in a concentration camp. He told Berger he could either join his planned defection, or Dasch would kill him on the spot. Burger willingly went along with Dasch’s plan.

Dasch did not want to return to Germany.  He believed that if he exposed the operation, he would be allowed to stay in America and resume his prior life. He and his Pennsylvanian-born wife had both wished to return and stay in the U.S. Dasch’s plan was to first call the local FBI, then take a train into Washington. Burger would remain in New York to oversee Heinck and Quirin. Dasch then made a phone call to the local FBI office in New York City.

Dasch told the FBI agent who answered that a Nazi submarine had just landed off the Long Island coast and he had important information to relay. He gave them the name Pastorius. “I will be in Washington within the week to deliver it personally to J. Edgar Hoover,” he said, then hung up.

Little did he know, his call had gone through to the “Nut Desk.”  The FBI received hundreds of misguided calls during the war, and this seemed to be just one more. But when the same New York office got a call from the Coast Guard about the incident with Seaman Cullen and the stash of explosives and uniforms retrieved on the beach, they took the anonymous call seriously.

Dasch left his team in New York and boarded a train for Washington, D.C. He phoned FBI headquarters when he got there. “I am Pastorius, the man who called your New York office,” he said. “I am in Room 351 at the Mayflower Hotel.” He then asked to speak directly with J. Edgar Hoover himself, but of course was not put through. In his mind, Dasch imagined that the American Government would treat him like a hero for exposing and foiling Operation Pastorius.  

The FBI quickly went to the hotel he was staying at and picked him up for interrogation.

Dasch was initially dismissed as a crackpot. At FBI headquarters, they shuffled him around between agents as no one believed his story.  He was finally taken seriously when he opened his suit jacket and dumped $84,000 of the operations money on the desk of the Assistant Director. They immediately detained him, interrogating him for thirteen hours while the branch in New York moved to capture the rest of his team.

Dasch cooperated fully. He provided all their names, aliases and information regarding the whereabouts of Kerling’s team.  For the next two days, FBI agents continued to interrogate Dasch in his hotel room with a stenographer taking down every word: from the sabotage training outside Berlin to all the targets identified for both teams, and as well as German spies’ addresses in America. He was able to provide a list which had been written in invisible ink on a handkerchief given to him by the Lieutenant Kappe in the Abwehr. Surely, Dasch thought, he would receive a full presidential pardon for such brave cooperation.

Eight Nazi saboteurs of Operation Pastorious
Operation Pastorius Saboteurs

Utilizing his information, the FBI was able to track down the rest of his team in New York and all of Kerling’s men in Chicago. It took 14 days, but eventually all eight would-be saboteurs were in custody. With the plot foiled, Dasch who had expected to receive a pardon, instead found himself treated the same as the others. Unbeknownst to Dasch, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover took full responsibility for the arrests, as if the FBI had uncovered the nefarious plot all on their own.

Public alarm, however, skyrocketed when the news finally broke.

The New York Times headline on July 4, 1942, was wonderful news to a country in the throes of a frightening world war: “Nazi Saboteurs to Face Stern Army Justice.” The article described a plot thwarted due to a vigilant FBI keeping a close watch against any threats to public safety. The article was chilling regardless. Eight Nazi agents were brought here by German U-boats, successfully infiltrated the U.S., and were caught on American soil with enough explosives and money to cause two years of panic and terror in the U.S.

The truth of course was far scarier, and far different from the story in the press: the U.S. defense system was caught unaware, saboteurs were captured only due to one who defected, and his confession was nearly bungled by the agency. Meanwhile, Hoover painted the FBI arrests as a great coup. He managed the spin brilliantly, framing the captures as brilliant police work, when in fact Dasch had volunteered the information.

None of the U.S. targets were ever hit. Worried that a civilian court would be too lenient, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered a military tribunal, the first since Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. Their court-appointed lawyers attempted to have the case moved to a civilian court, but their efforts were in vain. All eight defendants pled not guilty, saying they had volunteered for the operation only to defect and get back to their German families living in America. 

Between July 8 and August 4, the saboteurs stood trial in the Department of Justice Building. Dasch thought he would become an American national hero, but the government branded him a spy and charged him the same as the others. All eight were found guilty on four charges of spying, giving intelligence to the enemy and conspiracy to commit espionage.  All eight were sentenced to death. 

The Attorney General reminded President Roosevelt that Dasch and Burger had turned themselves in and provided the details that foiled the plot. As a result, the President commuted their sentences. Ernest Burger received a life sentence . A stunned George Dasch still got a 30-years. On August 8, the six condemned saboteurs were taken to the District of Columbia Jail and executed by electric chair. News cameras filmed the ambulances carrying the bodies away afterward.

Dasch’s lawyer repeatedly applied for his client’s amnesty.

Hoover argued against it.  By 1948, President Harry Truman leaned toward a pardon. After serving six years, Dasch and Berger were released. Dasch accepted deportation as a condition of pardon, and both prisoners were sent to the American zone of West Germany.  They were not welcomed at heroes, but rather treated as pariahs. Dasch settled back with his wife in a small town and started a business, only to have news coverage expose him. They had to flee to taunts of “traitor” and start over elsewhere. He later published a memoir in 1959, laying out his side of the story: Eight Spies Against America. Ernest Burger died in Germany in 1989 and George Dasch followed him in 1992, at age 89.

Operation Pastorius entered the history books as an embarrassing debacle for the Nazis.  After its failure, Adolf Hitler and German Naval Intelligence halted any further grand plans of sabotage on U.S. soil. If Dasch hadn’t given himself up to the FBI, would the two Teams have been successful? Given the weaknesses in U.S. domestic defenses, the odds were in their favor. The operation’s various military and infrastructure targets would have crippled production and transportation, killing thousands of people over two years. One can only imagine the fear and havoc it would have caused, not to mention the damage to American morale and its fighting capacity had they actually pulled it all off.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

One thought on “Operation Pastorius: the Forgotten Nazi Terror Plot on U.S. Soil

  1. These posts always entertain and educate in equal parts. I had never heard this story before. Fantastic writing. Thanks, Paul.

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