Remembering the Attempted Sabotage on Our Shores
by julie m. fenster
In the spring of 1942, as the Second World War was raging on fronts in every hemisphere, people living along the coast of Long Island were enjoying relatively carefree lives in comparison. "Beans won’t be any good this year," declared an elder resident in the June 11 edition of the East Hampton Star, commenting on the impact of the war on daily life. "Just the same in the last war."
For 130 years, enemy armies had always stayed on the other side of the ocean, far away from the United States. Aside from the scourge of disappointing beans, the home front had nothing to fear. In 1942, that changed.
"Voraus ein licht. Vermute Fire Island," wrote a German U-boat captain in his logbook in January. "In front of us is a light. Presumably Fire Island." Then on May 28, four specially recruited Nazi agents boarded a submarine, U-202, at a German base in France. According to their orders, they were to return only after Germany had won the war, which would be in 1944, according to Berlin’s projections. U-202’s destination was East Hampton, New York.
Given the code name Operation Pastorius (for Franz Daniel Pastorius, who led the first German settlement in America) the four agents were equipped with $175,200, numerous crates of explosive devices, and lists of targets in the United States, including aluminum factories, power plants, railroad stations, and water supplies. These strikes were to be carried out by Operation Pastorius and a second team of saboteurs who landed near Jacksonville, Florida. They were also supplied with a list of German operatives in the United States waiting to help them. The Long Island group, led by a former waiter named George John Dasch, included Ernest Peter Burger, who had been jailed by the Gestapo for 17 months and then was ordered into the army upon his release in 1941, and Heinrich Harm Heinck and Richard Quirin, who had met while coworkers at Volkswagen. The four were chosen because they all had lived in the United States when they were younger and spoke without noticeable accents. Trained by Abwehr II, the sabotage segment of the larger Nazi intelligence organization, the quartet’s plan was to rendezvous with the Florida group in Chicago to begin carrying out their missions of destruction.
While U-202 slowly crossed the Atlantic over the first weeks of June, people in the Hamptons hotly debated wartime blackout regulations for homes and automobiles along the coast. Those who didn’t want to give up their lights argued that little could be seen from the sea, anyway. They were wrong, but on the night of June 12, the weather made it a moot point, as the U-boat approached the shore.
It was "so foggy that I couldn’t see my shoes," recalled Seaman John Cullen, a 21-year-old sentry stationed at the Amagansett Coast Guard Station. Sentries at the station typically alternated a three-mile walk along the beach with duty in the building’s central tower. A native New Yorker, Cullen had been a stock boy at Macy’s before the war. He rushed to enlist in the Coast Guard in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor; like many other young enlistees, Cullen hadn’t had much specific training. What he did have was a dedicated, eager energy that he brought to his duties as his shift began around 12:30 on the morning of June 13. In the midst of that pea soup fog, the odds of seeing anything—including his shoes—might not have been good, but he wouldn’t think of skipping the walk.
Milton Miller Sr., captain of a Coast Guard patrol boat, was just coming off duty as Cullen was going on. At 96, he still remembers the night and a tense springtime along the East End. "We knew we was going to be invaded," he says. "We had the information that these men had been trained and that they had plans to invade, but we didn’t know when." As the source of intelligence, the US Army issued a warning on May 23 for the imminent threat of submarines landing enemy agents in out-of-the-way places. "We didn’t know where, either," Miller said, "but the likeliest place was close to New York and that probably meant Long Island. We were on the lookout."
Just before midnight, the German U-boat captain had turned off his massive diesel engines. He approached the shore under electric power, missing East Hampton by only a few miles and stopping about 500 yards off the Beach Hampton development in Amagansett. Like clockwork, two sailors set about escorting the four saboteurs to shore in a rubber dinghy. It was the most critical part of the operation; any Americans they met were to be silenced and delivered, dead or alive, to the U-boat. On the beach, the sailors helped to pull four crates holding detonators and other tools of destruction up to the dunes and away from the surf.
As they were organizing the first invasion of American soil since the War of 1812, a lone voice called out. Cullen had spotted the landing party. "What’s the trouble? Who are you?" he shouted. Dasch claimed they were fishermen whose boat had run aground on a sandbar. He and Cullen spoke for several minutes in the swirling damp as Dasch tried to assess just how alert Cullen was to what was going on and if the Coast Guardsman would be able to identify him. "Look into my eyes. Would you recognize me if you saw me again?" Dasch inquired. Cullen replied that he would not. Eventually Dasch drew a roll of money from his pocket that equaled $260 and insisted that Cullen accept it as a bribe to forget he’d seen them. As they were talking, one of the other invaders spoke to Dasch in German; Cullen overheard it. "I took the money," he said, "and I ran like hell for the station."
When Cullen arrived at the station his superiors met his story with skepticism until he revealed the money. "When he produced this wad of cash, they knew the only way he could get that much money was if the story were true," explains Peter Garnham, executive director of the Amagansett Historical Association. "Oh boy," said Carl Ross Jenette, the officer on duty. "This is big."
Law enforcement agencies and military detachments were called and mobilized, but it took hours for help to arrive in Amagansett. In the meantime, Cullen and his fellow Coast Guardsmen grabbed a few .30 caliber rifles and headed for the landing spot, discovered the crates buried in the sand, but found the invaders were gone.
While the Americans were descending on the beach, the four saboteurs spent the next several hours using the fog to hide themselves from passing vehicles—some of which must have contained members of the Coast Guard—while trying to get their bearings. As the sky brightened, they located Amagansett station and boarded the 6:57 am train out of town. They settled into hotel rooms in midtown Manhattan using assumed names.
Dasch and Burger, both disillusioned with their mission and harboring strong anti-Nazi feelings, spent their first night in a tense discussion before deciding to sabotage their mission and their fellow saboteurs. Dasch took a train to Washington that Thursday to surrender to the FBI; Burger, meanwhile, kept the increasingly impatient Heinck and Quirin busy sightseeing and nightclubbing in New York. In Washington, Dasch told the FBI everything he knew, including the likely whereabouts of his comrades and the four agents who had been dropped near Jacksonville, Florida. All were captured within two weeks and placed on trial before a military tribunal on July 8—the first time civilians faced military justice since President Abraham Lincoln’s assassins in 1865. Less than two months after the invasion, six of the saboteurs were executed. Dasch and Burger were sentenced to 30 years and life in prison, respectively, but were granted clemency by President Harry Truman in April 1948, at which point the two were deported.
Cullen was hailed a hero, though he himself credited Dasch with saving his life that night, simply by sending him away. At a 1942 news conference Cullen downplayed his heroic status: "The German fellow was nervous," he said, "but I think I was more nervous." During the rest of the war a big part of Cullen’s job was to appear at rallies, as a living example of an American who had remained vigilant, undistracted by Amagansett’s bad weather, or by his naivety.
"We have a great many missions in the Coast Guard, and always have," explains Thomas McKenzie, a Coast Guard spokesman in New York, "but in all we do, we keep our eyes open and perform the same function, inherently, that Seaman Cullen did back in ’42. With any kind of threat, we stand a taut watch."
Photography by Bettmann/CORBIS (submarine); Corbis ( ferry boat); Courtesy of FBI (fingerprinting) ; Heritage Images/Corbis (poster); Bettmann/CORBIS (saboteurs); The Mariners’ Museum/CORBIS (u-boat)