Skip to main content

The Spies Who Came In From The Sea

July 2024
26min read

Wartime America’s nerves were jumpy. One foggy night on a deserted Long Island beach a young coastguardsman heard the muffled engines of a submarine offshore, and suddenly eight shadowy figures loomed up out of the mist

Few Americans remember even hazily what they were doing on the night of June 13, 1942. John C. Cullen remembers exactly what he was doing. He remembers with special vividness his activities at around twenty-five minutes past midnight. At that moment of time he was patrolling the lonely Atlantic beach near Amagansett, Long Island, 105 miles east of New York City. He did this every night—a six-mile hike. At that moment he was coming out of a thick patch of fog to run head-on into what seemed to be a Grade B movie thriller, but which turned out to be real life, with intimations of real death.

Cullen was twenty-one, a rookie coastguardsman, unarmed. America, at war with the Axis powers more than three thousand miles away, was yet worried enough about invasion, sabotage, and sneak attacks that houses were blacked out and coastlines were watched. Many good citizens thought this an excess of caution. Cullen himself says now that the last thing he expected to encounter was a party of invading Nazis just landed from a German submarine.

(Today, at forty-seven a substantial family man who represents a large Long Island dairy co-operative, he retains a sense of having participated in a chunk of history so implausible that one would doubt it were it not all down in the records. “I suppose I’ve rehashed the story a thousand times,” he says. “I had no weapon more dangerous than a flashlight and a Coast Guard flare gun, and I still feel lucky I got out of it alive.”)

A man emerged from the mist—not too surprising, for some fishermen stayed out all hours in the summer. Cullen shone his torch on the stranger’s face. “Who are you?” he asked.

The man—middle-sized, neither young nor old, gaunt, and with cavernous eyes—smiled. “We’re fishermen from Southampton and ran aground here,” he said. He identified himself as George Davis. Three of his companions were visible only as dark blobs in the mist. One of them came closer and shouted something in a foreign language that Cullen thought was German, and which angered Davis. “Shut up, you damn fool,” he growled. “Everything is all right. Go back to the boys and stay with them.”

(“That jarred me, made me suspicious,” Cullen recalls. “And I could see that this fellow was very nervous. Why should he be so nervous if he was O.K.?”)

From then on events took a turn melodramatic enough to make a young coastguardsman believe himself gripped by fantasy. He suggested that Davis accompany him to the Amagansett Coast Guard station less than a quarter of a mile away. Davis refused. “Now wait a minute,” Davis said. “You don’t know what this is all about.” He became quietly menacing, asking Cullen if he had a father and mother who would mourn him and saying, “I don’t want to kill you.” He reached into his pocket, but instead of a pistol he produced a wallet and offered Cullen $150, which he quickly raised to $300, to forget what he had seen. Cullen took the money to be agreeable, knowing he had no chance against four men, and also because it occurred to him that no one would believe his story unless he had evidence to prove it. For all he knew, guns might be covering him in the darkness. Cullen heard Davis murmur, “Forget about this,” and then he headed back toward his station. (“I made it in record time,” he recalls.)

Boatswain’s Mate Carl R. Jenette, acting officer in charge, listened to this story with understandable incredulity. He counted the money and found that Cullen had been shortchanged—two fifties, five twenties, and six tens, totalling $260. He telephoned the station’s commander, Warrant Officer Warren Barnes. While Barnes hurriedly dressed, Jenette armed Cullen and three other “beach pounders” and raced with them over the dunes to the scene of the improbability.

Davis and his companions were gone. The coastguardsmen could smell fuel oil and could hear a throbbing engine; offshore they could see the superstructure of a submarine splashed by wavelets. It was the U-202 under Lieutenant Commander Lindner, which had run lightly aground and was freeing herself, moving eastward. (“She had a blinker light,” Cullen remembers. “We ducked behind a dune, not wanting to get shelled, until she slid away.”)

A search of the beach in the morning disclosed: an empty pack of German cigarettes; four heavy, waterproof oaken boxes buried in the sand; a gray duffel bag, also buried, containing four soggy German marine uniforms. The boxes contained brick-sized blocks of high explosives, bombs disguised as lumps of coal, bomb-timing mechanisms of German make, and innocent-looking “pen-and-pencil sets” that were actually incendiary weapons.

By this time the affair looked decidedly sinister. The Federal Bureau of Investigation took charge, trying to pick up the trail of “George Davis” and his men, hoping to prevent a repetition of the disastrously efficient German sabotage of World War I that had demolished the Kingsland arsenal and the Black Tom munitions plant in New Jersey. Ira Baker, the Long Island Railroad’s Amagansett station agent, remembered four men, one of them answering Davis’ description, buying tickets for the first morning train to New York City. Now the four men were swallowed up by the metropolis.

Behind this menacing business lay a curious Nazi seminary of sabotage at Quentz Lake, forty miles west of Berlin near Brandenburg. Established by the Abwehr , the German military intelligence headed by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and Colonel Erwin von Lahousen, the school had received a direct order from Hitler to train specialists for the destruction of vital factories and communications in America. It was a crash program representing German fear of American industrial might. Perhaps this was why its high requirements for secret agents—men who not only qualified in intelligence and courage but who also spoke English and were familiar with the United States—were sometimes allowed to slide. Indeed, George Davis, whose real name was Georg Johann Dasch, was hardly the kind of operative one might meet in the pages of John Le Carré.

Born in Speyer-am-Rhein in 1903, Dasch landed in Philadelphia as a stowaway in 1922. Familiar with German and French, he soon learned English, but he became disgruntled because he could find work only as a waiter. He followed this calling at hotels and restaurants in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. After his marriage in 1930 to Rose Marie Guille, a Pennsylvania-born hairdresser, he visited Germany with his bride. When they returned to America, Dasch again was seen at some fairly good restaurants, but only as a man with a tray.

Meanwhile the propaganda coming out of the Fatherland confirmed his belief that he was meant for better things. The beginning of the European war in 1939 made up his mind. He haunted the German consulate in New York, begging them to get him back into Germany. His passage was arranged in March of 1941, and in Berlin, Dasch met thirty-six-year-old Lieutenant Walter Kappe, a Nazi intelligence officer who from 1925 to 1937 had worked as a newspaperman in Chicago and Cincinnati and had wound up in New York as press chief for the Hitler-loving German-American Bund. Dasch’s English was good, so Kappe landed him a job monitoring American broadcasts. In February, 1942, when Kappe was selected to superintend the “American branch” of the Quentz Lake school for saboteurs, he picked Dasch as his first pupil. Among the others in the student body were seven who figure in this account, all of whom had spent years in America:

Violin-playing Ernest Peter Burger, from Augsburg, was only seventeen when he joined Hitler’s gang in the abortive Munich beer-hall putsch of 1923. Immigrating to America in 1927, he worked as a machinist in Milwaukee and in Detroit, joined the Michigan National Guard and also the German-American Bund, and in 1933 became a citizen; but he returned to Germany that same year when Hitler became chancellor. He rose swiftly to become aide to Captain Ernst Röhm, head of the storm troopers—a connection that became a liability when Rohm was liquidated in the 1934 blood purge. Thereafter Burger had the inevitable troubles with the Gestapo. In 1940 he was imprisoned for seventeen months, occasionally tortured, and his pregnant wife was grilled so mercilessly that she had a miscarriage. After his release, however, his standing was partially restored, and he became a student at Quentz Lake.

Edward Kerling, born in Wiesbaden in 1909, had joined the Nazi party in 1928 and yet had gone to America the following year. He worked in a Brooklyn packing plant, then became a chauffeur, handling the wheel for Ely Culbertson, the bridge expert, and other wealthy people. He married, but soon separated from his wife. A loyal Bundist, he also kept up his dues-paid membership in the Brown Shirts, so that when he returned to Germany in July, 1940, he had considerable seniority.

Richard Quirin, a Berliner, was nineteen when he came to the United States in 1927. He worked as a mechanic in Syracuse, Schenectady, and New York City and joined the Bund. His return to the Fatherland in 1939 came about because he was out of work at the time, Germany had started a policy of paying the return fare for the faithful, and the news about Der Führer excited his feelings of nationalism.

Heinrich Heinck, born in Hamburg in 1907, had entered the United States illegally in 1926. After working in New York City as a handyman, then as a machinist, he was swept away by the stirring rites of the Bund, and m 1939 he also leaped at the “free return trip” offer.

Hermann Otto Neubauer, born in Hamburg in 1910, had been a cook and hotel worker in Hartford and Chicago from 1931 until 1940, when his Bund-inspired Nazi loyalty drew him back home.

Werner Thiel, born in Dortmund in 1907, came to America at twenty to work as a toolmaker and in other jobs in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Los Angeles. He followed the pattern in his wholehearted embracing of the Bund (Dasch was the only nonmember) and in accepting a German-paid return trip after the war began in 1939.

Herbert Hans Haupt was brought to America by his parents from Stettin as a five-year-old, grew up in Chicago, and became an optical worker there. He had little recollection of Germany, but his father, although naturalized, was such a loyal Nazi that he might as well have been in Prussia. Young Haupt drilled with the Bund in an Illinois cornfield. Still, his return to Germany was motivated by prudence as well as national feeling. Discovering that his Chicago girl friend was pregnant, he fled to Mexico in June of 1941. The German consul in Mexico City, regarding him as useful timber, gave him money and arranged his passage to Germany by way of Japan. Haupt, born in 1919, was the youngest member of the student body and a lady-killer.

During April and part of May, 1942, these eight men were hurry-up classmates at Quentz Farm, where their teachers were experts—two of them doctors of philosophy—in explosives, chemistry, electricity, and allied arts useful in destruction. In the surrounding fields small bridges and lengths of railroad track had been built, and here the students could lay practice demolition charges under the supervision of their instructors. They were expected to study the American newspapers and magazines passed around among them and to be posted on current American news, slang, and song hits. Finally they were taken to factories in Berlin, Bitterfeld, and Aachen and shown how the destruction of one vital production process could knock out a whole plant. They were saluted with a “graduation” dinner complete with wines, and their mission was designated Operation Pastorius, after Franz Pastorius, the first German immigrant to America, who landed in 1683.

Each man (except for the two American citizens, Burger and Haupt, who could safely use their own names) was given a fictitious identity and forged papers to support it—passport, draft card, ration coupons, and driver’s license. Each of the fraudulent six memorized a fake past history.

On May 22, 1942, Lieutenant Kappe and the eight took the express train to Nazi-occupied Paris, where they had a two-day binge—theatres, night clubs, women—courtesy of the Third Reich. Thence they travelled to the submarine base at Lorient, the take-off point. Dasch, the leader of one four-man team, had with him Burger, Quirin, and Heinck. Kerling, the other leader, had under him Neubauer, Thiel, and Haupt. To each team Kappe gave about ninety thousand dollars in United States currency, the leader carrying the bulk of it—a sum intended to cover possible bribes as well as expenses. Each team leader was also given an ordinary white handkerchief on which was written, in invisible ink that could be brought out by ammonia fumes, the names and addresses of a Lisbon mail drop that would reach the Abwehr , and two dependable sources of help in the United States. On the night of May 26 Kerling and his men boarded the U-584 , under Lieutenant Commander Deeke, and soon were plowing westward in the Atlantic, bound for Florida. Two nights later Dasch and his group were off in the U-202 for Long Island.

The landing of the saboteurs near Amagansett was made in an inflated rubber boat with the aid of sailors from the U-202 . The four were clad in German marine fatigue uniforms on the theory that if captured at once they would be treated as prisoners of war (that is, interned) rather than being shot as spies. They quickly changed into mufti, buried their cache, and after the brush with coastguardsman Cullen, went on to New York, where Dasch and Burger took rooms at the Governor Clinton Hotel across from Pennsylvania Station. Heinck and Quirin registered at the Hotel Martinique.

Now the men and their mission took on a complexion of opéra bouffe . They lacked the close acquaintance and implicit trust that was essential for the success of an assignment of such high risk and long duration. The morale of three of them had sagged during the sixteen-day submarine voyage—a Spartan journey made fearful when the U-boat had to hit bottom to escape American destroyers and was shaken, though not damaged, by depth charges. They actually disliked each other. Burger, the solid one of the group, had ice in his veins and was equal to any risk; but he was not forgetting what the Gestapo had done to him, and besides, he had lost all faith in Dasch. Quirin tended to be moody and quarrelsome. Heinck had already exhibited a weakness for liquor and loose talk that was potentially fatal. Dasch himself was undergoing the cold shivers. Their narrow escape from the Coast Guard had been a vivid reminder of the dangers they faced. The psychological pressures peculiar to those most isolated of all creatures, secret agents, were oppressive.

They had too much time to think, for their orders were to spend about ninety days in preparation before launching any sabotage. They were loaded with more money than any of them had ever seen before; and they spent it on snappy American summer clothes and on food that seemed Lucullan after the leaner German war rations. Dasch, the knowing ex-waiter, escorted his crew to restaurants he liked—the Swiss Chalet, the Kungsholm, Dinty Moore’s, and an Automat near Macy’s.

On Sunday morning, only some thirty hours after they had landed, Dasch and Burger had a long talk at their hotel during which Dasch dropped subtle hints of his own doubts in order to determine whether his sidekick felt the same way and could be trusted. It must have been instantly apparent to Burger that with the leader in such a frame of mind the mission would surely fail, and he had better get clear. Reassured at last, Dasch said he intended to betray the whole plot (and his accomplices) to the F.B.I. According to the two men’s later testimony, they agreed to this at once. Dasch felt that by exposing the plot he would become an American hero celebrated in headlines and honored by the President.

At 7:51 on Sunday evening, with Burger standing near the telephone booth, Dasch called the New York F.B.I, office and talked with Agent Dean F. McWhorter. Identifying himself as Frank Daniel Pastorius, he said he was recently from Germany. “I want you to know,” he said, “that I shall get in touch with your Washington office next Thursday or Friday. I have some important information.” When McWhorter asked what the information was, the caller said it was of such moment that only J. Edgar Hoover himself could have it, and then hung up. McWhorter, accustomed to crank calls, nevertheless made a record of the conversation.

Dasch then indulged in a period of dawdling that he later explained was motivated by the conviction that the other six saboteurs should be given their own opportunity to save their skins by surrender. It was not until Thursday afternoon that Dasch boarded a train for Washington, still determined to see Hoover personally. He checked into Room 351 in the Mayflower Hotel.

On Friday morning, June 19, he telephoned the F.B.I, and was connected with Agent Duane L. Traynor. He must talk with Mr. Hoover, he said, finally disclosing that he was the leader of a group of German saboteurs. Traynor, who knew of the discovery of explosives at Amagansett and the hunt for the missing men, told Dasch firmly to stay right there in Room 351. Dasch did. A group of agents arrived with almost miraculous speed and escorted him to headquarters at the Department of Justice. Here, when he became persuaded that Hoover was not at leisure, he told his story to others. He gave them his handkerchief with the invisible writing. He jolted them with the news that there was a second sabotage group slated to land with explosives at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. They were to take two years, he said, to complete their work of destruction. Their major objectives were centered most heavily on aluminum production, transportation, and power stations.

The ingenious bombs masquerading as lumps of coal were to be tossed into coal cars serving industrial plants and seagoing vessels, eventually to find their way into furnaces—with disastrous results. The saboteurs were instructed also to destroy civilian morale by spreading incendiary devices in large department stores and by leaving time bombs in lockers at hotels, railway stations, and other places where crowds congregated.

So inattentive a student was Dasch that he had forgotten which chemical would bring out the message on the handkerchief—a problem the F.B.I, laboratory quickly solved. One of the addresses on it was that of a New York German whose house could be safely used by the saboteurs as a meeting place. Indeed, when the Gmen got on the trail of Dasch’s henchmen in New York, they discovered not only that the other four had already landed at Ponte Vedra on June 17 but that two of them —Kerling and Thiel—had also come to New York. What with the information obtained from Dasch and the handkerchief, it was a simple matter to arrest Burger, Quirin, Heinck, Kerling, and Thiel. That left only Haupt and Neubauer to be apprehended. Kerling was escorted by agents to Ponte Vedra, twenty-five miles southeast of Jacksonville, where he glumly pointed out the spot where he and his men had buried four German uniform caps and four boxes of explosives identical to those found at Amagansett.

The G-men worked in utter secrecy. Not a word had been given to the newspapers—a precaution that was continued, since publicity might hamper arrest of the remaining saboteurs. The case contained elements so ominous that Hoover kept his boss, Attorney General Francis Biddle, posted on it from the start. Biddle, in turn, reported to President Roosevelt, who was following developments with keenest interest.

Herbert Haupt, on leaving Florida, had gone to his home city of Chicago, with Hermann Neubauer following him in a later train. For the time being, young Haupt forgot about sabotage and devoted himself to movies, fun, and romance. Unknown to him, his skylarking was being watched by federal agents, who knew his home address and were waiting for him to lead them to Neubauer. When agents zeroed in on Neubauer at the Sheridan Plaza Hotel on June 27, both men were arrested.

Biddle telephoned the good news to President Roosevelt, who was determined that a speedy example be made of the eight in order to discourage further conspiracies. The President, in a memorandum to Biddle, gave his opinion that the two saboteurs who were American citizens were guilty of high treason, that the other six were in the category of spies, and that all deserved the death penalty.

This sort of punishment could be decreed only by a court-martial. In civil law, if one bought a gun with intent to shoot someone, it was not murder until the fatal shot was fired; and if someone arrived in the United States with heavy explosives but had not got around to using them, it was not sabotage. If the eight were tried in a civil court, they might get off with two or three years’ imprisonment.

“I want one thing clearly understood, Francis,” the President said. “I won’t give them up … I won’t hand them over to any United States marshal armed with a writ of habeas corpus.”

Now at last it was safe to release the story—that is, part of the story. J. Edgar Hoover’s statement to the press told briefly of the two landings, the buried explosives, the plan to cripple key industries and to kill and demoralize, and the eight men arrested. He did not say how they were apprehended. Nothing was said about the defections of Dasch and Burger, not only to prevent possible retaliation against them by their six comrades, or Nazi retaliation against their families in Germany, but also because there was no desire to enlighten the enemy about how the men had been caught. If Berlin believed that our counterespionage was superhuman, Berlin might think twice before repeating such efforts.

The press and the public seized on the story as they would have embraced a great victory in battle. The New York Times gave it an unprecedented triple-banner headline and declared that the nocturnal landings from U-boats only a few hundred yards off our shores seemed like “a fantastic plot borrowed from the movies.” The spectacle of the eight saboteurs sneaking across the Atlantic only to run into the arms of the waiting G-men contained perfect ingredients for national satisfaction. It made the Germans look comic and the F.B.I, heroic.

Not for days to come did the news leak out about the role played by Cullen and the Coast Guard at Amagansett. However, the actual facts of the capture still remained unknown. Cullen was promoted to coxswain (he later was awarded the Legion of Merit), while some observers urged that dogs be used to aid in beach patrols.

As for Georg Dasch, he was appalled to discover that instead of being hailed as a hero, he was a prisoner along with the seven others. He was in the familiar plight of the squealer, a man useful to the law but held in some contempt because his talebearing seemed dictated by expediency rather than idealism.

On July 2 President Roosevelt announced that the accused men would stand trial before a military commission composed of seven general officers—three major generals, three brigadiers, and the president, Major General Frank R. McCoy, Retired. The prosecution would be in the hands of Attorney General Biddle and the Army judge advocate general, Major General Myron Cramer. The defense was entrusted to Colonel Kenneth C. Royall and Colonel Cassius M. Dowell, More than a majority vote of the commission—five of the seven—was required for conviction and sentence. The rules of evidence would not be as restrictive as those protecting civilian rights. The President himself, as commander in chief, would make the final decision on the sentence on the basis of the commission’s recommendation, and there would be no appeal.

Extraordinary efforts were made to keep the eight prisoners in good health until they faced the summary fate the public expected for them. They were placed in a second-floor wing of the old District of Columbia jail. Each man was kept in a tiled, ever-lighted cell with an empty cell on each side of him. He was clad only in pajamas, was allowed no writing materials, and ate his meals with fiber spoons off paper plates so that there was no opportunity for suicide. Only his counsel was permitted to visit him, and he could not communicate with the other accused men. He was guarded constantly by members of a detail of four officers and thirty soldiers. As Brigadier General Albert M. Cox, who as wartime provost marshal general of the District was custodian of the prisoners, later put it, “Whenever a man requested a smoke, he was handed one cigarette. His guard lit the match. … Every instant for thirty-five days and nights, at least one pair of eyes was glued to each prisoner.”

Reporters were excluded—an order that brought a howl from the press. Elmer Davis, the former newsman and radio commentator who had just been appointed director of the brand-new Office of War Information, had been promised full authority over censorship. He protested to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Stimson, seventy-five and tart, let him know that the Army was in charge and that secrecy was vital. Davis next went to Roosevelt, urging that he allow censored accounts. The President relented only enough to permit a brief daily communiqué from General McCoy—a distinguished officer who would prove himself an execrable newspaperman.

Attorney General Biddle felt that the secrecy was overdone, that the public could have been informed far more completely without danger to the national interest, and that indeed virtually the only things that had to be concealed were the voluntary confessions of Dasch and Burger.

The most immediate menace to the Attorney General and his colleague General Cramer was a man named Milligan, who was long dead. In 1864 a Confederate sympathizer, Lambdin B. Milligan of Indiana, was arrested for pilfering munitions from Northern arsenals and sending them to the rebels. Denied a civil trial, he was speedily condemned to death by the military. However, President Lincoln was assassinated before he could sign the death warrant. Thereafter Milligan’s attorneys fought the case through to the Supreme Court. The Court unanimously awarded Milligan a writ of habeas corpus. But five of the justices did more than that. Going well beyond the scope of the case at issue, they ruled that if a statute had permitted trial of a civilian by a military commission, the statute would have been unconstitutional. The military could not try a civilian as long as the civil courts were functioning. Only if actual invasion had driven out the courts could the military take over, and Indiana had not been invaded.

Biddle, knowing the caliber of the defense attorneys, was sure that they would exhume Ex parte Milligan . When they did, would the President of the United States and two of his cabinet officers be humiliated, and would sabotage be virtually sanctioned, and would the American public be outraged, by the removal of the case to the civil courts, where the eight men who had come to destroy would receive punishment of a kind given to purse snatchers?

The trial opened on July 8 in a long room on the fifth floor of the Justice Department building. The windows were swathed with blackout curtains. All of the defendants—who had confessed after their exhibitions of innocence and their fictitious identities had failed them- pleaded not guilty. The two turncoats, Dasch and Burger, testified that they had intended to betray the plot from the very beginning in Germany. Dasch, whom Mr. Biddle described to this writer ∗Mr. Swanberg interviewed the former Attorney General at his home on Cape Cod shortly before his death in October, 1968.—Ed. as “an interminable talker who made a poor witness,” tended to irritate the judges, whereas the stalwart Burger made a better impression. He, after all, had good reason for his course. After the Gestapo’s mistreatment of his wife and his own imprisonment and torture, he had vowed to betray Hitler (whom he had known personally) at the first opportunity. Even now he was worried that news of his collaboration with the prosecution might leak out and that his wife in Germany would suffer as a result.

As for the unlucky six, their bitterness against Dasch —and to a lesser extent against Burger—was quiet but evident. They were all caught in the same net. The law rewarded the quick squealer. They had not confessed as quickly as the other two and would be condemned for it. They were sure that no real effort would be made to defend them and indeed that their attorneys, Royall and Dowell, were actually spies for the prosecution. The two colonels had worked hard to win their trust, but they did not get it until they were able to arrange for the detested Dasch to be defended by another soldier-attorney, Colonel Carl M. Ristine. From then on the accused men came to understand more strongly with every succeeding day that they were being defended to the very limit of energy and resourcefulness by attorneys of superlative skill who knew all about Ex parte Milligan .

For each day’s session the eight men were shaved by barbers, sir e a razor in their own hands might be used suicidally. They traded their pajamas for the clothing they had bought with Nazi money and were whisked by armored cars guarded with Tommy guns from their cells to the court over routes that changed with each trip. In the courtroom they sat diagonally across from the seven generals who would judge them—generals whose shoulders glittered with a total of twenty-two stars. Each of the unlucky six, though admitting he had arrived secretly by submarine from Germany with TNT and other explosives, gave the only argument open to him—that he had been trapped by fate or fear or military duty.

Young Haupt, pimply but dashing, swore that he had gone along with the plot only through fear of the Gestapo but that never in the world did he intend to carry out any sabotage. The curly-haired, solemn-faced Quirin said that he was actually afraid of explosives and would not have used them in this country or anywhere else. Heinck, the stolid machinist, pointed out that in Germany it was dangerous to refuse such an assignment, but disclaimed any intention to put his training to use here. The balding Thiel said he thought Quentz Farm was a training center for propagandists and was appalled when he learned the truth. These four pictured themselves as deluded about Germany. They said they had seized upon the sabotage plan as the only means of getting back to an America they now appreciated and that they had arrived here somewhat in the nature of refugees from Nazidom.

Biddle left these arguments in shreds. He suggested that they might have received a welcome here instead of a trial had they only made all this known sooner. Instead they had followed every Nazi order, told no one about their doubts, moved stealthily about the country, registered at hotels under fictitious names, carried fraudulent papers, and lived comfortably on Nazi money until the moment of their arrest—after which they still tried to maintain the fiction until they saw it was impossible.

Only Kerling and Neubauer (although they also doubted that they could have carried the plot through) took the defense of a soldier’s duty. The handsome, bushy-haired Kerling said that for him to have disobeyed orders would have been cowardly, while the burly Neubauer testified, “As a soldier you are not supposed to think; and I did not. I just got the order and I didn’t know what for.”

Colonel Royall knew that however necessary these assertions were, they would never save his clients’ necks. His second line of defense was that even if the defendants could be shown to be guilty of clandestine conduct, that was the extent of their crime. They had not even attempted any spying or violence, much less achieved any. But the last line of defense was Milligan .

Had newsmen been present, they would have depicted the drama between the two men charged with most of the oral presentation, Francis Biddle for the prosecution and Kenneth Royall for the defense. Biddle, eight years the senior, was a tall six feet two, Royall a towering six-five. Each had studied law at Harvard, and each had sharpened his abilities under a titan of jurisprudence—Royall under Felix Frankfurter at college, Biddle as secretary to Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes after graduation. Each had become an eminent attorney, Biddie in Philadelphia, Royall in his native North Carolina. Each in his lifetime would be a cabinet member, Royall slated to become the first secretary of the same army whose executioner’s efforts he was now trying to thwart. And now each was serving the country in a wartime role that brought them into sharp, but always courteous, legal collision.

Royall made it clear at the start that he would challenge the legality of the President’s proclamation and that all his arguments in the military court would not imply any concession that the military was competent to try the prisoners. This course brought an anguish of doubt to his defense colleague, Colonel Dowell. Unlike Royall, Dowell was a Regular Army man, with forty years of service behind him. He could not entirely quell a feeling that it would be insubordination for him to question a proclamation of his commander in chief. While he did not oppose the move, his uncertainty was so strong that he could not actively support it either, which left it up to Royall.

The Supreme Court was in summer adjournment, its members scattered. Royall cleared the way by applying to the district court for leave to file petitions of habeas corpus—a plea immediately refused. He talked with the Attorney General. The next day Royall and Biddle flew together to Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, where Associate Justice Owen J. Roberts was vacationing on his farm with Associate Justice Hugo L. Black as his guest. There, over country cheese and crackers, the two jurists listened at length to the callers. Roberts ended by telephoning Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone at Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, where he was spending the summer. The next day the nation learned that the Supreme Court would convene at all speed for the sake of men who were described by some commentators as “saboteurs, bomb-throwers, and killers.” While a few of the justices were within reasonable distance, Justice James Byrnes was in South Carolina, Justice Frankfurter was in Connecticut, Justice Frank Murphy was an Army colonel training in North Carolina, and Justice William Douglas was in Oregon.

To a lawyer, appearing before the Court is equivalent to a pietist meeting the choir of angels. It is never easy, even for one like the Attorney General, who had done it repeatedly. The younger Royall had done so only once before. The two attorneys, though they had expert aid in research, got little sleep as they prepared their opposing presentations. This was the biggest spy case in American history. It was the first time the Court had broken its summer recess in twenty-two years. It would hardly do to present arguments not well founded in law.

Although there were many precedents involved (Biddie cited forty-eight, Royall sixteen), the Milligan ruling was at once the most striking and the one that seemed most promising for the defense. Royall portrayed the analogy to the Court, one of whose members was his old professor Frankfurter. No more so than Milligan’s Indiana, he said, could the beaches of Long Island and Florida be called “zones of military operation.” There was no combat there; there was not even a threatened invasion, much less an actual one. The civil courts were functioning, Royall went on to argue, and they were the proper places to try the prisoners.

But the two days before the Court, the thousands of words spoken by the opposing counsel, and the many questions asked by the justices demonstrated among other things that Milligan was not the man he once had been. The Attorney General declared that the old case no longer applied—that time and technology had wiped out its relevance: “The United States and Nazi Germany are fighting a war to determine which of the two shall survive. This case is … part of the business of war.” The swift total war of 1942 was as different from the static land warfare of 1864 as a Stuka bomber was from a musket. This war was everywhere—on land, in the water and air, and in our factories and civilian morale as well as on the battlefield. The saboteurs, arriving secretly in enemy submarines, had penetrated our defenses, bringing explosives. Like spies of all ages—like Major André and our own Nathan Hale—they had removed their uniforms and come in disguise. The universally accepted law of war was that spies should be tried by military tribunals and executed if guilty.

As for Chief Justice Stone, he was able to distinguish the case from Milligan because the saboteurs were belligerents from a foreign country. He was more troubled by the secrecy of the trial, and he wanted to show that the law of the land still governed. Yet the President had already been chided by this very hearing, and it was difficult to say that he had violated the Articles of War, which were not entirely clear and perhaps were never intended to bind him. On July 31 the Court, which tends to support the President in time of war, upheld the Attorney General unanimously.

Although the decision merely meant that the military trial would continue, it was the end of the line for the saboteurs. On August 3 the generals gave their verdict —death for all eight defendants—to President Roosevelt as the court of last resort. He followed Biddle’s recommendation in commuting the sentences of Dasch to thirty years and of Burger to life imprisonment as rewards for their aid. It was the duty of General Cox, as provost marshal general, to inform the eight individually of their fate. The six condemned to die, he later reported, “seemed stunned and turned pale although they kept silent.” The cool Burger, who was lying on his cot reading the Saturday Evening Post when Cox entered, looked up long enough to get the news of his life term, said, “Yes, sir,” and returned to his reading. Dasch, whose disillusionment had been painful ever since his arrest, was outraged at his sentence. He wrote to President Roosevelt declining to accept the verdict—a dissent that was entirely rhetorical, for he was bundled off with Burger to the federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut.

Astonishingly, the doomed six signed a statement expressing appreciation for having been given a fair trial and adding, “Before all we want to state that defense counsel … has represented our case … unbiased, better than we could expect and probably risking the indignation of public opinion. We thank our defense counsel…”

The electric chair on the jail’s third floor was readied for use. On August 8, in strictest secrecy, the six men, starting in alphabetical order with Haupt, were executed one by one. “Haupt was seated in the electric chair at one minute past noon,” General Cox recorded. “The last of the six was pronounced dead at four minutes past one.” It established a gruesome statistic—ten and one-half minutes per man, the swiftest multiple electrocution ever carried out.

The watchful press had learned of the electrical preparations, and reporters were standing outside in the rain. As Time put it:

In the courtyard, in the drizzle, six sheeted bodies on stretchers were loaded in ambulances … Steel-helmeted soldiers, with bayonets and machine guns, kept a little crowd of the curious away. The ambulances swung out slowly on the wet pavement, took the bodies to the Walter Reed Hospital for autopsy. … The U. S. still knew less about the case than about’any one of its daily, tawdry crimes of passion.

In fact, not even the press knew until weeks later that the six men were buried in the District of Columbia Potter’s Field at Blue Plains. The headstones consisted of unpainted boards bearing only the numbers from 276 to 281.

If it was true that newsmen and some libertarians were offended by the heavy cloak of secrecy, this policy did succeed in concealing for the war’s duration the fact that Dasch and Burger had betrayed the plot to the F.B.I. This seemed to have one salutary effect: the Nazi Abwehr was stunned by the quick failure of its enterprise. At the time of the arrest of the eight, Colonel von Lahousen noted in his diary, “Since early morning we have been receiving [radio] reports … announcing the arrest of all participants in Operation Pastorius.” The diary also disclosed that Hitler, in a rage at the debacle, gave the colonel and Admiral Canaris a tongue-lashing. So impressed were the Germans by the skill of the F.B.I. that they made only one further effort at sabotage in the United States during the war—a minor one that failed.

In 1948 Dasch and Burger were released from prison and deported to Germany. The garrulous Dasch had never stopped projecting a picture of himself as a loyal American who had risked death to foil a Nazi plot that otherwise would have cost untold numbers of lives and millions of dollars in war production—a man who, instead of being rewarded for valor, had been duped by the G-men, railroaded into prison, and then banished.

Germany also became hostile toward him. German newspapers described him as a traitor who had saved his own skin by sending six comrades to the electric chair. Thereafter he was hounded from town to town, occasionally spat upon or threatened, unable to hold for long jobs as a waiter or bartender. Several times his life grew so uncomfortable that he took refuge in Switzerland. He kept writing plaintive letters to the American Civil Liberties Union, J. Edgar Hoover, Attorney General Tom Clark, and eventually to President Eisenhower, seeking permission to return to the United States. In 1959 he wrote a book published in this country, Eight Spies Against America , which he hoped would be sold to the movies and would justify what he described as his courageous anti-Nazi, pro-American adventure. One point he made was that he had voluntarily surrendered some eighty thousand dollars to the United States government instead of skipping off to the South Seas with it.

But one of the conditions of the suspension of Dasch’s prison sentence and his deportation was that he would not be allowed to return. The ban was never lifted. Even the lost eighty thousand dollars seemed to gain him no sympathy. He could never win a particle of the esteem enjoyed by another man who had lost money—young coastguardsman Culen. Cullen had turned in the $260 that Dasch gave him to his commanding officer. “I never thought to get a receipt for it,” he recalls, “so it went to the government. I never really missed it.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.