|Part of the American Theater of World War II|
A United States Army Signal Corps photo taken during the third day of the trial of the captured German saboteurs, July 1942.
|Objective||Sabotage American economic infrastructure|
|Executed by||Nazi Germany|
Operation Pastorius was a failed German intelligence plan for sabotage inside the United States during World War II. The operation was staged in June 1942 and was to be directed against strategic American economic targets. The operation was named by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the German Abwehr, for Francis Daniel Pastorius, the leader of the first organized settlement of Germans in America.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, followed by Nazi Germany's declaration of war on the United States four days later (and the United States' declaration of war on Germany in response), Hitler authorized a mission to sabotage the American war effort as well as to make terrorist attacks on civilian targets to demoralize the American civilian population inside the United States. The mission was headed by Admiral Canaris, chief of the German Abwehr. Canaris recalled that during World War I, he organized the sabotage of French installations in Morocco, and entered the United States with other German agents to plant bombs in New York arms factories, including the destruction of munitions supplies at Black Tom Island, in 1916. He hoped that Operation Pastorius would have the same kind of success they had in 1916.
Recruited for Operation Pastorius were eight German residents who had lived in the United States. Two of them, Ernst Burger and Herbert Haupt, were American citizens. The others, George John Dasch, Edward John Kerling, Richard Quirin, Heinrich Harm Heinck, Hermann Otto Neubauer, and Werner Thiel, had worked at various jobs in the United States. All eight were recruited into the Abwehr military intelligence organization and were given three weeks of intensive sabotage training in the German High Command school on an estate at Quenz Lake, near Berlin, Germany. The agents were instructed in the manufacture and use of explosives, incendiaries, primers, and various forms of mechanical, chemical, and electrical delayed timing devices. Considerable time was spent developing complete background "histories" they were to use in the United States. They were encouraged to converse in English and to read American newspapers and magazines so no suspicion would be aroused if they were interrogated while in the United States.
Their mission was to stage sabotage attacks on American economic targets: hydroelectric plants at Niagara Falls; the Aluminum Company of America's plants in Illinois, Tennessee, and New York; locks on the Ohio River near Louisville, Kentucky; the Horseshoe Curve, a crucial railroad pass near Altoona, Pennsylvania, as well as the Pennsylvania Railroad's repair shops at Altoona; a cryolite plant in Philadelphia; Hell Gate Bridge in New York; and Pennsylvania Station in Newark, New Jersey. The agents were also instructed to spread a wave of terror by planting explosives on bridges, railroad stations, water facilities, Jewish-owned businesses, and public places. They were given counterfeit birth certificates, Social Security Cards, draft deferment cards, nearly $175,000 in American money, and driver's licenses, and put aboard two U-boats to land on the east coast of the U.S.
Before the mission began, it was in danger of being compromised, as George Dasch, head of the team, left sensitive documents behind on a train, and one of the agents when drunk announced to patrons at a bar in Paris that he was a secret agent.
On the night of 12 June 1942, the first submarine to arrive in the U.S., U-202, landed at Amagansett, New York, which is about 115 miles east of New York City, on Long Island, at what today is Atlantic Avenue beach. It was carrying Dasch and three other saboteurs (Burger, Quirin, and Henck). The team came ashore wearing German Navy uniforms so that if they were captured, they would be classified as prisoners of war rather than spies. They also brought their explosives, primers and incendiaries, and buried them along with their uniforms, and put on civilian clothes to begin an expected two-year campaign in the sabotage of American defense-related production.
When Dasch was discovered amidst the dunes by unarmed Coast Guardsman John C. Cullen, Dasch seized Cullen by the collar, threatened him, and stuffed $260 into Cullen's hand. Cullen reported the encounter to his superiors after returning to his station. By the time an armed Coast Guard patrol returned to the site, the Germans, weary from their trans-Atlantic trip, were gone and had taken the Long Island Rail Road train from the Amagansett station into Manhattan, New York City, where they checked in and stayed at a hotel. The Coast Guard then discovered German equipment buried in the beach and reported it to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the FBI. A massive manhunt for the German agents was conducted; however, they did not know where exactly the Germans were going.
The other four-member German team headed by Kerling landed without incident at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, south of Jacksonville on 16 June 1942. They came on U-584, another submarine. This group came ashore wearing bathing suits but wore German Navy hats. After landing ashore, they threw away their hats, put on civilian clothes, and started their mission by boarding trains to Chicago, Illinois and Cincinnati, Ohio.
The two teams were to meet on 4 July in a hotel in Cincinnati to coordinate their sabotage operations.
Realizing that the mission was going to be doomed after the encounter with the Coast Guard, Dasch decided he had a secret of his own. The day after the landing at Amagansett, he called Burger, the most guarded and disciplined member of the team, into the upper-story hotel room the two men shared. He walked over to the window and opened it wide. "You and I are going to have a talk," Dasch said, "And if we disagree, only one of us will walk out that door—the other will fly out this window." He then revealed the truth to Burger: he had no intention of going through with the mission. He hated the Nazis and wanted Burger on his side when he turned the entire plot over to the FBI. Burger smiled. Having spent seventeen months in a Nazi concentration camp, his own feelings for the party were less than warm. He too had been planning to betray the mission. They agreed to defect to the United States immediately.
Shaken but not discouraged, Dasch ordered Burger to stay put and keep an eye on the other men. On 15 June, Dasch phoned the New York office of the FBI from a pay-telephone on Manhattan's Upper West Side explaining who he was and asked to convey the information to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. When the FBI agent was trying to figure out if he was talking to a crackpot, Dasch hung up. Four days later, he took a train to Washington, D.C. and checked in at the Mayflower Hotel. Dasch then walked into the FBI’s headquarters carrying a briefcase, asking to speak with Director Hoover. Dasch bounced from office to office until finally Assistant Director D.M. Ladd, the agent in charge of the manhunt, agreed to humor him with five minutes of his time. Dasch angrily repeated his story after he was dismissed as a crackpot by numerous agents. He finally convinced the FBI by dumping his mission's entire budget of $84,000 on the desk of Assistant Director D. M. Ladd. At this point, he was taken seriously and interrogated for hours. Besides Burger, none of the other German agents knew they were betrayed. Over the next two weeks, Burger and the other six were arrested.
Trial and execution
Fearful that a civilian court would be too lenient, President Roosevelt issued Executive Proclamation 2561 on 2 July 1942 creating a military tribunal to prosecute the Germans. Placed before a seven-member military commission, the Germans were charged with the following offenses:
- 1) Violating the law of war;
- 2) Violating Article 81 of the Articles of War, defining the offense of corresponding with or giving intelligence to the enemy;
- 3) Violating Article 82 of the Articles of War, defining the offense of spying; and
- 4) Conspiracy to commit the offenses alleged in the first three charges.
The trial was held in Assembly Hall #1 on the fifth floor of the Department of Justice building in Washington D.C. on 8 July 1942. Lawyers for the accused, who included Lauson Stone and Kenneth Royall, attempted to have the case tried in a civilian court but were rebuffed by the United States Supreme Court in Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1 (1942), a case that was later cited as a precedent for the trial by military commission of any unlawful combatant against the United States.
The trial for the eight defendants ended on 1 August 1942. Two days later, all were found guilty and sentenced to death. Roosevelt commuted Burger's sentence to life in prison and Dasch's to 30 years because they had turned themselves in and provided information about the others. The others were executed on 8 August 1942 in the electric chair on the third floor of the District of Columbia jail and buried in a potter's field in the Blue Plains neighborhood in the Anacostia area of Washington.
The failure of Operation Pastorius led Hitler to rebuke Admiral Canaris and no sabotage attempt was ever made again in the United States. During the remaining years of the war, the Germans only once more dispatched agents to the United States by submarine. In November 1944, as part of Operation Elster a German submarine, U-1230, dropped two RSHA spies off the coast of Maine to gather intelligence on the Manhattan Project and sabotage it, as well as dozens of American munition factories. The FBI captured both men shortly after. These agents benefited from the calmer state of public nerves in the later years of the war and received prison sentences rather than execution.
In 1948, President Harry S. Truman granted executive clemency to Dasch and Burger on the condition that they be deported to the American Zone of occupied Germany. They were not welcomed back in Germany, as they were regarded as traitors who had caused the death of their comrades. Although they had been promised pardons by Hoover in exchange for their cooperation, both men died without ever receiving them. Dasch died in 1992 at the age of 89 in Ludwigshafen, Germany.
- Duquesne Spy Ring
- They Came to Blow Up America, a 1943 film based on Operation Pastorius, starring George Sanders
- Saboteur, a 1942 film revolving around acts of sabotage on the US mainland during World War II.
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- Francis MacDonnell (2 November 1995). Insidious Foes: The Axis Fifth Column and the American Home Front. Oxford University Press. p. 131. ISBN 0-1950-9268-6.
- Horseshoe Curve, NRHS - Railfan's Guide to the Altoona Area(Requires Java 1.6 as of 1 January 2009]
- Dobbs, Michael (February 2004). Saboteurs: The Nazi Raid on America. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-375-41470-1.
- "The Type VIIC boat U-202 - German U-boats of WWII - uboat.net". Retrieved 30 December 2016.
- Judicial Review for Enemy Fighters: The Court’s Fateful Turn in Ex parte Quirin, the Nazi Saboteur Case
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- Federal Bureau of Investigation: George John Dasch and the Nazi Saboteurs, FBI Famous Cases
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- Damn Interesting » Operation Pastorius
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- Joseph E. Persico (22 October 2002). Roosevelt's Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage. Random House. p. 204. ISBN 0-3757-6126-8.
- Francis MacDonnell (2 November 1995). Insidious Foes: The Axis Fifth Column and the American Home Front. Oxford University Press. p. 133. ISBN 0-1950-9268-6.
- "Shoot or hang themselves?". Der Spiegel (in German) (15). 6 April 1998.
- Dobbs, Michael, Saboteurs: The Nazi Raid on America, New York: Knopf, 2004. ISBN 0-375-41470-3
- Rachlis, Eugene, They Came to Kill: The Story of Eight Nazi Saboteurs in America, New York: Random House, 1961.
- Persico, Joseph E., Roosevelt's Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage, New York:Random House, 2001, pp. 199–205. ISBN 0-375-50246-7
- Federal Bureau of Investigation: George John Dasch and the Nazi Saboteurs
- Lippmann, David H., World War II Plus 55, June 10-13th, 1942
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- Samaha, Joel, et al. (eds.), Transcript of Proceedings before the Military Commission to Try Persons Charged with Offenses against the Law of War and the Articles of War, Washington D.C., 8 to 31 July 1942, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2004. 
- Abella, Alex & Gordon, Scott, Shadow Enemies: Hitler's Secret Terrorist Plot Against the United States, Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2002. ISBN 1-58574-722-X
- Operation Pastorius at damninteresting.com
- The Facts Don't Matter An hour-long This American Life radio episode (original air date 3/12/2004) about the events leading up to Ex parte Quirin
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Operation Pastorius.|
- Booknotes interview with Michael Dobbs on Saboteurs: The Nazi Raid on America, 28 March 2004.
- Six Nazi Saboteurs Executed in Washington - Ghosts of DC history blog
- They Came to Blow Up America at the Internet Movie Database - a 1943 film about saboteurs, led by a German-American, landing on Long Island