The plan was to bomb New York City bridges, tunnels, and our water supply. Bombs were also to be placed on the railroads, at factories and at manufacturing plants. These planned terrorist attacks are not from a recent news story about al-Qaida or ISIS, but a true story from World War II, 75 years ago. Adolf Hitler planned these attacks here on America shortly after Germany declared war on the United States on Dec. 11, 1941.
Two weeks later, the first phase of his attack plan on the U.S. began with the sailing of four Nazi U-boats to America’s shores. They were to sink merchant and cargo ships up and down the East Coast to stop the U.S. from delivering war supplies to their British allies. Hitler had hoped these attacks would cripple the U.S. even more after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor just weeks before.
On Jan. 13, 1942, Nazi submarines were sighted off Nantucket. The following morning, one of them sank a tanker 60 miles from Montauk Point. That U-boat traveled southwest and was soon hugging the South Shore beaches of Long Island, passing Long Beach, the Rockaways, and Coney Island. When it found no shipping outside the Narrows of New York harbor, and fearing possible mines, it turned eastward and patrolled our South Shore in the other direction. The U-boat soon found a British tanker carrying oil back to England. A torpedo sunk it off Quogue, Long Island.
By day, the U-boats sat on the ocean floor and surfaced only to attack ships in the darkness of night. The doomed ships were visible by their silhouette against the bright lights of New York City and other coastal lights up and down the East Coast.
On Jan. 25, 1942, a Norwegian tanker was torpedoed and sunk off New Jersey. Soon other tankers were sent to the bottom off Atlantic City. By the end of January, 13 cargo ships had been sunk and not one U-boat was ever identified or attacked in return. By March, 54 freighters and tankers had been lost. Many civilian lives were also lost.
Even with these mounting loses, the U.S. Navy refused to introduce the convoy system for East Coast shipping, which protected trans-Atlantic crossing. Additionally, the cities along the East Coast, including New York City, were reluctant to shut off their lights at night. America at the time had a false sense of security and believed the war would never come here to our shores.
Besides the sinking of ships, these U-boats also delivered saboteurs to Long Island, the second phase of Hitler’s attack on America. Just after midnight 75 years ago, on a moonless June 13, 1942, an unarmed 21-year-old Coast Guard seaman by the name of John Cullen from Bayside, Queens was walking in deep fog along a deserted Amagansett beach on Long Island’s South Shore. He carried only a flashlight.
Suddenly, he came upon three individuals coming out of the dark pounding surf. They should not have been there as all beaches were off-limits after nightfall. Cullen asked the men why they were there. One of them, who acted as the leader, told Cullen they were fishermen whose boat had run aground. The man spoke perfect English. But Cullen was suspicious because the men were not dressed like fisherman.
Just then, a fourth man appeared out of the water dragging a large canvas duffle bag behind him. That man spoke to the others in German. The English-speaking man shouted to the man, “Shut up, you damn fool!” Cullen asked what was in the bag and was told it was “clams.” Suddenly, Cullen was grabbed by the English-speaking man and told, “I wouldn’t want to kill you, why don’t you just forget the whole thing!” Cullen was then offered $300 to keep his mouth shut about the four men on the beach. He took the money, which turned out to be only $260, and was allowed to leave unharmed. Cullen ran quickly back to his lifeboat station about a mile up the beach for help.
Cullen and a group of guardsmen soon returned. This time armed with .30 caliber rifles. In the fog and darkness, they smelled diesel fuel and could just barely make out the image of a submarine offshore in the dense fog.
It was U-boat 202, which had just delivered four Nazi saboteurs to our Long Island shore. The sighting of the U-boat, however, was quickly dismissed by Coast Guard higher-ups and even by U.S. Navy Intelligence. The U-boat escaped back into the ocean darkness.
Besides the duffle bag brought ashore, the saboteurs also brought four wooden crates they buried on the beach. The guardsmen found the crates, which were found to contain brick-sized high explosives, primers, and incendiaries, which were to be used for a planned two-year reign of terror against New York, Tennessee, Illinois, Pennsylvania and other areas of the U.S. The plan was to destroy aluminum plants that built warplanes and other U.S. industries producing war products. Detonating incendiary devices were also going to be placed in Jewish-owned department stores in New York City.
The found duffle bag contained four soggy German Navy uniforms. A German pack of cigarettes was also found left on a nearby sand dune. But the men were gone.
Besides the four that landed on Long Island, four more Nazi saboteurs arrived four days later at Ponte Vedra, Fla. on U-boat 584, to take part in the same bombing operations. They brought even more explosive devices.
The four Long Island saboteurs were no strangers to New York. All had been born in Germany, but had lived and worked here before the war. The man with the perfect English was George Dasch, age 39. He was married to a U.S. citizen, and worked in the U.S. for 19 years before returning to Germany in 1939. Another was Ernest Burger, 36, a naturalized U.S. citizen, who came to America in 1927 and was even in the National Guard. He returned to Germany in 1933. The other two saboteurs, Heinrich Heinck, 35, and Richard Quirin, 34, were former members of the German-American Bund, the American equivalent of the Nazi Party, here in the states.
After leaving the beach that morning, the saboteurs walked in the dark along Montauk Highway to the Long Island Rail Road station in Amagansett. They arrived at about 5 a.m. after briefly getting lost. While walking around, a truckload of Coast Guardsmen passed them but did not stop. At the LIRR station, they purchased tickets and boarded the 6:57 a.m. express train to New York City. No one ever checked the station or the train, and they easily got away. Each had about $20,000 in U.S. currency in their pockets.
After stopping at the Jamaica terminal to change trains, and a short shopping trip for new clothes, the four arrived in the city. It was the same day as the New York at War Parade and over two and half million people lined Fifth Avenue to watch. Dasch and Burger also watched.
Allegedly, they both became nostalgic for the life they previously lived in New York and privately reconsidered their murderous plans. Soon Dasch was complaining about Germany and expressed a desire to sabotage their own mission. Burger allegedly agreed and told Dasch that he deliberately left the cigarette pack on the sand dune to be found.
The next day, Dasch called the FBI and attempted to set up a meeting with J. Edgar Hoover to tell all. The FBI thought the call was nothing more than a prank. Meanwhile, Hoover had just learned about the arrival of the four Germans on Long Island and sought answers from the Coast Guard as to how they let them get away.
Dasch, luckily, did not give up on speaking with Hoover and traveled by train to Washington. In another phone call on June 19, he finally spoke to a special agent in the anti-sabotage unit. Dasch surrendered to FBI agents in Washington and gave them a 500-page confession.
Two days later, the three remaining Long Island saboteurs were arrested in a NYC hotel. Three after that, the four that arrived in Florida were also arrested. Not one act of sabotage and destruction had occurred.
On June 27, 1942, J. Edgar Hoover announced the capture of the Nazi saboteurs. The next day, the New York Times and Walter Winchell praised the great work of Hoover’s G-men in catching the saboteurs. No one mentioned that George Dasch had turned everyone in. Hoover took all the credit for the arrests. If Dasch had not gone to the FBI, many innocent Americans would have died on our own soil because not many people believed in 1942 that Nazi U-boats were sinking merchant ships and bringing saboteurs to our defenseless east coast.
On July 2, 1942, President Theodore Roosevelt issued a Presidential Order establishing a military tribunal to prosecute the saboteurs. There would be no civilian criminal trial. They were enemy combatants. All were turned over to the Army and held in a military jail in Washington. That same month, a Life magazine editorial called for the death penalty. The 22-day tribunal before seven Army Generals began on July 8, 1942. All were convicted.
On Aug. 8, 1942, after defense attorneys failed at appealing the convictions at a Supreme Court hearing to throw out the tribunal, six of them were executed in a Washington D.C. jail’s electric chair. Because of their cooperation, Burger was sentenced to life in prison, while Dasch was sentenced to 30 years. In April 1948, President Harry Truman granted them executive clemency on the condition of deportation. Dasch and Burger were sent back to Germany.
The U-boats that had patrolled the East Coast in the first half of 1942, moved on to the Gulf of Mexico after the U.S. Navy finally supplied cargo and merchant ships with convoy escorts along the coast and cities blacked-out their lights at night.
In late 1942 and 1943, these U-boats sank 56 more ships in the Gulf.
This is a true war story that came to our Long Island shores 75 years ago.
***The author is a Vietnam-era veteran who served on active duty for five years as a counter-intelligence agent for U.S. Army Intelligence. He is a former Lynbrook Village Trustee and a retired federal agent.***