July’s Trial of the Month departs somewhat from many of the others. Most of the trials I have focused on have been large, public affairs. At the time, many were considered the “Trial of the Century,” at least until the next one came along.
This month, I should like to turn our attention to a trial conducted in secret.
On June 13, 1942, approximately six months after the United States entered World War II, John Cullen, a twenty-one-year-old Coast Guard enlistee was an unarmed “sand pounder,” walking the deserted beach near Amagansett, Long Island. Through the fog, he spotted three men near the water and assumed they were area fishermen, until he saw the large gear bag and heard them speaking German. Rather than killing anyone they met, as ordered, George Dasch, a German-American, bribed Cullen for his silence. Cullen took the money and then raced back to the Coast Guard station to alert his superiors.
Searching the beach, the Coast Guard found explosives and German uniforms. The spies, however, were gone.
The first spy team, four men in all, assembled in New York. They had been supplied with about 80,000 dollars (approximately one million dollars in today’s terms). Operation Pastorius was to demonstrate American vulnerability through acts of sabotage to essential industries. A second team of saboteurs landed at Ponte Vedra, Florida. Dasch, the New York team’s leader, however, promptly notified the FBI of the plan. Sources report that it took some effort to convince the FBI of his sincerity as a Nazi spy and not a mentally disturbed local with grandiose visions. Eventually, however, he succeeded, in part by showing the F.B.I. the money as well as a handkerchief. When FBI scientists exposed the handkerchief to ammonia fumes, the names of Nazi sympathizers in the area were revealed. All eight were rounded up before a single act of sabotage could be performed.
Dasch expected to be received as a hero and to receive a presidential pardon. Instead, he and the others were jailed in New York. J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I. trumpeted the capture without mentioning that the prisoners had been delivered through the cooperation of Dasch and another spy, Ernest Burger. Franklin Roosevelt on July 2nd, 1942 issued an executive order that the captured men would be subject to the jurisdiction of a military tribunal rather than a civilian court.
On July 4th the eight Germans were moved in secret from New York to Washington, DC. On July 8th, the trial began in Room 5235 of the Justice Department. The doors were secured, the windows covered with blackout curtains. The prosecution rolled out its evidence. Then, the defendants presented their cases. The defense rested on July 27th. Chief counsel for the defense, simultaneously, challenged the military tribunal’s jurisdiction in the United States Supreme Court. His arguments were rejected on July 31st. On August 3rd, the tribunal found each of the defendants guilty and forwarded their recommendations regarding punishment to President Roosevelt.
On August 7th, the commanding general of the tribunal received the reply from Roosevelt. All but Dasch and Burger were to be executed the next day. The sentences were carried out and the men’s remains buried in secret. Burger and Dasch received long prison terms. Both were subsequently deported to Germany following the war.
A historical battle of “spin” has occurred regarding the role of the F.B.I. and George Dasch. One camp argues that downplaying Dasch’s participation allowed the F.B.I. to convince Germany that our robust domestic intelligence had uncovered the plot and, thereby, dissuaded the Abwehr from attempting any further such operations. Another school holds that Hoover deliberately toned down his informant’s role simply to aggrandize the agency and to show that it was vital to the war effort.
Curiously, in 2010, a National Park Service employee in a Washington DC park, stumbled across an unauthorized memorial to the six executed Nazi spies. The 200-pound granite marker had been placed there by a neo-Nazi group. It had lain hidden in a thicket for nearly 30 years. The slab was removed and remains in an undisclosed Park Service warehouse. Heralding a contemporary problem regarding monuments, no one knows quite what to do with the stone block.
Another enduring effect of the case is the military tribunal. Following September 11th, the decision to try Guantanamo Bay detainees in military tribunals found its precedent in Ex Parte Quirin, the Supreme Court decision upholding the right to try Richard Quirin, one of Dasch’s German associates.
Submarines, J. Edgar Hoover, secret tribunals, modern neo-Nazis, the entire tale has little need to be fictionalized. First published in 1976, John Lee blended the historical details of Operation Pastorius with his own imagination and wrote “The Ninth Man,” a tale of the spy who got away and the mayhem his mission was to cause. Well-received, it is little known today, perhaps because it was never made into a movie. It was, however, optioned six times.
A trial in secret which lasted throughout July 1942. The case helped shape the legend of the F.B.I. as well as contemporary terrorism prosecution. It is my July Trial of the Month—but don’t tell anyone.