A tale of in­com­pe­tence and

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - HIS­TORY ROBERT PHILPOT

IT WAS one of the Nazis’ most au­da­cious plans. In June 1942, the Third Re­ich dis­patched eight sabo­teurs to the United States. Armed with fuses, pre­made bombs, TNT and $82,000 (over $1m in to­day’s money), their goal was to blow up key mil­i­tary and trans­porta­tion in­stal­la­tions, power plants, alu­minium fac­to­ries, and canal locks and bridges, in­clud­ing New York’s fa­mous Hell Gate Bridge.

They were also to spread ter­ror by at­tack­ing Jewish-owned de­part­ment stores.

The men — Ger­man-born but all of whom had spent some time liv­ing in Amer­ica be­fore re­turn­ing to the father­land — ar­rived by u-boat in early June. The first team came ashore at Ama­gansett, Long Is­land; the se­cond fol­lowed five days later, land­ing near Jack­sonville in Florida. They were to meet in Cincinnati on July 4 to be­gin their mis­sion.

But, within two months of their ar­rival, six of the eight men had been sent to the elec­tric chair, while two of their sup­posed com­rades were be­gin­ning long prison sen­tences.

Op­er­a­tion Pas­to­rius, named af­ter the founder of the first Ger­man set­tle­ment in colo­nial Amer­ica, is a cu­ri­ous tale — of in­com­pe­tence, be­trayal, high-level cover-ups and the per­ver­sion of US jus­tice — with an eerie post­script.

Although hatched by Wal­ter Kappe, a se­nior Ab­wehr of­fi­cer who had spent the 1930s liv­ing in Amer­ica, the would-be sabo­teurs were hardly the Third Re­ich’s finest. Gary Co­hen, who has stud­ied hours of FBI in­ter­views and 3,000 pages of court tran­scripts, la­belled them “the key­stone com­man­dos”.

George Dasch, Kappe’s first re­cruit and the man who would lead the group, had spent 20 years in the US, mainly work­ing as a waiter, be­fore re­turn­ing to Ger­many in 1941. While speak­ing near-per­fect Amer­i­can English, he turned out to have lit­tle sym­pa­thy for the Nazis and had been baulked when Kappe first told him the US was the tar­get. An­other re­cruit, Ernest Burger, was a for­mer stormtrooper and one of the Nazi party’s early mem­bers — but a uni­ver­sity pa­per crit­i­cal of the Gestapo had landed him in a con­cen­tra­tion camp, from which he had been re­leased just months be­fore be­ing re­cruited by Kappe. Still an­other, Hein­rich Heinck, spoke only a smat­ter­ing of English, de­liv­ered in a thick Ger­man ac­cent.

At the same time, their train­ing in ex­plo­sives at a farm out­side Ber­lin was thor­ough and their false iden­ti­ties care­fully con­structed. An el­e­ment of fear was drilled into them: if any showed signs of weak­ness once they had ar­rived in the US, the oth­ers were to kill him im­me­di­ately. The FBI, they were also warned, had been heav­ily in­fil­trated by Ger­man spies; no one should think of at­tempt­ing to de­fect.

How­ever, Kappe’s plans be­gan to go awry as soon as Dasch’s team set foot on Amer­i­can soil. Dressed in Ger­man uni­forms — so they would be treated as pris­on­ers of war if they were cap­tured when land­ing — the men were spot­ted by a young, un­armed coast guard. Dasch at­tempted to bribe him but a key wit­ness, who would soon raise the alarm and thus swiftly fa­cil­i­tate the dis­cov­ery of a cache of buried uni­forms and weapons, had been al­lowed to slip away.

A na­tion­wide man­hunt was soon un­der way but the sabo­teurs were de­liv­ered into the FBI’s hands by two of their own. Ar­riv­ing in New York, Burger — who had al­ready left a de­lib­er­ate trail of clues on the Long Is­land beach — and Dasch agreed to con­tact the au­thor­i­ties. Dasch took the lead and, with his as­sis­tance and that of Burger, by June 27, all eight men were in cus­tody.

Rush­ing to claim the glory, FBI Di­rec­tor J Edgar Hoover an­nounced the men’s cap­ture. “The coun­try went wild,” wrote At­tor­ney Gen­eral Fran­cis Bid­dle in his mem­oirs, while not­ing that Hoover’s fail­ure to men­tion the role of the coast guard and Dasch left the public be­liev­ing that the plot had prob­a­bly been smashed by “a par­tic­u­larly bril­liant FBI agent”

It was not just the public who were de­lib­er­ately mis­led: con­fi­den­tial George John Dasch, was one of the eight Axis sabo­teurs cap­tured by the FBI. He’d spent 20 years work­ing in the US J Edgar Hoover claimed credit for the men’s cap­ture memos from Hoover to Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt failed to men­tion that Dasch had turned him­self in.

An­other be­trayal was soon afoot. The FBI con­vinced Dasch that he should plead guilty, as­sur­ing him that he would be par­doned by the Pres­i­dent and re­leased within three to six months. Roo­sevelt, though, had al­ready de­cided that all the men must die and the civil­ian courts — which, War De­part­ment lawyers con­cluded, might only con­vict them of con­spir­acy to com­mit a fed­eral crime and jail them for two years — should be cir­cum­vented.

Us­ing a Civil War-era prece­dent, a pres­i­den­tial procla­ma­tion an­nounced the for­ma­tion of a mil­i­tary tri­bunal (as George W Bush would later at­tempt to in­sti­gate for Guan­tanamo de­tainees). Held in se­cret, it found all eight guilty and rec­om­mended the death penalty, while also sug­gest­ing that Dasch and Burger be spared. With the Supreme Court re­fus­ing to in­ter­vene, the men’s fate rested with Roo­sevelt. He or­dered the im­me­di­ate ex­e­cu­tion of all the men bar Dasch and Burger, who re­ceived sen­tences of 30 years and life re­spec­tively.

Dasch would never re­ceive the promised pres­i­den­tial par­don. He and Burger were re­leased af­ter six years and de­ported to West Ger­many. Treated as a traitor at home, Dasch was re­fused all re­quests for a visa to re­turn to Amer­ica at Hoover’s in­sti­ga­tion.

But the six men who were ex­e­cuted 75 years ago this week, and buried in un­marked graves in a wooded area of south-west Wash­ing­ton, were not en­tirely for­got­ten. In 2006, Jim Rosen­stock of the Na­tional Park Ser­vice was alerted by work­men to the dis­cov­ery of a 200-pound gran­ite block. Reg­u­larly cleaned, and with can­dles around it, it was en­graved with the words: “In mem­ory of agents of the Ger­man Ab­wehr, ex­e­cuted 8 Au­gust 1942”.

Below their six names, was a fi­nal, chill­ing in­scrip­tion: “Do­nated by the NSWPP”. The Na­tional So­cial­ist White Peo­ple’s party was the name with which, shortly be­fore his as­sas­si­na­tion in Au­gust 1967, George Lin­coln Rock­well rechris­tened the Amer­i­can Nazi party.

PHOTO: GETTY IM­AGES (EA)

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