The Spies Who Came In From The Sea

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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.