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The Spies Who Came In From The Sea
Wartime America’s nerves were jumpy. One foggy night on a deserted Long Island beach a young coastguardsman heard the muffled engines of a submarine offshore, and suddenly eight shadowy figures loomed up out of the mist
April 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 3
On Sunday morning, only some thirty hours after they had landed, Dasch and Burger had a long talk at their hotel during which Dasch dropped subtle hints of his own doubts in order to determine whether his sidekick felt the same way and could be trusted. It must have been instantly apparent to Burger that with the leader in such a frame of mind the mission would surely fail, and he had better get clear. Reassured at last, Dasch said he intended to betray the whole plot (and his accomplices) to the F.B.I. According to the two men’s later testimony, they agreed to this at once. Dasch felt that by exposing the plot he would become an American hero celebrated in headlines and honored by the President.
At 7:51 on Sunday evening, with Burger standing near the telephone booth, Dasch called the New York F.B.I, office and talked with Agent Dean F. McWhorter. Identifying himself as Frank Daniel Pastorius, he said he was recently from Germany. “I want you to know,” he said, “that I shall get in touch with your Washington office next Thursday or Friday. I have some important information.” When McWhorter asked what the information was, the caller said it was of such moment that only J. Edgar Hoover himself could have it, and then hung up. McWhorter, accustomed to crank calls, nevertheless made a record of the conversation.
Dasch then indulged in a period of dawdling that he later explained was motivated by the conviction that the other six saboteurs should be given their own opportunity to save their skins by surrender. It was not until Thursday afternoon that Dasch boarded a train for Washington, still determined to see Hoover personally. He checked into Room 351 in the Mayflower Hotel.
On Friday morning, June 19, he telephoned the F.B.I, and was connected with Agent Duane L. Traynor. He must talk with Mr. Hoover, he said, finally disclosing that he was the leader of a group of German saboteurs. Traynor, who knew of the discovery of explosives at Amagansett and the hunt for the missing men, told Dasch firmly to stay right there in Room 351. Dasch did. A group of agents arrived with almost miraculous speed and escorted him to headquarters at the Department of Justice. Here, when he became persuaded that Hoover was not at leisure, he told his story to others. He gave them his handkerchief with the invisible writing. He jolted them with the news that there was a second sabotage group slated to land with explosives at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. They were to take two years, he said, to complete their work of destruction. Their major objectives were centered most heavily on aluminum production, transportation, and power stations.
The ingenious bombs masquerading as lumps of coal were to be tossed into coal cars serving industrial plants and seagoing vessels, eventually to find their way into furnaces—with disastrous results. The saboteurs were instructed also to destroy civilian morale by spreading incendiary devices in large department stores and by leaving time bombs in lockers at hotels, railway stations, and other places where crowds congregated.
So inattentive a student was Dasch that he had forgotten which chemical would bring out the message on the handkerchief—a problem the F.B.I, laboratory quickly solved. One of the addresses on it was that of a New York German whose house could be safely used by the saboteurs as a meeting place. Indeed, when the Gmen got on the trail of Dasch’s henchmen in New York, they discovered not only that the other four had already landed at Ponte Vedra on June 17 but that two of them —Kerling and Thiel—had also come to New York. What with the information obtained from Dasch and the handkerchief, it was a simple matter to arrest Burger, Quirin, Heinck, Kerling, and Thiel. That left only Haupt and Neubauer to be apprehended. Kerling was escorted by agents to Ponte Vedra, twenty-five miles southeast of Jacksonville, where he glumly pointed out the spot where he and his men had buried four German uniform caps and four boxes of explosives identical to those found at Amagansett.
The G-men worked in utter secrecy. Not a word had been given to the newspapers—a precaution that was continued, since publicity might hamper arrest of the remaining saboteurs. The case contained elements so ominous that Hoover kept his boss, Attorney General Francis Biddle, posted on it from the start. Biddle, in turn, reported to President Roosevelt, who was following developments with keenest interest.
Herbert Haupt, on leaving Florida, had gone to his home city of Chicago, with Hermann Neubauer following him in a later train. For the time being, young Haupt forgot about sabotage and devoted himself to movies, fun, and romance. Unknown to him, his skylarking was being watched by federal agents, who knew his home address and were waiting for him to lead them to Neubauer. When agents zeroed in on Neubauer at the Sheridan Plaza Hotel on June 27, both men were arrested.
Biddle telephoned the good news to President Roosevelt, who was determined that a speedy example be made of the eight in order to discourage further conspiracies. The President, in a memorandum to Biddle, gave his opinion that the two saboteurs who were American citizens were guilty of high treason, that the other six were in the category of spies, and that all deserved the death penalty.
This sort of punishment could be decreed only by a court-martial. In civil law, if one bought a gun with intent to shoot someone, it was not murder until the fatal shot was fired; and if someone arrived in the United States with heavy explosives but had not got around to using them, it was not sabotage. If the eight were tried in a civil court, they might get off with two or three years’ imprisonment.