The Spies Who Came In From The Sea

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“I want one thing clearly understood, Francis,” the President said. “I won’t give them up … I won’t hand them over to any United States marshal armed with a writ of habeas corpus.”

Now at last it was safe to release the story—that is, part of the story. J. Edgar Hoover’s statement to the press told briefly of the two landings, the buried explosives, the plan to cripple key industries and to kill and demoralize, and the eight men arrested. He did not say how they were apprehended. Nothing was said about the defections of Dasch and Burger, not only to prevent possible retaliation against them by their six comrades, or Nazi retaliation against their families in Germany, but also because there was no desire to enlighten the enemy about how the men had been caught. If Berlin believed that our counterespionage was superhuman, Berlin might think twice before repeating such efforts.

The press and the public seized on the story as they would have embraced a great victory in battle. The New York Times gave it an unprecedented triple-banner headline and declared that the nocturnal landings from U-boats only a few hundred yards off our shores seemed like “a fantastic plot borrowed from the movies.” The spectacle of the eight saboteurs sneaking across the Atlantic only to run into the arms of the waiting G-men contained perfect ingredients for national satisfaction. It made the Germans look comic and the F.B.I, heroic.

Not for days to come did the news leak out about the role played by Cullen and the Coast Guard at Amagansett. However, the actual facts of the capture still remained unknown. Cullen was promoted to coxswain (he later was awarded the Legion of Merit), while some observers urged that dogs be used to aid in beach patrols.

As for Georg Dasch, he was appalled to discover that instead of being hailed as a hero, he was a prisoner along with the seven others. He was in the familiar plight of the squealer, a man useful to the law but held in some contempt because his talebearing seemed dictated by expediency rather than idealism.

On July 2 President Roosevelt announced that the accused men would stand trial before a military commission composed of seven general officers—three major generals, three brigadiers, and the president, Major General Frank R. McCoy, Retired. The prosecution would be in the hands of Attorney General Biddle and the Army judge advocate general, Major General Myron Cramer. The defense was entrusted to Colonel Kenneth C. Royall and Colonel Cassius M. Dowell, More than a majority vote of the commission—five of the seven—was required for conviction and sentence. The rules of evidence would not be as restrictive as those protecting civilian rights. The President himself, as commander in chief, would make the final decision on the sentence on the basis of the commission’s recommendation, and there would be no appeal.

Extraordinary efforts were made to keep the eight prisoners in good health until they faced the summary fate the public expected for them. They were placed in a second-floor wing of the old District of Columbia jail. Each man was kept in a tiled, ever-lighted cell with an empty cell on each side of him. He was clad only in pajamas, was allowed no writing materials, and ate his meals with fiber spoons off paper plates so that there was no opportunity for suicide. Only his counsel was permitted to visit him, and he could not communicate with the other accused men. He was guarded constantly by members of a detail of four officers and thirty soldiers. As Brigadier General Albert M. Cox, who as wartime provost marshal general of the District was custodian of the prisoners, later put it, “Whenever a man requested a smoke, he was handed one cigarette. His guard lit the match. … Every instant for thirty-five days and nights, at least one pair of eyes was glued to each prisoner.”

Reporters were excluded—an order that brought a howl from the press. Elmer Davis, the former newsman and radio commentator who had just been appointed director of the brand-new Office of War Information, had been promised full authority over censorship. He protested to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Stimson, seventy-five and tart, let him know that the Army was in charge and that secrecy was vital. Davis next went to Roosevelt, urging that he allow censored accounts. The President relented only enough to permit a brief daily communiqué from General McCoy—a distinguished officer who would prove himself an execrable newspaperman.

Attorney General Biddle felt that the secrecy was overdone, that the public could have been informed far more completely without danger to the national interest, and that indeed virtually the only things that had to be concealed were the voluntary confessions of Dasch and Burger.