The Spies Who Came In From The Sea

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As for Chief Justice Stone, he was able to distinguish the case from Milligan because the saboteurs were belligerents from a foreign country. He was more troubled by the secrecy of the trial, and he wanted to show that the law of the land still governed. Yet the President had already been chided by this very hearing, and it was difficult to say that he had violated the Articles of War, which were not entirely clear and perhaps were never intended to bind him. On July 31 the Court, which tends to support the President in time of war, upheld the Attorney General unanimously.

Although the decision merely meant that the military trial would continue, it was the end of the line for the saboteurs. On August 3 the generals gave their verdict —death for all eight defendants—to President Roosevelt as the court of last resort. He followed Biddle’s recommendation in commuting the sentences of Dasch to thirty years and of Burger to life imprisonment as rewards for their aid. It was the duty of General Cox, as provost marshal general, to inform the eight individually of their fate. The six condemned to die, he later reported, “seemed stunned and turned pale although they kept silent.” The cool Burger, who was lying on his cot reading the Saturday Evening Post when Cox entered, looked up long enough to get the news of his life term, said, “Yes, sir,” and returned to his reading. Dasch, whose disillusionment had been painful ever since his arrest, was outraged at his sentence. He wrote to President Roosevelt declining to accept the verdict—a dissent that was entirely rhetorical, for he was bundled off with Burger to the federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut.

Astonishingly, the doomed six signed a statement expressing appreciation for having been given a fair trial and adding, “Before all we want to state that defense counsel … has represented our case … unbiased, better than we could expect and probably risking the indignation of public opinion. We thank our defense counsel…”

The electric chair on the jail’s third floor was readied for use. On August 8, in strictest secrecy, the six men, starting in alphabetical order with Haupt, were executed one by one. “Haupt was seated in the electric chair at one minute past noon,” General Cox recorded. “The last of the six was pronounced dead at four minutes past one.” It established a gruesome statistic—ten and one-half minutes per man, the swiftest multiple electrocution ever carried out.

The watchful press had learned of the electrical preparations, and reporters were standing outside in the rain. As Time put it:

In the courtyard, in the drizzle, six sheeted bodies on stretchers were loaded in ambulances … Steel-helmeted soldiers, with bayonets and machine guns, kept a little crowd of the curious away. The ambulances swung out slowly on the wet pavement, took the bodies to the Walter Reed Hospital for autopsy. … The U. S. still knew less about the case than about’any one of its daily, tawdry crimes of passion.

In fact, not even the press knew until weeks later that the six men were buried in the District of Columbia Potter’s Field at Blue Plains. The headstones consisted of unpainted boards bearing only the numbers from 276 to 281.

If it was true that newsmen and some libertarians were offended by the heavy cloak of secrecy, this policy did succeed in concealing for the war’s duration the fact that Dasch and Burger had betrayed the plot to the F.B.I. This seemed to have one salutary effect: the Nazi Abwehr was stunned by the quick failure of its enterprise. At the time of the arrest of the eight, Colonel von Lahousen noted in his diary, “Since early morning we have been receiving [radio] reports … announcing the arrest of all participants in Operation Pastorius.” The diary also disclosed that Hitler, in a rage at the debacle, gave the colonel and Admiral Canaris a tongue-lashing. So impressed were the Germans by the skill of the F.B.I. that they made only one further effort at sabotage in the United States during the war—a minor one that failed.

In 1948 Dasch and Burger were released from prison and deported to Germany. The garrulous Dasch had never stopped projecting a picture of himself as a loyal American who had risked death to foil a Nazi plot that otherwise would have cost untold numbers of lives and millions of dollars in war production—a man who, instead of being rewarded for valor, had been duped by the G-men, railroaded into prison, and then banished.

Germany also became hostile toward him. German newspapers described him as a traitor who had saved his own skin by sending six comrades to the electric chair. Thereafter he was hounded from town to town, occasionally spat upon or threatened, unable to hold for long jobs as a waiter or bartender. Several times his life grew so uncomfortable that he took refuge in Switzerland. He kept writing plaintive letters to the American Civil Liberties Union, J. Edgar Hoover, Attorney General Tom Clark, and eventually to President Eisenhower, seeking permission to return to the United States. In 1959 he wrote a book published in this country, Eight Spies Against America , which he hoped would be sold to the movies and would justify what he described as his courageous anti-Nazi, pro-American adventure. One point he made was that he had voluntarily surrendered some eighty thousand dollars to the United States government instead of skipping off to the South Seas with it.