The Thrifty Spy On The Sixth Avenue El


As soon as Wilson’s executive order was signed to authorize it, Chief Flynn immediately assigned a tenman squad to keep the Germans under surveillance. A young agent named Frank Burke was placed in charge of a special office for this job, on the top door of the Custom House at the Battery. Burke put shadows on all the important figures he knew about, including Viereck. Von Papen, who had been clomping conspicuously around New York, reacted by taking instructions in evasion from Paul Koenig, the Hamburg-American Line detective. He learned to lead his shadow to Macyଁs or Gimbel’s, change elevators at every floor on the way to the top, go down the same way, and leave by another door. (Sometimes the shadow stuck; sometimes not.) Koenig was an old hand at secret meetings; he was in constant contact with sailors, tug skippers, wharf rats, and longshoremen up and down the waterfront and could produce information on cargo and ship movements anywhere in the harbor. He also had informers elsewhere in New York, including a clerk in the foreign department of the National City Bank who handled the English and French drafts covering payments for war materials and other supplies bought in the United States. These communications often named the railroad moving the shipments and the vessels on which they were consigned—invaluable data for a sabotage unit. The bank clerk, Frederick Schleindl, was paid the princely sum of twenty-rive dollars a week for regularly bringing these documents to Koenig’s office, waiting while they were copied, and then returning them to the bank’s file in the morning before they could be missed.

Flynn, looking into the matter of radio communications between the European capitals and the United States, soon focussed his attention on the German-owned transatlantic radio transmitter at Sayville, Long Island. Since the beginning of the war, the Germans at Sayville had been submitting all messages, before dispatch, to a staff of U.S. Navy censors. However, the messages passed by the censors often bore little relation to those that sputtered faintly across the ocean to Berlin. A prearranged code between sender and receiver could make the pauses between letters and words more significant than the dots and dashes; thus purportedly commercial messages could conceal military information.

Sayville went on the air for four hours at 11 P.M. every night. It was monitored by government stations at Arlington, Virginia, and Fire Island, New York, and also by hundreds of radio “hams” along the North Atlantic coast line, who stayed up hall the night, receivers clamped tightly over their ears, to catch the faint dots and dashes and forward the written transcription the next morning to the government. The difficulty in gathering evidence was that the transcriptions could not show the significant pauses, and the government had no way to amplify and sound-record the feeble messages.

In June, when the German ambassador took a cottage at Cedarhurst, Long Island, as a summer embassy, and installed a direct telegraph line to Sayville, Chief Flynn set out to gather meaningful data. Through the radio bureau of the Department of Commerce (forerunner of today’s Federal Communications Commission), he learned that a Westfield, New Jersey, automobile salesman and radio hobbyist named Charles E. Apgar had recently invented a device for greatly amplifying Morse code signals. Chief Flynn at once commissioned Apgar to record all of the Sayville output for a two-week period. Beginning on June 7, Apgar filled 175 cylinders with four minutes of messages each, without missing a word. The results, when compared with the messages submitted for approval to the censor, were impressive enough to bring about several Cabinet-level meetings, and the United States decided that there were indeed enough neutrality violations in the use of the air at Sayville to justify seizing the facility. It was taken over less than two weeks after Apgar’s nightly vigil was concluded.

The Apgar recordings also led to the identification of a Lehár-operetta spy named Captain Franz von Rintelen, who had arrived in New York in April disguised as a Swiss businessman. Von Rintelen travelled with a Kaiserpass , a personally signed order from Kaiser Wilhelm that in effect gave him equal rank with von Papen and Boy-Ed. He spoke Oxford English without noticeable accent, frequented the best clubs, and almost never went out in the evening except in white tic and tails. An agent of the German Navy, he had been given an independent bank roll, and instructions to devise and carry out plans to interfere with Allied shipping. He annoyed von Papen and Boy-Ed with his romantic approach to sabotage; to the veteran attachés his plans seemed naïve and outlandish. They also feared that his cover identity would be quickly penetrated, endangering the entire German position in the United States. During his first meeting with von Papen, von Rintelen asked for an appointment with President Wilson, a request that von Papen took as evidence of nothing short of insanity. Von Papen compared notes with Boy-Ed, and not even the fact that von Rintelen had brought news from Berlin of an Iron Gross for von Papen and an Order of the House of Hohenzollern for Boy-Ed could soften their decision that he had to go. Von Papen went out to Sayville and in one of the messages recorded by Apgar asked Berlin for von Rintelen’s recall on the grounds of foolhardy recklessness.