With rare exception, American involvement in World War II was focused in Europe and the Pacific. Few acts of war took place on the North American continent, a function primarily of the United States’ geographic isolation. But this did not keep the Germans from attempting to bring the war Stateside. In fact, on June 13, 1942, four German operatives landed at Amagansett, New York, toward the eastern tip of Long Island. Three days later, another four Nazis came ashore at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, just south of Jacksonville.
Their orders? To wreak havoc on America’s infrastructure.
The eight were trained as saboteurs and given targets: hydroelectric plants, a chemical plant, shipping locks in the Ohio River, and, of particular note, the railway industry. Hell Gate Bridge in New York, a four-track bridge which allowed for the transport of both passengers and freight across the East River bordering Manhattan, was specifically targeted, as was Newark, New Jersey’s main train station. Horseshoe Curve (aerial photo above), a railroad pass in central Pennsylvania which connected the Pittsburgh steel industry to the industrialized population east, was also on the list of places to be sabotaged, as were the Pennsylvania Railroad’s nearby repair yards.
The plot failed when two of the conspirators instead attempted to defect. George Dasch, who headed up the team, went to the FBI in Washington, D.C. instead of to his German-assigned target. He attempted to turn himself in and, with co-conspirator Ernst Burger (an American citizen), told the FBI about the plot — but the two were written off as mere nutcases. Dasch was not to be ignored, however. He returned to the FBI, dropped over $80,000 on the desk — money he received to execute the planned sabotage — and was taken seriously. After hours of interrogation, Burger and the other six Nazis were arrested.
Justice was swift. In July, all eight would-be saboteurs — including Dasch — were convicted of various war crimes and sentenced to death by electrocution. On August 8, 1942, six of the eight were indeed executed, but Burger and Dasch were spared. President Roosevelt commuted Burger’s sentence to life in prison and Dasch’s to 30 years, and six years later (after the war), President Truman granted clemency to both so long as they accepted deportation to American-occupied Germany.
The two lived out their remaining days — Burger lived to be 69 years old, Dasch died at age 89 — as men without a country. The U.S. viewed them as enemy combatants, never issuing them a pardon, while the pair’s German compatriots viewed them as traitors who turned on their fellow soldiers.
Bonus fact: The importance of Horseshoe Curve to the northeast United States was not something new to the World War II era economy. During the Civil War, the curve was guarded by Union soldiers, who believed (correctly) that Confederate troops had singled it out as a target — Altoona, where it is located, is roughly 120 miles northwest of Gettysburg.
From the Archives: Lookout Air Raids: The Germans were not alone — Japan tried to attack the continental United States, too.
Related: “Saboteurs: The Nazi Raid on America” by Michael Dobbs. Five stars on 19 reviews, the book discusses Operation Pastorius in detail, covering 336 pages.