The Keystone Kommandos

Just months after Pearl Harbor the Third Reich secretly sent two small teams of would-be saboteurs to the United States. Their mission: cripple U.S. industry. But things went badly wrong. What happened is a story of confusion, low comedy, and betrayal—and the creation of a precedent for the military tribunals being proposed by the Bush Administration today.
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The four men arrived by U-boat and landed on a deserted beach near Amagansett, Long Island, in the midnight darkness on Saturday, June 13, 1942, a mere six months after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. They had close to $80,000 (equivalent to nearly a million dollars today) in cash, four boxes of explosives, and a mission that had been planned at the highest levels of the Third Reich—namely, to halt production at key American manufacturing plants, create railroad bottlenecks, disrupt communication lines, and cripple New York City's water-supply system. The mission, audacious in means and scope, had the potential to seriously impede America's military buildup, and perhaps even to affect the outcome of the war.

It was a spectacular failure. Within the month the operatives were arrested, along with the members of another team of four, who had landed in Florida four days later, under similar circumstances. Neither team had managed even to attempt an act of sabotage.

President Franklin Roosevelt, newly engaged in the war against Germany and eager to demonstrate successes, demanded that justice be swift and severe. To that end he ordered the creation of a military tribunal, using as precedents obscure cases from the Civil and Revolutionary Wars. Within a month all eight men had been sentenced to death and six had been executed. The other two, who had turned in their colleagues and cooperated with the U.S. government, had their sentences reduced—one to life in prison, the other to thirty years. Transcripts of the tribunal's proceedings, on which this article is based, ran to some 3,000 pages and were kept secret for eighteen years after the trial; a copy sits in the "Map Room files" at the Roosevelt Presidential Library, in Hyde Park, New York. Prior to the tribunal the FBI interviewed all eight of the would-be saboteurs, who provided details about their training in Germany, their arrival in the United States, and their capture. Transcripts of those interviews, on which this article also relies, can be found in Justice Department files at the National Archives.

This episode, though minor in the overall context of the war, is nevertheless of renewed interest today. The military tribunals proposed by the Bush Administration in the wake of the September 11 attacks rely on the case of the captured Germans for precedent.

The Recruits

The idea of sending saboteurs to the United States was the brainchild of Walter Kappe, a high-ranking Nazi official who had immigrated to America from Germany in 1925. Kappe took a job at a farm-implement factory in Kankakee, Illinois; he later moved to Chicago, to write for a German-language newspaper, and by 1933 he had moved to New York and become a leader in the Friends of Hitler movement there. In 1937 he returned to Germany to serve in the Third Reich's propaganda office, where he spent the next four years giving pep talks to repatriated Germans like himself. By late 1941 Kappe had been transferred to German military intelligence, known as the Abwehr, where he was assigned to identify and train men for a sabotage campaign in America.

The Abwehr had studied U.S. military production and key transportation lines in great detail, and Kappe made use of this intelligence in his planning. To cripple the light-metals industry, critical in airplane manufacturing, he and the Abwehr targeted plants operated by the Aluminum Company of America in Alcoa, Tennessee; Massena, New York; and East St. Louis, Illinois. To disrupt the supply of important raw materials for aluminum production, they targeted the Philadelphia Salt Company's cryolite plant. They developed plans to sabotage certain U.S. waterways—focusing particularly on the Ohio River locks between Cincinnati and St. Louis—and the hydro-electric power plants at Niagara Falls and in the Tennessee Valley. They also wanted to mangle the Horseshoe Curve, an important railroad site in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and the Hell Gate Bridge, which connected the rail lines of New England with New York City. They had designs on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, one of America's major coal carriers. They planned to bomb Jewish-owned department stores for general terror-inducing effect.

Kappe code-named his mission Operation Pastorius, after Franz Daniel Pastorius, the leader of the first group of Germans to settle in Colonial America, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1683. Kappe imagined that he would ultimately return to Chicago as the mastermind of the operation. He had plans that a U-boat with German saboteurs would arrive in the United States every six weeks until the war was won.

There was no shortage of candidates for Kappe's initial crew of operatives. The Nazis had recently repatriated thousands of Germans living in the United States by offering them one-way tickets home. But his requirements were exacting: he wanted men who spoke English, were familiar with the United States, and were skilled in a trade that could provide them with cover while they lived in America. That proved difficult.

George John Dasch was Kappe's first recruit. He had gone to America in October of 1922, as a stowaway on the S.S. Schoharie, and had been a dishwasher and a waiter in Manhattan and on Long Island. In August of 1926 he was arrested twice, for operating a brothel and for violating Prohibition laws. While working in a hotel he met and married an American. Later he spent time in Chicago selling sanctuary supplies for the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy before returning to waiting tables. Although he completed the requirements for U.S. citizenship in 1939, he never showed up in court to be sworn in.

In 1941 Dasch returned to Berlin, where the Nazi bureaucracy required that he fill out forms explaining the reason for his return to Germany. Dasch wrote that he intended "to partake in political life." This led to his being questioned further by a Gestapo agent, to whom he said, "Even if I have to work as a street cleaner and do my job cleaning streets right, I want to participate politically." His motives may have been more complicated, however: he was not, one of his fellows later observed, "the absolute Nazi he pretended to be." After his capture by the FBI, Dasch claimed that he had joined the sabotage mission in order to learn secrets that he could later use in the United States to fight against the Nazis.

On June 3, 1941, Dasch met Kappe, who cross-examined him about his life in the United States. When Dasch said he wanted to join the German army, Kappe said he believed that Dasch might serve the Third Reich to far better advantage in another, unspecified capacity. Kappe subsequently hired Dasch to monitor U.S. radio broadcasts in a listening station where fifty-three languages were spoken and where the news that was gathered was teletyped to all the members of the German cabinet.

In November, Kappe called on Dasch again and asked him if he would like to return to America, to help realize "the plan on which my office has been working for a long time." Dasch demurred, saying, "But that's a peaceful country, isn't it?" Kappe admitted that the United States was indeed neutral, but he characterized it as an indirect enemy, because it was a supplier and a supporter of Germany's enemies. "Therefore," he said, "it is time to attack them. We wish to attack the American industries by industrial sabotage." By mid-January of 1942 Dasch had been assigned permanently to the planning of the U.S. mission.

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