June 13, 1942 | Saboteur Trial

 NAZI SABOTEUR TRIAL, Washington, D.C., Courtesy of the National Archives/United States Army Signal Corps

“Now look me in the eyes. Would you recognize me if you saw me again?” 

-Nazi Saboteur John Dasch to Seaman Jack Cullen

It was an enigmatic encounter just past midnight on a fog-shrouded Long Island, New York beach. A coast guard “sand pounder” crossed paths with a group of men who identified themselves simply as local fishermen who had run aground. The sand pounder was 21-year-old Coast Guardsman Jack Cullen, who walked the south shore beaches—armed with a single flare to call for help—looking for signs of German U-boats or other enemy activity. On the night of June 13, 1942, he found it.

The leader of the four men, barely visible in the fog, thrust some money in Coast Guardsman Cullen’s hand. Cullen dashed back to headquarters to report the incident. The beach was soon swarming with Coast Guard officers, but no “fishermen” could be found. Officers did find a pack of German cigarettes along with crates of explosives and discarded German uniforms buried in the sand. The hunt was on and the FBI now took the lead.

Key figures in the trial of the eight saboteurs: (1) Maj. Gen. Myron Cramer, Judge Advocate General of the Army and assistant prosecutor; (2) Attorney General Francis Biddle; (3) FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and (4) Col. Carl L. Ristine, a lawyer in the Army's Inspector General office appointed as a defense attorney for George Dasch only.
Courtesy of the National Archives/United States Army Signal Corps

The four men were in fact Nazi saboteurs who made their way to the nearest Long Island railroad station and headed into Manhattan. After a shopping spree to deck themselves out in good American business suits, the four men separated with plans to meet up later. Their mission was to connect with another group of four saboteurs who landed on the coast of Florida. Together they’d enact their plans of sabotage—taking out important railways, power plants, and manufacturing sites.

The leader of the New York group was George John Dasch, 39. He had lived in the U.S. for 19 years and only returned to Germany in 1941, right before the U.S. entered World War II. Finding himself back on American soil, he had a change of heart and turned himself into the FBI. Based on Dasch’s information, agents soon rounded up the rest of the saboteurs who were tried by military tribunal and sentenced to death.  However, the death sentences of Dasch and one other saboteur, Ernest Peter Burger, were commuted in return for their cooperation with the FBI. Following the war, both Burger and Dasch were granted clemency and deported back to Germany