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Operation Pastorius

On the evening of June 12, 1942 U-202 surfaced within sight of Amagansett, a small fishing village on New York’s Long Island coast some 115 miles east of New York City. She then submerged and slowly crept closer, grounding about 50 yards from shore.

Shortly after midnight of June 13, U-202 surfaced again, shrouded by thick fog and predawn mist, blending into its gray surroundings. A team of four men wearing German military uniforms crowded into an inflatable rubber boat, a number of crates were loaded and two German seamen rowed them ashore. The team wore military uniforms so that in the event they would be captured they would be classified as prisoners of war rather than spies.

Once on shore, they quickly changed into civilian clothes and buried the crates as well as their uniforms. The crates contained enough explosives, primers and detonation devices for a planned two-year sabotage mission.

While this sounds like a chapter from a World War II thriller from writer Ken Follett, it isn’t. This was Operation Pastorius and it was real.

The operation was conceived by Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency headed by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, who named it Operation Pastorius, for Francis Daniel Pastorius, the leader of the first organized German settlement in America. The mission was to sabotage strategic United States economic targets, including hydroelectric plants at Niagara Falls, Alcoa plants in Tennessee and New York, a crucial railroad pass near Altoona, Pennsylvania, Hells Gate Bridge in New York City and Pennsylvania Station in Newark, New Jersey.

The four saboteurs recruited for the operation were Germans who had lived in the United States. They were given a quick course in sabotage techniques, handed nearly $175,000 in American money, put aboard U-202 and sailed for United States’ east coast.

Back on the beach the leader of the German team climbed a sand dune to look around and unexpectedly ran into an unarmed coastguardsman on patrol carrying only a flashlight. He told him that he and his friends were stranded fishermen. Unaware what was going on the other side of the dune one of the team shouted a question in German. The team leader grabbed the startled coastguardsman by the collar and stuffed $260 in his hand telling him to forget what he saw.

By the time the incident was reported at the Coast Guard station the four Germans were on the run to New York City. When the beach was searched, freshly dug holes were found and by 10:23 a.m. the crates were at the office of the New York City Coast Guard commander. He alerted the FBI, and by noon, 13 hours later, the FBI had everything the saboteurs had brought ashore.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover imposed a news blackout and ordered the largest manhunt in the bureau’s history. Unfortunately, the FBI had no leads. And then came an unexpected lucky break.

Two of the saboteurs, now in a New York hotel, immediately decided to defect to the United States. The team leader turned himself into the FBI but was dismissed as a crackpot by numerous agents. Through persistence he finally was led to the office of the assistant director, and when he opened his briefcase and dumped the entire mission budget on his desk his story became plausible.

The other team members were rounded up, and on July 7 the FBI announced the arrests of the saboteurs. All were tried by a military tribunal, two were executed and two were spared for turning themselves in and cooperating with US authorities. Both received lengthy prison terms which were commuted by President Harry Truman in 1948, and they were deported to Germany.