For its first program meeting of the New Year, the Bridgeville Area Historical Society welcomed back an old friend, Dr. Todd DePastino, for an entertaining and informative talk on the 1942 German plot to sabotage key defense facilities in the United States, code-named “Operation Pastorious”.
In addition to being a highly gifted historian focused on American history in the first half of the twentieth century, Dr. DePastino is founder and Executive Director of Veterans Breakfast Club (VBC), a national organization “dedicated to creating communities of listening around veterans and their stories to connect, educate, heal and inspire”.
The speaker began by discussing Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, an enigmatic leader whose relationship with Hitler and the Nazi Party is still a subject of debate. A U-Boat commander in World War I, he was a career naval officer. In 1935 Canaris was promoted to Admiral and made head of Abwehr, the German military intelligence organization. He promptly expanded its staff dramatically, emphasizing its ability to perform counter-intelligence activities.
An opponent of the war that was certain to result from Hitler’s actions, he became a member of a clique dedicated to overthrowing the Nazi regime. According to Dr. DePastino, Canaris was suspected of feeding Hitler incorrect intelligence and of helping hundreds of Jews escape.
Eventually the Gestapo concluded he was a threat to security and a possible participant in the infamous “July 20” plot to assassinate the Fuehrer. Canaris was arrested, charged with treason, convicted, and executed a few days before the war ended.
Named for Francis Daniel Pastorious, the founder of the first German settlement in the New World, “Operation Pastorious” was suggested by Hitler and implemented by Canaris. The idea for the operation came from an incident prior to our entry into World War I, “the Black Tom Island Explosion”.
Black Tom Island was an artificial island close to Jersey City which served as a munitions depot early in the twentieth century. On July 30, 1916, it was full of small arms and artillery ammunition (one thousand tons) scheduled to be shipped to Russia in support of their war effort against the Germans. A series of small fires initiated small explosions, followed by two large ones. It was widely believed that this was a German sabotage operation.
In 1942, Operation Pastorious involved finding eight Germans who had lived in the United States long enough to be able to pass as Americans, training them in demolition, and then transporting them here via U-Boat, equipped with false identities, munitions, and U. S. currency. The speaker characterized them as a group of unstable misfits, men who had encountered a variety of problems during their time in the United States — family, social, and employment-related.
While they were in France, awaiting departure, two of them were overheard in a bar, bragging about their mission. This information eventually got to British Intelligence; they elected to not pass it on to their American allies. Four of them were transported to Amagansett, Long Island, by U-202, and deposited there on June 12, 1942.
Led by George Dasch, this team was in the process of burying two crates of munitions in the sand when they saw a light approaching in the distance. When Dasch went to investigate, he met a young Coast Guard seaman, John Cullen, whose assignment was to patrol the beach looking for enemy spies. Dasch concocted a story that he had come ashore from a fishing vessel and bribed him with $250 not to tell anyone. Cullen left, the spies completed their work, donned civilian clothes, and caught a morning train into Manhattan. When Cullen got back to the Coast Guard station, he alerted his superiors. They returned in force and found the cache of buried munitions, but no saboteurs.
After the four spies got into Manhattan, they split up into pairs. Dasch immediately advised his partner, Ernst Burger, that he was going to defect and become a hero. Burger reported that he was on board with that plan. Dasch then called the Manhattan FBI Office and announced that he was a German spy who wanted to defect. He was transferred to the department that fields crank calls, where he was rejected. Undaunted, the next day he boarded a train for Washington, walked into FBI headquarters with a satchel full of money and eventually convinced someone there he was telling the truth.
On June 16, U-584 delivered the other four conspirators onto a beach near Jacksonville, Florida, and departed safely. Two of them headed for Chicago; the other two joined their compatriots in Manhattan. By now the FBI had enough information to pick all of them up. They were accused of sabotage and tried in a military court martial. All eight were found guilty. Dasch and Burger received long jail sentences; the other six were electrocuted on August 8.
Six years later President Truman commuted their sentences. They were deported to Germany, where they were received as traitors. Burger died in 1975; Dasch, in 1992. Although both men had been promised pardons by J. Edgar Hoover, this never occurred.
The Pastorious plot was grandiose. The saboteurs were to destroy components of the aluminum industry, vital to aircraft production – three ALCOA plants, a cryolite factory in Pennsylvania, and the Niagara Falls hydroelectric plant. Transportation facilities were also targeted – the Ohio River locks at Louisville, the Horseshoe Curve, the Pennsylvania Railroad shops at Altoona, the Hell Gate Bridge in New York, and the Pennsylvania Station in Newark.
Today Operation Pastorious seems like a bizarre scheme that never had a chance to succeed. Dr. DePastino summarized his presentation by commenting that only the individuals involved really know what their motivations were.
Kudos to Program Chairman Rosemary Kasper for another outstanding program. Next in this series will be a talk by Deborah Morinella entitled “Heroic Women of the American Revolution”, at 1:30 pm, Sunday, February 27, 2022, in the Chartiers Room at the Bridgeville Volunteer Firemen’s Hall.
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