Spies Like Us -- Decades Before The War on Terror

By Greg Cergol
|  Monday, Jul 12, 2010  |  Updated 7:45 PM EDT
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Spies on our shores are nothing new.  <a title=Greg Cergol recounts the story of Nazi spies on Long Island" />

Spies on our shores are nothing new. Greg Cergol recounts the story of Nazi spies on Long Island

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Russian spies next door; homegrown terrorists plotting in our midst.

The headlines have surprised and scared some; others have, no doubt, wondered if our shores have ever faced this kind of assault.

The reality is, we have been here before.

"It happened just down this beach -- June 13, 1942," said East Hampton town councilman Dominick Stanzione, as he walked along a serene stretch of sand  in Amagansett

Stanzione has collected documents and pictures from an event that's become a piece of local lore -- the day spies came ashore in the Hamptons.

They were Nazi spies, carried to the Long Island coast by a submarine.  They came ashore loaded with $175,000 dollars in cash and explosives.

Their aim: To spark terror in the hearts of America with a two year sabotage campaign against train lines and industrial plants; to destroy America's will to battle its enemies.

"The Nazis chose guys who had all worked here; so, they were good with English and could talk the talk and walk the walk," said East Hampton Historical Society executive director, Richard Barons.

Spies that looked like us.

Their plan, however, ended almost before it began.

A Coast guardsman patrolling the beach that night spotted the Nazis just after they buried their arsenal on the beach. John Cullen, 21, was unarmed and suspicious.  But rather than kill Cullen, the Nazis bribed him with $260.

"They told him that if he told anyone, they would kill him and his family," said Barons.

Cullen took the cash but didn't keep silent.  He went right to his Coast Guard station, a building that still stands in Amagansett, and sparked a nationwide manhunt for the spies.

What the FBI didn't know was that another team of four spies had also landed in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.  Members of the two teams quickly made their way to New York, Washington and Chicago. But they never set off one bomb.

Instead, one of the spies, George John Dasch, 39, called the New York office of the FBI. At first, investigators didn't believe his claims; but, eventually, he met federal agents in Washington and betrayed his fellow saboteurs, leading to their arrests.

"Dasch claimed in a book that he never intended to carry out any sabotage," Stanzione recalled. "Everything that could have gone wrong for these spies, did."

Over the objections of their lawyers, who wanted the case heard in civilian court, the eight were tried before a military tribunal.  All were convicted and six were executed. Only Dasch and Ernest Burger, 36 ,were sentenced to jail time.  President Truman granted clemency to both in 1948 and they were deported to Germany.

Later, a triumphant FBI director J. Edgar Hoover warned Americans to be vigilant about spies; to, in effect, say something if you see something.

If this all sounds eerily familiar, you're right.

"Not only was this part of the drama in 1942, it's part of the drama we're experiencing today," said Stanzione, who is writing a play about the Nazi spy case.

 
The play would prove once again how the past can be a road map for our future, said the East Hampton councilman.

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