World War II: Operation Pastorius

The special seven-man military commission opens the third day of its proceedings in the trial of eight Nazi saboteurs. July 1942. US Army

Operation Pastorius Background:

With the American entry into World War II in late 1941, German authorities began planning to land agents in the United States to collect intelligence and carry out attacks against industrial targets. Organization of these activities was delegated to the Abwehr, Germany's intelligence agency, which was headed by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Direct control of the American operations was given to William Kappe, a long-time Nazi who had lived in the United States for twelve years. Canaris named the American effort Operation Pastorius after Francis Pastorius who led the first German settlement in North America.


Utilizing the records of the Ausland Institute, a group that had facilitated the return of thousands of Germans from America in the years before the war, Kappe selected twelve men with blue-collar backgrounds, including two who were naturalized citizens, to begin training at the Abwehr's sabotage school near Brandenburg. Four men were quickly dropped from the program, while the remaining eight were divided into two teams under the leadership of George John Dasch and Edward Kerling. Commencing training in April 1942, they received their assignments the following month.

Dasch was to lead Ernst Burger, Heinrich Heinck, and Richard Quirin in attacking the hydroelectric plants at Niagara Falls, a cryolite plant in Philadelphia, canal locks on the Ohio River, as well as Aluminum Company of America factories in New York, Illinois, and Tennessee. Kerling's team of Hermann Neubauer, Herbert Haupt, and Werner Thiel were designated to strike the water system in New York City, a railroad station in Newark, Horseshoe Bend near Altoona, PA, as well as canal locks at St. Louis and Cincinnati. The teams planned to rendezvous at Cincinnati on July 4, 1942.

Operation Pastorius Landings:

Issued explosives and American money, the two teams traveled to Brest, France for transport by U-boat to the United States. Embarking aboard U-584, Kerling's team departed on May 25 for Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, while Dasch's team sailed for Long Island aboard U-202 the next day. Arriving first, Dasch's team landed on the night of June 13. Coming ashore on a beach near Amagansett, NY, they wore German uniforms to avoid being shot as spies if captured during the landing. Reaching the beach, Dasch's men began burying their explosives and other supplies.

While his men were changing into civilian clothes, a patrolling Coast Guardsman, Seaman John Cullen, approached the party. Advancing to meet him, Dasch lied and told Cullen that his men were stranded fisherman from Southampton. When Dasch refused an offer to spend the night at the nearby Coast Guard Station, Cullen became suspicious. This was reinforced when one of Dasch's men shouted something in German. Realizing that his cover was blown, Dasch attempted to bribe Cullen. Knowing he was outnumbered, Cullen took the money and fled back to the station.

Alerting his commanding officer and turning in the money, Cullen and other raced back to the beach. While Dasch's men had fled, they saw U-202 departing in the fog. A brief search that morning unearthed the German supplies which had been buried in the sand. The Coast Guard informed the FBI about the incident and Director J. Edgar Hoover imposed a news blackout and commenced a massive manhunt. Unfortunately, Dasch's men had already reached New York City and easily evaded the FBI's efforts to locate them. On June 16, Kerling's team landed in Florida without incident and began moving to complete their mission.

The Mission Betrayed:

Reaching New York, Dasch's team took rooms in a hotel and purchased additional civilian clothing. At this point Dasch, aware that Burger had spent seventeen months in a concentration camp, called his comrade for a private meeting. At this gathering, Dasch informed Burger that he disliked the Nazis and intended to betray the mission to the FBI. Before doing so, he wanted Burger's support and backing. Burger informed Dasch that he too had planned to sabotage the operation. Having come to an accord, they decided that Dasch would go to Washington while Burger would remain in New York to oversee Heinck and Quirin.

Arriving in Washington, Dasch was initially dismissed by several offices as a crackpot. He was finally taken seriously when he dumped $84,000 of the mission's money on the desk of Assistant Director D.M. Ladd. Immediately detained, he was interrogated and debriefed for thirteen hours while a team in New York moved to capture the rest of his team. Dasch cooperated with the authorities, but was unable to provide much information regarding the whereabouts of Kerling's team other than stating they were due to meet in Cincinnati on July 4.

He was also able to provide the FBI with a list of German contacts in the United States which had been written in invisible ink on a handkerchief issued to him by the Abwehr. Utilizing this information, the FBI was able to track down Kerling's men and took them into custody. With the plot foiled, Dasch expected to receive a pardon but instead was treated the same as the others. As a result, he asked to be jailed with them so they would not know who betrayed the mission.

Trial & Execution:

Fearful that a civilian court would be too lenient, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that the eight would-be saboteurs be tried by a military tribunal, the first held since the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Placed before a seven-member commission, the Germans were accused of:

  • Violating the law of war
  • Violating Article 81 of the Articles of War, defining the offense of corresponding with or giving intelligence to the enemy
  • Violating Article 82 of the Articles of War, defining the offense of spying
  • Conspiracy to commit the offenses alleged in the first three charges

Though their lawyers, including Lauson Stone and Kenneth Royall, attempted to have the case moved to a civilian court, their efforts were in vain. The trial moved forward in the Department of Justice Building in Washington that July. All eight were found guilty and sentenced to death. For their assistance in foiling the plot, Dasch and Burger had their sentences commuted by Roosevelt and were given 30 years and life in prison respectively. In 1948, President Harry Truman showed both men clemency and had them deported to the American Zone of occupied Germany. The remaining six were electrocuted at the District Jail in Washington on August 8, 1942.

Selected Sources

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Operation Pastorius." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). World War II: Operation Pastorius. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Operation Pastorius." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).