Rooseveltís Military Commission
to try spies started on local beach

by Patricia Shillingburg

    Sam Caseís family story is that local German sympathizers burned down the New Prospect House in June 1942 to divert attention from the four spies being delivered by submarine to the Amagansett shore. My mother enjoyed telling of being at the ocean that day with her children and actually seeing the submarine and the dingy with the four spies being rowed toward shore. Both great stories, but untrue. The fire started in the hotelís bake shop June 26, exactly two weeks after the spies had landed, and the landing was on a foggy night.
    Shortly after midnight on June 13, 1942, 21 year old John Cullen, Coast Guard Seaman 2nd Class, was making his six-mile patrol from the Amagansett Station. Suddenly he saw a man approaching him out of the fog. He challenged the stranger to identify himself. The man said he was George Davis and pointing to his three companions said they were fishermen from Southampton. Then one of the other men came closer and said something in a foreign language, Cullen thought it could be German, and Davis snapped, ìShut up, you damn fool.î Knowing that fishing at night was illegal, Cullen suggested that the men accompany him to the Coast Guard Station. Davis refused, but instead offered Cullen a $260 bribe. Armed with nothing more than a flashlight and a flare gun, Cullen accepted the bribe, turned into the fog and ran as fast as he could back to the Coast Guard Station.
    Breathless, he told his story to Boatswainís Mate Carl R. Jenette who upon seeing the money immediately notified the commanding officer of the Amagansett Station, Warrant Officer Warren Baines. Jenette armed Cullen and three other Coast Guardsmen and the group returned to the scene of the encounter.
    The strangers were gone, but the Coast Guardsmen could smell diesel fuel and could hear the throbbing of an engine off shore. Through the fog they could dimly make out the structure of a submarine which had run aground and was now trying to free itself. Cullen later recounted, "We ducked behind a dune, not wanting to get shelled, until she slid away."
    A morning search of the beach area uncovered the buried uniforms, explosives, and incendiary devices. The Coast Guard notified the FBI.
    The man who had identified himself as George Davis was actually George John Dasch, aged 39. His companions were Ernest Peter Burger, 36, Heinrich Harm Heinck, 35, and Richard Quirin, 34. All had at one time lived in the United States for substantial lengths of time but had returned to Germany prior to December 7, 1941. Burger had become a naturalized citizen in 1933. Dasch had joined the German Army at age 14 and served for about 11 months as a clerk during the conclusion of World War I. He had subsequently enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1927 and received an honorable discharge after a little more than a year of service.
    All four men had all been inducted into German intelligence as saboteurs. They were trained in a class of about a dozen men at a school near Berlin which instructed them in chemistry, incendiaries, explosives, timing devices, secret writing, and concealment of identity by blending into an American background. The intensive training included the use of techniques under realistic conditions. They were also taken to aluminum and magnesium plants, railroad shops, canals, and other facilities to familiarize them with the vulnerabilities of the types of places they were to attack. Using maps, they identified American targets to disrupt the American war effort.
    That June night they returned to America, crew members of the submarine U-202 rowed them ashore. They were dressed in marine uniforms, so that if they were captured during the landing they would be treated as war prisoners and not spies. However, they soon changed into civilian clothes and buried their uniforms and the tools they would eventually require for what was to have been a two-year career in sabotaging American defense-related production: plants, bridges, and canal locks. They were nearly ready to leave the beach when they encountered Cullen.
    So once Cullen left, they moved quickly to the Amagansett railroad station and caught a train to New York City.
    Almost immediately, Dasch confided to Burger that he intended to turn them all in to the FBI. On the evening of June 14, Dasch, giving the name Pastorius -- the name of the first German immigrant to America -- called the FBI. He said that he had recently arrived from Germany and would call the FBI office in Washington when he arrived there the following week. On the morning of Friday, June 19, he called the FBI, identified himself as Pastorius and furnished his location. He was immediately contacted and taken into custody. He was thoroughly interrogated, and he furnished the identities of the other saboteurs, possible locations for some and information which would enable their swift apprehension.
    In addition to turning in his own team, he told the FBI about another team of four who had landed in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, south of Jacksonville on June 17. The leader was Edward John Kerling, aged 33. The other members were Werner Theil, 35, Herman Otto Neubauer, 32, and Herbert Hans Haupt, 22. Haupt had gained citizenship in the United States as a child when his father was naturalized in 1930.
    The three remaining members of the Long Island group were picked up in New York City on June 20. Of the Florida group, Kerling and Thiel were arrested in New York on June 23, and Neubauer and Haupt were arrested in Chicago on June 27. Of the $175,200 in U.S. currency they had received in Germany to carry out their sabotage activities, they still had $174,588 which the FBI recovered.
    On July 2, 1942 the President and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, appointed a Military Commission and directed it to try the alleged spies. The President declared

all persons who are subjects, citizens, or residents of any nation at war with the United States or who give obedience to or act under the direction of any such nation, and who during time of war enter or attempt to enter the United States ... through coastal or boundary defenses, and are charged with committing or attempting or preparing to commit sabotage, espionage, hostile or warlike acts, or violations of the law of war, shall be subject to the law of war and to the jurisdiction of military tribunals.
    The eight were tried before a Military Commission comprised of seven U.S. Army officers appointed by President Roosevelt from July 8 to August 4, 1942 in the Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C. The prosecution was headed by Attorney General Frances Biddle and the Army Judge Advocate General, Major General Myron C. Cramer. Defense counsel included Colonel Kenneth C. Royall (later Secretary of War under President Truman) and Major Lausen H. Stone (son of Harlan Fiske Stone, Chief Justice of the United States.)
    While the trial was in process, the defense team appealed to the District Court of the District of Columbia, claiming that trial by the Military Commission was illegal. The District Court and then the Appeals Court of the District of Columbia denied their applications for leave to file petitions of habeas corpus.
    The Supreme Court heard arguments on July 29 and 30, 1942. On July 31, the Court held:
1.) That the charges preferred against petitioners on which they are being tried by military commission appointed by order ot the President of July 2, 1942, allege an offense or offenses which the president is authorized to order tried before a military commission.
2.) That the military commission was lawfully constituted.
3.) That petitioners are held in lawful custody for trial before the military commission, and have not shown cause for being discharged for writs of habeas corpus.
    The motions for leave to file petitions for writs of habeas corpus were denied.
 Chief Justice Harlan Stone subsequently wrote an opinion in which he stressed the fact that the petitioners were agents of a country which had declared war against the United States, and that throughout American history, spies were tried by military commissions beginning with Major John André, Adjutant-General to the British Army, who had crossed enemy lines in disguise to consort with General Benedict Arnold. He was tried as a spy by a ìBoard of General Officersî appointed by General George Washington and was hanged on October 2, 1780.
     Justice Stone wrote:
By a long course of practical administrative construction by its military authorities, our Government has likewise recognized that those who during time of war pass surreptitiously from enemy territory into our own, discarding their uniforms upon entry, for the commission of hostile acts involving destruction of life or property, have the status of unlawful combatants punishable as such by military commission...
    All eight were found guilty of sabotage and sentenced to death. Attorney General Biddle and J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, appealed to President Roosevelt to commute the sentences of Dasch and Burger. Dasch then received a sentence of 30 years and Burger a life sentence, both to be served in a federal penitentiary. The remaining six were executed at the District of Columbia Jail on August 8, 1942.
    The German intelligence service was so shaken by the outcome of this effort that no similar sabotage attempt was ever made again. The German naval high command also would not allow a valuable submarine to be risked for another sabotage mission, a review of records following the war revealed.
    In April 1948, President Truman granted executive clemency to Dasch and Burger on condition of deportation. They were transported to the American Zone of Germany and released.