David Alan Johnson

Betrayal: The True Story of J. Edgar Hoover and the Nazi Saboteurs


Chapter One: To America and Back -- George Dasch leaves the United States at his mother's urging in 1941, after 19 years in the country, and returns to Germany. Dasch immediately regrets his decision -- he loves the United States and does not fit in with Hitler's Germany. He is relieved when asked by a German intelligence oficer to return to the USA for a special assignment.

Chapter Two: Operation Pastorius -- FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover carefully and ruthlessly built up his reputation as the nation's Number One Crimestopper during the 1930s and early 1940s, and intends to maintain it at all costs. George Dasch is assigned to lead a group of saboteurs on a mission inside the United States, given the code-name Operation Pastorius. Dasch accepts, even though he has no intention of going through with the assignment -- it is his only chance of returning to America.

Chapter Three: Differing Objectives -- The eight men assigned to Operation Pastorius, including George Dasch, are trained in sabotage methods at a 'spy school' outside Berlin. Dasch has not yet decided how to go about stopping the sabotage operation. By 1942, J. Edgar Hoover is looking for another opportunity to improve his reputation with the American public.

Chapter Four: Getting Off the Beach -- Dasch and his group cross the Atlantic via U-boat and land on the coast of Long Island in June 1942. On the beach, Dasch warns a lone Coastguardsman of the landing, and leaves evidence of the landing for later patrols to find.

Chapter Five: 'Don't Ask Me Nothing' -- Dasch encourages a member of his group, Ernest Burger, to join him in de-railing the sabotage mission. Dasch takes a train from New York to Washington, D.C. and reports Operation Pastorius to the FBI.

Chapter Six: The Rude Awakening -- FBI agents interrogate George Dasch for eight days. All members of the Operation Pastorius group are arrested as the result of Dasch's information. But J. Edgar Hoover refuses to share credit for capturing the saboteurs with anyone, or admit that Dasch was responsible for the capture. Dasch is informed that he will be put on trial with the other men, but this would only be to 'fool the Germans.' Within six months, Dasch is told, he will be released with a full pardon from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Actually, Hoover has no intention of freeing Dasch.

Chapter Seven: The Verdict Was Already In -- George Dasch and the other Operation Pastorius defendants are tried by a military tribunal insteasd of a civil court. Dasch is convinced that the trial is anything but fair; several witnesses agree with him.

Chapter Eight: Not From Fear -- All of the Operation Pastorius defendnts are found guilty of attempted sabotage and are sentenced to death. But because they went to the FBI, George Dasch and Ernest Burger have their sentences commuted by President Roosevelt: Dasch's sentence is reduced to 30 years in prison; Burger's sentence is life imprisonment. J. Edgar Hoover is upset that Dasch and Burger were not executed with the others -- especially Dasch, who is talkative and likely to tell about the pardon that Hoover invented. Hoover tells the news media that Dasch went to the FBI to save his own life, and that he himself had asked President Roosevelt to commute Dasch's sentence. The media broadcast Hoover's version of the story, which makes him a national hero.

Chapter Nine: Reputation and Notoriety -- In prison, George Dasch is not allowed to write anything or talk to anyone -- he is kept in solitary confinement and not allowed to have a pen or pencil. After the war, Hoover has Dasch and Burger rushed out of the country and back to Germany in secret. No one knows that Dasch has been deported until he is out of the country.

Chapter Ten: Outcasts and Celebrities -- Because he reported Operation Pastorius to the FBI, George Dasch is considered a traitor in postwar Germany and received death threats from 'patriotic' Germans. He tries to return to the United States, but each attempt is blocked by J. Edgar Hoover. Over the years, Dasch moves from one menial job to another, hoping for the full presidential pardon he had been promised. Until he died in 1992, at the age of 88, he expected the United States government to undo the wrong that had been done.

Afterward: History Repeats -- Following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon building on 11 September 2001, President George W. Bush orders all terrorist suspects to be tried by military tribunal. This prededent had been set by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942, when he approved a military tribunal to try the Operation Pastorius defendants.

The submarine continued toward the shore at dead slow speed until it touched bottom. At that point, Linder ordered the motors stopped and the crew to launch the rubber raft. The bags and crates of explosives were loaded aboard the dinghy, and finally the six men climbed in. One end of a long rope was tied to the raft, with the other end attached to a railing on U-202. The rope served two purposes – by tugging on it, the men in the raft could signal that they were in trouble, and it could also be used to haul the two crewman back to the boat after the landing was completed.

The two U-boat crewmen pushed the raft away from the submarine and began paddling toward shore. Within a minute or less, the U-boat disappeared in the fog. Dasch hoped that the raft was going in the right direction – he could not see the shoreline, but the noise from the surf seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. When he finally caught sight of the beach, Dasch became so excited that he started shouting and jumped out of the raft. But he was not as close to shore as he thought he was, and landed in water that was over his head. More embarrassed than anything else, Dasch was pulled back into the raft. He jumped into the surf again a minute or so later. This time the water was below his waist.

Dasch waded ashore and ran up the beach. It was the first time he had set foot on American soil in over a year. To his relief, no one was in sight.

Burger, Heinck and Quirin were hauling the cases of explosives away from the surf when Dasch returned to the rubber raft. The two sailors had turned the raft on its side to pour the sea water out of it. They had landed the four men successfully. Now they wanted to get off the beach and back to the U-boat as quickly as possible.

Exactly when Dasch saw the man walking toward the landing party is not clear. He gives two variations himself: one in his published account, and a second in his statement to the FBI. But every version states that Dasch saw the man before the man saw him, and that he began walking toward him.

When Dasch came close to the figure, he could see that it was ‘a boy in an American sailor’s uniform.’ The sailor was surprised to see Dasch, and asked if he was a fisherman. As was usually the case when he was excited, Dasch became flustered. He knew that the two men from the U-boat would kill the sailor on the spot if they found him, and decided that he had to get rid of the young sailor somehow.

At first, he tried to convince the sailor that he was a fisherman, and that he had run aground. But very quickly, Dasch started rambling and babbling; even he admitted that he did not make very much sense.

Thoroughly frustrated and getting nowhere, he said something like, ‘Look here, boy, I can’t tell you what’s going on just now. This is a matter for Washington.’ He then asked the ‘boy’ how old he was, and advised him to do exactly as he was told if he ever wanted to see his mother and father again. Dasch also gave him some money he had in his pocket. Because he was in such a panic, he was accomplishing just the opposite of what he had intended to do. Instead of putting the sailor’s mind at rest, Dasch only alarmed and confused him.

‘What is your name, boy?’ Dasch asked. He was not exactly sure what the reply was – it could have been Cullen or Collins. At that point, Dasch identified himself as either George John Dasch or George John Davis – again, Dasch gave two different versions – and asked the sailor to shine his light in his face and take a good look at him. The sailor did as he was told. Dasch looked straight at him and said, ‘I want you to shine your light in my face so that you’ll recognise me when I have you called in Washington.’ Now thoroughly frightened, the sailor ran back up the beach, away from Dasch and the landing party. Dasch had not calmed the sailor, as he had set out to do, but he had saved his life.

The ‘sailor’ was actually a 21 year-old Coastguardsman named John C. Cullen. Cullen was making his routine beach patrol from Amagansett Coast Guard Station, about a half-mile away, when he came upon Dasch. He was not armed, and was not expecting to find anyone on the beach at that hour, especially during a dense fog. As soon as Dasch handed him the wad of money, Cullen ran back to the station to report what had happened. When the money was counted, it came to $260.

Dasch was not in the best of moods when he returned to the other five men. Burger had seen him talking to Cullen and had told the others. Now Dasch was upset because Burger had seen the Coastguardsman, and also because Quirin and Heinck seemed to be more nervous than before. He snapped orders at them, telling them to do exactly as they were told. The first thing he told them to do was dig a hole to bury their navy work clothes – the uniforms were supposed to have been sent back to the U-boat, a detail that was overlooked either accidentally or deliberately by Dasch.

The two sailors wanted to know if anything was wrong. Dasch had regained his composure by this time. He assured the two men that everything was fine, and that they should report to Captain Linder that the landing had been successful. This was exactly what they had been waiting to hear for the past half hour. They pushed the raft out into the surf, tugged on the rope a couple of times, and were pulled back to the submarine by U-202's crew.

Burger, Heinck and Quirin had changed into their civilian clothes by this time. Dasch had not worn Navy fatigues – he objected to wearing a Nazi uniform – but did wear work trousers. Now he changed into dry civilian slacks. He was still upset enough to slip his dry trousers over wet shorts, and put on a pair of socks that did not match.

After the explosives and uniforms were buried, and the two German sailors had returned to the submarine, the men made their way off the beach. Dasch had the men wait for a minute while he returned to the place where everything was buried, and stuck a shovel upright in the sand – a marker to make the boxes and clothes easier to find. In the fog, the other three men could not see what he was doing. Dasch did not know it, but Burger had left a marker of his own – in plain sight, he left a half-filled bottle of German brandy, a packet of German cigarettes, and a German navy rating’s cap, complete with swastika insignia.


Actually, the Army had not taken 'the case' out of the hands of the FBI. It was still solidly in the manipulative grasp of J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover's main concern was not with enemy sabotage or the security of the United States, or with 'fooling the Germans.' His worry was that the facts of Dasch's co-operation with the FBI would be released to the public. He wanted the Bureau -- meaning himself -- to receive full credit for the 'capture' of the eight men from Opertion Pastorius. The Bureau's attorneys were consulted to find some legal means to keep Dasch from telling his story to the public -- namely, a way to make certain that George Dasch would receive either a long prison term or a death sentence.

The lawyers were not very helpful. According to the statutes, the saboteurs should be prosecuted under Title 18, Section 88, of the US Code, which dealt with conspiracy. This statute covered the situation nicely enough, but the penalty it called for was a long way from what Hoover was looking for. Maximum punishment for anyone convicted under Title 18 was two years in prison, a fine of $10,000, or both. After doing his two years, Dasch would be free to tell his story as often as he liked -- from what Hoover had been told about Dasch, he would tell it as often as possible. There was even the possibility that Dasch, or any or all of the eight men, would be found not guilty. Title 18 might de-rail Hoover's plans completely.

To discuss what was to be done with Dasch and the other seven men, Hoover was scheduled to meet with Attorney General Francis Biddle and Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War. But before talking to Biddle and Stimson, Hoover wanted to prepare some sort of strategy. He telephoned E.J. Connelley to ask if he might have any opinions or suggestions. Connelley had been involved with the Operation Pastorius men almost from the beginning, and might be able to offer a few ideas that Hoover might bring up at the meeting. If not, Hoover would not be any worse off than he already was.

Connelley certainly did have a suggestion. He told Hoover that if the eight men were tried under the Espionage laws instead of Title 18, the maximum penalty would be thirty years with the possibility of a death sentence. Hoover liked Connelley's idea a lot better than anything the Bureau's lawyers had been able to come up with, especially the part about the death penalty. After listening to what Connelley had to say, Hoover proposed an idea of his own: What if the eight men were tried by military tribunal?

A military trial sounded feasible to Connelley. It would assure conplete secrecy, and would probably result in eight convictions. Under military law, the accused is presumed guilty until proven innocent -- which would prevent a civilian jury from deciding that they had not committed any crime. Also, a tribunal of military officers would be a lot less sympathetic to eight accused saboteurs than a civilian jury.

When Hoover met with Biddle and Stimson on 29 June, their opinion was also that a military tribunal was a workable idea. The major concern was that two of the men, Ernest Peter Burger and Herbert Haupt, were US citizens. A citizen could not be tried by a military court. But if the two had pledged their allegiance to germany, they might have forfieted their American citizenship. Another problem was that a military trial could only be held with the permission of the president, who was also commander-in-chief of all military forces.

As it turned out, President Roosevelt became Hoover's biggest, and most useful, ally. Roosevelt wanted to see the eight men convicted as much as Hoover did, but for a completely different reason -- because Hoover lied to him about Dasch, he believed that all eight of the men were dedicated Nazi saboteurs. Roosevelt was afraid that they might be acquitted by a civilian jury, or given just a two-year prison sentence under Title 18.

In a memo to Francis Biddle, he compared the Operation Pastorius defendants to Nathan Hale and Major Andre, both of whom were hanged as spies during the War of Independence. Since all eight men had been wearing civilian clothes when they were apprehended -- he had no way of knowing that J. Edgar Hoover lied to him when he said that George Dasch had been arrested -- they should be tried as spies by court-martial and hanged.

On 2 July 1942, Roosevelt issued a procoamation that solved all of Hoover's problems. In his proclamation, he invoked the Articles of War to appoint a military commission that would try Dasch, Burger and the other six men. The commission would consist of four major generals and three brigadier generals. Attorney General Biddle and Major General Myron Cramer, the Army's Judge Advocate General, were appointed to prosecute. The officers assigned as defence council for the derendants were Colonel Kenneth Royall and Colonel Cassius M. Dowell.

No civilians had been tried by military tribunal since the American Civil War, when the accused assassins of Abraham Lincoln were prosecuted by a panel of US Army generals in 1865. President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln as president, declared the shooting of the president to be an act of war and, as such, the conspirators should not be tried in a civil court. Using the Lincoln conspiracy as a precedent, Roosevelt also declared that the eight Opertion Pastorius defendants be tried by Army officers instead of a civilian jury. He told Francis Biddle, 'I won't hand them over to any United States marshal armed with a writ of habeas corpus.'

The precedent set by Andrew Johnson might have been made to order for Hoover, since it allowed the president to issue his proclamation. With his ruling, Roosevelt swept aside all concerns about the nationality of the defendants, along with any other questions that might arise concerning the legality of a military trial. He named all eight men by name, and gave the military commission the power to make its own rules for the conduct of the proceedings. It made no difference whether the defendants were citizens or not -- the commission had the authority to try the eight men named in the proclamation under the Articles of War.

When George Dasch shouted the the FBI would be in for a fight, T.J. Donegal knew he could treat the challenge with contempt. Dasch summed up the situation himself. 'It was such a hopeless feeling to be locked up, to have no rights, to be allowed to see no one, to be allowed to send word to no one.' He would have felt even more hopeless if he had known what J. Edgar Hoover, backed by President Roosevelt, had in store for him.

Selected Works

Civil War Non-Fiction, Psychology
How the backgrounds of Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant influenced their campaign against each other in Virginia in 1864 and 1865.
Abraham Lincoln's re-election in 1864 was decided on the batlefields of Virginia and Georgia as much as at the ballot box.
J. Edgar Hoover sends an innocent man to prison to save his own reputation. Includes chapter on the Bush Administration's use of this case as a precedent for military tribunals to try terrorist suspects.
The relationship between Britain and the United States has been long, frequently contentious, and sometimes comical.
How anti-Nazi Intelligence officers tricked Hitler regarding the time and place of D-Day.
Britain not only had to fight the German Luftwaffe, but also had to battle isolationism in the US.