That Time the Nazis Targeted America and Our Railroads

Hells Gate Bridge (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

In June 1942, during World War II, the Germans launched a plan to sabotage key targets inside the United States.

The Nazis included Pennsylvania Station in Newark, New Jersey; Horseshoe Curve, near Altoona, Pennsylvania;  the Pennsylvania Railroad’s repair shops at Altoona; and Hell Gate Bridge in New York, on their list of targets.

The chief of the German Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, named the operation for Francis Daniel Pastorius. Pastorius was the leader of the first organized settlement of Germans in America.

In advance of their mission, they were given counterfeit birth certificates, Social Security Cards, draft deferment cards, nearly $175,000 and driver’s licenses. They boarded a pair of U-boats and landed on the east coast.

Before the mission, it was nearly compromised after George Dasch, the head of the team, left sensitive documents on a train. Also, one agent, while drunk, told patrons at a Paris bar that he was a secret agent.

On June 12, 1942, the first submarine, U-202, carrying Dasch and three other saboteurs (Burger, Quirin, and Henck), landed at Amagansett, New York, on Long Island.

The team wore German Navy uniforms as they came ashore. The idea was if they were captured, they would be classified as prisoners of war rather than spies.

The group also brought explosives, primers and incendiaries. They buried the items along with their uniforms and donned civilian clothes to begin what they anticipated might be a two-year campaign.

When unarmed Coast Guardsman John C. Cullen discovered Dasch amidst the dunes, Dasch took Cullen by the collar, threatened him and shoved a bribe of $260 into his hand. While Cullen pretended to cooperate, he reported the happening.

An armed patrol returned to the scene, but only found the buried equipment. The Germans took the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan and checked into a hotel.

A massive manhunt began.

Another four-member German team, headed by Kerling, landed on June 16, 1942, at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, south of Jacksonville. They came on another submarine, U-584, and came ashore wearing bathing suits. However, they wore German Navy hats, but following their landing, they discarded their hats, donned civilian clothes and began their mission by boarding trains to Chicago and Cincinnati, Ohio.

The teams were supposed to meet at a Cincinnati hotel on July 4 to coordinate their sabotage operations.