Though 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the number of books and movies still coming out on World War II, the so-called “Good War”—the last multi-nation conflict to inspire patriotic songs and victory posters—continues to attract major attention, especially the early years, when intrigue and espionage first caught the popular imagination. This was before the full horror of Hitler’s juggernaut would indelibly impress itself upon the world.
Enter “Saboteurs Land in Amagansett,” the East Hampton Historical Society’s new exhibit at Clinton Academy Museum. It marks June 13, 1942, when four German saboteurs landed on a foggy Amagansett beach at midnight. It’s quite a story, including a U-boat getting stuck on a sandbar (the German sub came within a few hundred yards of shore), the burying of explosives and clothing on the beach (inexplicably, one of two shovels was left in the sand!) and the actions of an alert 21-year-old coastguardsman, John Cullen, on patrol. Cullen saw some of the men, one of whom tried to bribe him with $250 to say they were fishermen. The men carried cash that in today’s dollars would be the equivalent of $2,100,000.
The exhibit, an attractive display of newspaper articles, artifacts and photographic memorabilia about that landing and the flight and capture of the men, also concentrates on the significance of subsequent events—their military tribunal in Washington, D.C. that led to a landmark Supreme Court decision denying the writ of habeas corpus and trial by jury. A two-minute video accompanying the exhibit shows the growing influence of the FBI as a result of the event, and wall displays highlight the spirited response of Americans to support the war effort and be alert. Local residents will especially be pleased to see photos of the Amagansett Life Saving Station before and shortly after it had been retired in 1938 (one photo goes back to the mid 19th century), and then, of course, pictures of the station when it was re-commissioned for the U.S. Coast Guard, at the start of WWII.
Drawing on materials in the EHHS archives, as well as on special collections including the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY and contributions from local residents such as the Barnes family (Warren Barnes was Chief Boatswain’s Mate at the time), curator Liz Neill, assisted by EHHS executive director Richard Barons, has put together an informal, easy-to-follow, eye-catching exhibit. Visitors are greeted by two life-size figures in replica coast guard uniforms. Along the walls of the Academy newspaper blowups recreate local scenes of the early 20th century, and mounted text panels clearly describe how “the mundane and the mildly inconvenient” living that characterized East Hampton Town before 1941 took on a dramatic shift with the discovery of “Operation Pastorius.” The Nazi operation was named for Franz Daniel Pastorius, founder of Germantown, PA.
George Dasch, one of the saboteurs who turned government witness, thought that by assisting the FBI he would be regarded as an American hero. Later, it would be claimed that he was an American counterspy. Unlike the other Nazis who were electrocuted, Dasch and Ernest Peter Burger—who also surrendered to the FBI—were deported to Germany.
Clinton Academy, at 151 Main Street in East Hampton, is open Saturdays 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sundays noon–5 p.m. Call 631-324-6850 or visit easthamptonhistory.org for further information. Saboteurs Land in Amagansett will run through October 13.