Probably the strangest creatures to emerge from the sea at Amagansett in modern times were four Nazi sailors in the middle of World War II. They came ashore here using a rubber boat paddled from a German submarine offshore just after midnight on June 13, 1942. It was a dark night, and they were under cover of a thick fog. They had with them wooden boxes, sealed in wax, which contained fuses, timers and enough explosive dynamite to destroy bridges, blow up department stores and cripple factories—to cause havoc and destroy America’s war making ability. The saboteurs buried the boxes in the sand, intending to come back later for them. Then, because they had been seen, they spent the next five hours hiding in the woods until finally, when the coast seemed clear, they scampered to the Amagansett Railroad Station to board the 6:59 a.m. train headed for Manhattan.
As a result of this and the events that followed, this Saturday, June 13 on Atlantic Avenue Beach in Amagansett, a local group of actors is conducting a re-enactment of the Nazi landing and the encounter on the beach that took place all those years ago. This is the fourth year they have done this. Each year, the re-enactment gets better and better with more lines memorized, more costumes and better staging.
And you’re in luck. June 13 this year is a Saturday, so the re-enactment of this landing on the spot where it took place will be able to be seen not just by the locals but by the weekenders as well, and you are welcome to come down and watch it. You’re in luck in another regard as well. In a slight bend of reality, they will hold the re-enactment, as they have for the past three years, in broad daylight, at 6:30 p.m. You’ll see everything, right up until the time they scamper off into the woods. All the Nazis will be in uniform. And so will the man who encountered them, a young coastguardsman, 21 years old, walking the beach with a flashlight in the middle of the night, who is approached by the leader of the landing party, a German named George Dasch. Dasch’s orders are to kill anyone they encounter.
As you may know, I have a hardcover book coming out on August 1 called In the Hamptons 4Ever, the fourth in a series of In the Hamptons books, all about my 55 years in the Hamptons with Dan’s Papers. But in addition to that I have underway another book, which takes a close look at the entire story that unfolded when the Nazis landed here. A tremendous amount of material is now available about this landing, much more than ever before and much of it right online. There have also, over the years, been about 10 books published about the landing. I’ve read all I can lay my hands on, including an account by George Dasch himself, written in 1959, when he was 56 years old. I’ve read back issues of The East Hampton Star from June and July 1942 in the library. And I’ve even read the ship’s log written by the captain of the submarine, Hans-Heinz Linder, who in a 17-day journey brought the saboteurs here. I hope to have this other book, complete with pictures, out soon, though not in time for this year’s re-enactment.
Here are a few interesting facts about the Nazi landing at Amagansett.
George Dasch never did shoot the coastguardsman. Instead, he gave him cash, $260 of it (worth about $3,700 today), and told him to run for his life and never say a word to anyone about this.
George Dasch could well afford it. As leader, he had $175,000 sewn into the lining of a duffel bag he was carrying. That’s more than a million dollars in today’s money. The money was supposed to last two years while they sabotaged railroads, aluminum plants, reservoirs and other strategic targets.
However, this man, George Dasch, who was the leader of the saboteurs, never intended to go ahead with the sabotage at all, according to his account. I said all four men came ashore in naval uniforms. Actually, three did. Dasch told the others onboard the sub when they were changing into uniform that he would wear what he wanted, which was civilian clothes. All the others, he told them, had to be in the uniforms provided. In fact, NONE of the four were even part of the German military. They were civilians, trained to do the work. If captured in uniform when they landed, they would, in accordance with the Geneva Convention, be taken in as prisoners of war with their lives spared. If captured as civilians, which they were, they’d probably be shot on the spot.
George Dasch was not being reckless. He just would not wear a Nazi uniform. And that was that.
All four of these men spoke English and German fluently, because all four had been in America for at least 10 years before the war, but then had gone back to their homeland, some as recently as 11 months earlier. In America, they had been blue–collar workers: waiters, chauffeurs, machinists, handymen, odd-job workers and bartenders. They were taught how to sabotage things at a school in Brandenburg. But they didn’t have much of a thirst for the job. At least some of them didn’t.
George Dasch, in fact, intended to turn the others in and become an American hero by broadcasting back to the German people about freedom in America. He’d been here almost 20 years before all this, had married an American girl and, for his entire adult life in America had, been a professional waiter, mostly in fine hotels and resorts. Among the places he had worked were, in the summertime anyway, the Sea Spray Inn in East Hampton and at the Irving Hotel in Southampton. Both were big three-story wooden hotels built around 1880 to serve the wealthy. The Irving, torn down around 1975, was where the Southampton Inn is today. The Sea Spray stood oceanfront just to the east of Main Beach. It occupied the broad lawn next to the half dozen Sea Spray Cottages that survive and which, in the great day of the Sea Spray Inn, were behind it and accessory to it. The Sea Spray burned down in 1985. The Chequit on Shelter Island is the only surviving hotel from that era. These inns were not unlike that one.
Dasch had returned to Germany hoping for a better life. He had left his wife behind with instructions to come later. This was before Pearl Harbor. When he got to Germany, he was horrified by what he saw. And all he wanted to do was get back to the U.S. It was all a big mistake. Eleven months later, he was leading this mission.
Needless to say, the arrival of Coastguardsman John C. Cullen was a great inconvenience to Dasch. But he wouldn’t order him killed. That ran counter to everything he intended to do, his great plan to be a counter-spy and hero. Dasch’s plan never happened, however, because the FBI, which Dasch turned to for help in turning the others in, quietly turned him in too—after he was done helping them—and then set him up with the others for a quick trial and sentence. The others were put to death. He got 30 years.
And there was high drama. The submarine had wedged itself on a sandbar in order to steady the boat while it lowered the inflatable so two sailors with machine guns could row the saboteurs and their explosives and sea bags to shore. After that, the captain found he was stuck. The sailors returned after completing their mission, but were upset because they had seen Dasch let the Coastguardsman go—“Where’s the body?” Captain Linder had asked.
Not only were they stuck, the tide was coming in and would wedge them in even more. For three hours Captain Linder tried everything he could to get off. But the sub wouldn’t move. Three hours later, with dawn not far away, he was resigning himself to surrender. He ordered one of his sailors, a man named Zimmerman, who was in terrible pain with appendicitis, taken off in the rubber boat under a white flag to head for shore, and that was done. But then, as the tide began to go out, with one great roar of the engines, Linder DID get the boat off the bar and he motored over and picked up Zimmerman and headed out to sea where, two days later, he sank another freighter (he’d already sunk six before bringing the saboteurs here) off Atlantic City. And Zimmerman recovered on his own. “A miracle,” Linder wrote.
The company of Army soldiers joined with the Coast Guard in the fog on the beach looking for more signs of the Germans. The sub lurked all those hours. Nobody saw it through the fog, except briefly, and then they weren’t sure. They dug in behind the dunes, the Army with modern weapons, the Coastguardsmen—now 10 of them—with old World War I bolt action Springfield rifles they got out of a wooden case up at the Coast Guard station.
By noon the next day, the FBI had taken over and hushed everything up. In a house they requisitioned just off Main Street in East Hampton, they even recorded an interview with Coast Guard Ensign Cullen, all but accusing him of being part of a bootleg scam and getting the money from rumrunners as a bribe for not turning them in each time after burying hooch on the beach, then having this happen and it was—Germans! Or WERE they Germans?
George Dasch, as leader, had been given a handkerchief which had, in invisible ink, the names of German sympathizers in the New York City area, who he could contact to set up operations. You got the ink to appear by waving a special kind of match under it so the smoke would make it appear. He’d left the special matches on the boat.
All the boxes of explosives were dug up by local coastguardsmen and transferred to a Coast Guard Intelligence officer who made off with them in a car to the Coast Guard Headquarters Barge Office in lower Manhattan. His driver took them through Amagansett and East Hampton and Southampton at high speed, where one bump in the road might have blown everything to kingdom come. At the Barge office, the officer in charge had the boxes put out at the end of an abandoned pier under armed guard.
Neither the Coast Guard nor the Army nor the Navy nor the FBI ever thought to interview the stationmaster at the Amagansett Railroad Station until 10 days after the landing. It was just presumed the Germans had been picked up in a car. Or had gone off in the sub. In fact, by the time the saboteurs got to the railroad station, they were all wearing shabby American fishermen’s clothes they’d carried across the Atlantic in the duffel bags. They’d stripped off their uniforms on the beach and put on the fishermen’s clothes and then, because ten days later, the FBI took a guess, it was then that the stationmaster said yup, he’d sold them four tickets to New York. That must have been them.
Every five miles along the beach, between Montauk and Westhampton, President Roosevelt had by this time ordered and had put into place either a Coast Guard station, a concrete blockhouse machine gun nest or a bivouacked company of Army soldiers. Where the Nazi saboteurs came ashore was within 200 yards of not only a Coast Guard station that was sending patrol people out on foot looking for Nazis, but also a secret Naval radio station just behind the Amagansett Coast Guard Station on Bluff Road.
That “station,” with three others—in Florida, North Carolina and Maine—was able to create a triangulation navigation system that located every ship in the Atlantic that sent out messages. And they had located this sub, though they did not know its mission. This facility today is the East Hampton Marine Museum. When it was a radio station, it had on each side of it, east and west, 60’ steel towers between which was strung steel wire to act as an antenna to pick up marine radio broadcasts. It was visible for miles. But nobody knew the work being done there.
So the Nazi sub, by sheer coincidence, arrived at Amagansett almost directly in front of an armed Coast Guard station with men out looking for them and behind that a secret Naval radio station getting fixes on all Nazi submarines in the Atlantic, including the one which, when the fog lifted, they could briefly see just offshore the beach before it headed off.
Dasch did turn the others in. They were very quietly picked up by the FBI. The FBI also picked up four other saboteurs who landed on an isolated beach at Cape Verde Florida 50 miles south of Jacksonville a few days later.
Here’s a ridiculous detail in all of this. In Florida, in June, it’s hot. The sub bringing those men here with their explosives got close enough for the men to have no need of the rubber boat. They wore only bathing suits and the little Navy caps with the swastikas on them when they waded ashore. They were picked up a week later.
This capture shut down what had been intended to be a huge sabotage operation ordered up by Adolph Hitler himself. It’s an amazing story involving President Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, Winston Churchill and the Supreme Court, and then the largest single-day mass execution in our history in a jail in Washington—except for George Dasch and a saboteur who assisted him—who got prison sentences.
There’s a tradition of resort communities re-enacting enemy activity in wars from long ago. I hope you enjoy ours.