Reviewed by Robert Citino
By Michael Dobbs
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004
In June 1942, German submarines landed two small groups of saboteurs on the U.S. coastline, one near Amagansett, Long Island, and the other near Jacksonville, Florida. Operation Pastorius had begun, its objective to destroy industrial and communications facilities throughout the United States. The teams carried explosives, detonators, equipment for invisible writing and money — lots of money. Within two months, the operation had collapsed, both groups had been apprehended and six of the original eight saboteurs had already been executed after a hasty trial by military tribunal.
After reading this excellent book by Michael Dobbs, the reader will be hard-pressed to imagine a more ragged, amateurish band of saboteurs. Pastorius was the brainchild of Lieutenant Walter Kappe, a former American Bundist then on the staff of German military intelligence (Abwehr). He was an incompetent administrator and a poor judge of personnel. In fact, at least two of his men planned to desert as soon as they reached the United States. Although some of them had lived there before the war, they possessed no recent intelligence on the country, and they actually seemed surprised to see armed guards in front of important facilities when they arrived. The submarine that transported the Amagansett group (U-202) managed to get itself stuck on a sandbar after the landing and spent an entire morning loudly revving its diesel engines in a desperate, and ultimately successful, attempt to get free. Incredibly, this was happening within sight and sound distance of the Amagansett Naval Radio Station, part of the top secret network that tracked German U-boat movements across the Atlantic. At times, the book reads like a comedic version of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies.
The defenders of the open society do not wind up looking much better. The Amagansett group didn’t even get off the beach before it ran into a U.S. Coast Guardsman on patrol. He was armed with only a flashlight. The Germans did not kill him, as per their instructions, but tried to buy him off by pressing a wad of bills into his hand. He then ran away and tried to sound the alarm. At first, no one at his Coast Guard station believed him, but they came around when they saw the money. The Coast Guard, in turn, was unable to get any other competent authority — Navy, Army or FBI — to believe that the Germans had landed in Amagansett. When one of the saboteurs, George Dasch, called the FBI to turn himself in, his call landed in the crank file. If he had not kept at it, trying two or three more times, he and his colleagues might all still be at large. Even after the FBI did get involved, the problem of overlapping jurisdictions — familiar to any television cop show fan — continued to bedevil the case, with a couple of Coast Guard officers holding back key evidence from the feds. The greatest concern for FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover was to make sure that his agency got exclusive credit for breaking the case. All in all, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that U.S. law enforcement was simply lucky on this one. As to the trial and executions, every competent authority — from the members of the military commission through the attorney general, Supreme Court and President Franklin D. Roosevelt — seemed to have made up their minds first and then sought grounds for their decision afterward. Roosevelt, who had set himself up as the final appeal, was on record immediately after their arrest that the defendants “were as guilty as it is possible to be” and thus had to die, preferably in a public hanging. No one involved, on either side, comes out looking very good.
Dobbs, a Washington Post correspondent, is a fine writer, and many readers will find themselves unable to put down the book once they start. His characterizations are on the money, and his eye for the telling detail is superb. There are numerous moments when a reader simply shakes his head and utters, “This can’t possibly be happening.” On two separate occasions, the Germans enter movie theaters to while away an afternoon, and wind up watching films about (what else?) German saboteurs on the lam from the authorities. The ringleader of the Amagansett group, Dasch, wracked with anxiety as he considered rolling over on his compatriates, settled his nerves by barging in on some astonished American friends at one of their old haunts and starting up a marathon game of pinochle; the leader of the Jacksonville group, Edward Kerling, spent his short time at liberty trying to work out a way to triangulate between his wife and mistress, who were, incidentally, close friends.
Behind the postmodern absurdity of the entire escapade, however, lurks a much more recent memory. It is the tale of a small band of saboteurs who lived among us for years, “leading the life of American suburbanites, ordering pizzas, visiting shopping malls, and dropping into video stores.” Then, one late summer day in 2001, they commandeered four U.S. jetliners. The author is aware of the new urgency of the topic, and indeed sprinkles the text with anachronistic terms like “homeland security” and “homeland defense.” The issues raised by this forgotten case have once again become relevant since September 11, 2001, with the Bush administration seeking to revive military tribunals as a weapon in the war on terrorism. In fact, the government has based its plans on the Supreme Court decision in the Nazi case, Ex parte Quirin. While U.S. courts have typically deferred to the executive branch in wartime, it is something that no American citizen should accept unquestioningly. The question, Dobbs argues, is how “to fight a war and respect legal niceties at the same time.” This book, quite apart from its formidable value as literature, raises that troubling question anew.