After the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 followed by Nazi Germany’s declaration of war on the United States four days later (and the United States declared war on Germany in response), Hitler authorized a mission to sabotage the American war effort as well as terrorist attacks on civilian targets to demoralize the American civilian population inside the United States. The mission was headed by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the German Abwehr. Canaris recalled that during World War I, he organized the sabotage of French installations in Morocco and entered the United States with other German agents and planted bombs in New York arms factories, including the destruction of munitions supplies at Black Tom Island, in 1916. He hoped that Operation Pastorius would have the same kind of success he had in 1916.
Realizing that the mission was going to be doomed after the encounter with the Coast Guard, Dasch decided he had a secret of his own. The day after the landing at Amagansett, he called Burger, the most guarded and disciplined member of the team, into the upper-storey hotel room the two men shared. He walked over to the window and opened it wide. “You and I are going to have a talk,” Dasch said, “And if we disagree, only one of us will walk out that door—the other will fly out this window.” He then revealed the truth to Burger: he had no intention of going through with the mission. He hated the Nazis and wanted Burger on his side when he turned the entire plot over to the FBI. Burger smiled. Having spent seventeen months in a Nazi concentration camp, his own feelings for the party were less than warm. He too had been planning to betray the mission. They agreed to defect to the United States immediately.
Shaken but not discouraged, Dasch ordered Burger to stay put and keep an eye on the other men. On 15 June, Dasch phoned the New York office of the FBI from a pay-telephone on Manhattan’s Upper West Side explaining who he was and asked to convey the information to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. When the FBI agent was trying to figure out if he was talking to a crackpot, Dasch hung up. Four days later, he took a train to Washington, D.C. and checked in at the Mayflower Hotel. Dasch then walked into the FBI’s headquarters carrying a briefcase, asking to speak with Director Hoover. Dasch bounced from office to office until finally Assistant Director D.M. Ladd, the agent in charge of the manhunt, agreed to humor him with five minutes of his time. Dasch angrily repeated his story after he was dismissed as a crackpot by numerous agents. He finally convinced the FBI by dumping his mission’s entire budget of $84,000 on the desk of Assistant Director D. M. Ladd. At this point, he was taken seriously and interrogated for hours. Besides Burger, none of the other German agents knew they were betrayed. Over the next two weeks, Burger and the other six were arrested.
Trial and execution
Fearful that a civilian court would be too lenient, President Roosevelt issued Executive Proclamation 2561 on 2 July 1942 creating a military tribunal to prosecute the Germans. Placed before a seven-member military commission, the Germans were charged with 1) violating the law of war; 2) violating Article 81 of the Articles of War, defining the offense of corresponding with or giving intelligence to the enemy; 3) violating Article 82 of the Articles of War, defining the offense of spying; and 4) conspiracy to commit the offenses alleged in the first three charges.
The trial was held in Assembly Hall # 1 on the fifth floor of the Department of Justice building in Washington D.C. on 8 July 1942. Lawyers for the accused, who included Lauson Stone and Kenneth Royall, attempted to have the case tried in a civilian court but were rebuffed by the United States Supreme Court in Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1 (1942), a case that was later cited as a precedent for the trial by military commission of any unlawful combatant against the United States.
The trial for the eight defendants ended on 1 August 1942. Two days later, all were found guilty and sentenced to death. Roosevelt commuted Burger to life in prison and Dasch to 30 years because they had turned themselves in and provided information about the others. The others were executed on 8 August 1942 in the electric chair on the third floor of the District of Columbia jail and buried in a potter’s field called Blue Plains in the Anacostia area of Washington.