A terrorist hunt in summer 1942

Special to The Times

The old G-man takes another sip of his Scotch and soda, and stares at his reflection in the bar mirror. The Camarillo restaurant is busy and loud, but for a moment the former agent doesn't seem to notice; he seems to be listening to the cold echo of his spy-catching days, a time when America was also at war. He then nods approvingly at the merrymakers around him and shakes his head when told how some people are afraid of flying because of the possibility of terrorist attacks.

"If you see something, report it," says retired FBI agent Duane Traynor. "Otherwise, live your life without that fear."

Traynor knows all about shadow enemies. He is one of the few remaining members of the team that smashed Operation Pastorius, a daring scheme by foreign agents in the 1940s to terrorize the Eastern seaboard through a series of coordinated attacks aimed at bringing America to its knees. The plans included blowing up major buildings, bridges and waterways, and sabotaging military installations, as well as bombing train stations and Jewish-owned department stores.

U.S. government agencies at first discounted the Pastorius plot as a rumor. But once they had solid evidence in hand -- a cache of explosives was uncovered -- they rushed to find suspects. Everyone who looked and sounded like the potential terrorists became a target of investigation, and thousands were arrested in a nationwide dragnet.

These events, so similar to the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred in the summer of 1942; the terrorists were not Muslim extremists but Nazi agents on a mission from Adolf Hitler, who dispatched U-boats to land eight operatives in New York's Long Island and Florida's Atlantic Coast. The infiltrators were to be the first of a wave of terrorists and saboteurs, who Hitler hoped would create as much havoc as an armed battalion on an unsuspecting America.

The secret military tribunal that followed the case is today being cited as precedent for trying suspected Al Qaeda terrorists behind closed doors.

In Camarillo to visit his daughter over the Christmas holidays, the 92-year-old Traynor is still the calm, methodical and observant professional he was in his prime, just the type former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover always sought out for the bureau's ranks.

In 1942, Traynor headed a unit in the FBI's Internal Security Section. On the morning of June 13, the FBI received alarming news: The night before, a Coast Guardsman on patrol had stumbled upon a group of Germans landing on the beach at Amagansett, Long Island, just 100 miles from New York City. The Nazis managed to escape but left behind, buried in the sand, German uniforms and a cache of four crates packed with spy equipment and explosives -- fuses disguised as pens, lumps of TNT that looked like coal.

Guardsman John Cullen didn't know exactly how many men had come ashore or where they had gone; he could only give a description of one of the Germans whom he'd encountered briefly, a gaunt man with a streak of white in his hair.

Six days later, Traynor received a call from a man who claimed to have just arrived from Germany. He said he had been sent to the U.S. on a sabotage mission but wanted to defect. The caller insisted on speaking with Hoover, but Traynor persuaded him to talk to him first. He sent two agents to bring the man to headquarters.

"When I got him to come over to the office, first thing I noticed was the white streak in his hair. Then I knew I was getting into something," says Traynor.

The man was George John Dasch, a German-born former salesman and waiter who had lived in America for almost 20 years and had returned to Germany in 1941. For five days and four nights Traynor interrogated the man, talking with him, eating with him, smoking cigarettes with him, earning his trust until he was able to extract a detailed 254-page, single-spaced confession with all the particulars of the plot -- and the whereabouts of the conspirators.

"Dasch was pleasant, kind, talked a lot. I found him [to be] a very nice person."

He was also a trained Nazi agent. Dasch had been schooled in a special terrorist camp by the Abwehr, the German intelligence agency, to lead Operation Franz Joseph Pastorius, named after the first German settler to the U.S.

"He rattled on this whole story about how he'd come over, how he had worked as a waiter, joined the Army, did service over in Hawaii. I just let him keep talking until he finally talked about coming in the submarine and landing. Then I got interested in getting all the details."

Dasch told Traynor he had called the FBI field office in New York a few days before to tell them his group had landed and he was surprised that no one had taken him seriously. (Later investigation revealed that the agent who had taken the call believed Dasch was insane and had taken no action to follow up on the tip.)

Dasch also informed Traynor that a second group of terrorists had been dropped off somewhere in Florida. He handed Traynor a silk handkerchief, which contained the names and addresses of their contacts in America. Unfortunately, the names had been written in invisible ink and Dasch had forgotten the formula to make it legible.

They faced a July 4 deadline

Traynor sent the handkerchief for analysis to the FBI lab and continued with his interrogation. That first night they both slept in Dasch's hotel room, where Dasch showed Traynor the almost $83,000 in cash -- equivalent to about $750,000 today -- that his Nazi trainers had given him to spend on the mission as he saw fit.

Traynor was under enormous pressure to obtain as much information from his captive as quickly as he could. The terrorists had to be caught by July 4, when they were due in Cincinnati to carry out their mission. Still, Dasch and Traynor became so close that Dasch started calling Traynor by his nickname, Pie, after a famous baseball player of the time, Harold "Pie" Traynor.

To Jack Riley, director of public safety and justice for the Rand Corp., a national security think tank, Traynor's interrogation was a classic example of an astute intelligence operation. "You want to take advantage of all opportunities to advance trust -- anything that you can do to remove the barrier, use all the psychological tools at your disposal. Once barriers are reduced, it's a good sign you're making progress."

With the information Traynor obtained from Dasch, the FBI was able to capture his cohorts within 48 hours. After bureau chemists discovered the formula that revealed the writing on the handkerchief, agents fanned out across Cincinnati and Chicago, arresting the last of the terrorists on June 27, 1942.

In a subsequent operation, more than 9,000 foreign nationals -- mostly Germans and Italians -- were arrested throughout the country.

After the capture of Dasch's operatives, the Roosevelt administration denied them access to civil courts. Instead, they were tried by a secret military tribunal, a legal procedure that had last been used during the Civil War. The Bush administration is citing the trial of the eight Nazis as a legal precedent for the detention and prosecution of suspected Al Qaeda terrorists, a decision that Traynor fully supports.

"A military tribunal is a proper tool to get at certain groups of people. We didn't want the Germans to know how we got them, which would have come out in a public trial. The idea was we wanted the Germans to have the impression we had sources inside. We wanted to let them know that if they sent somebody else over, we'd know about that too."

On Aug. 8, 1942, just 56 days after Dasch and his group had landed in Long Island, six of the Nazi terrorists were executed in the electric chair at the Washington, D.C., district jail. Dasch and Peter Burger, another member of his group who had cooperated with the FBI, were given long prison sentences; these were later commuted by President Truman and the men deported to West Germany.

Traynor, who lives in Springfield, Ill., says he's a bit surprised by the renewed attention the Dasch case has garnered. He looks at Operation Pastorius from the perspective of another, more somber age, and minimizes the effect the terrorists' activities would have had on American morale. To him it was more important to stop Dasch's group because they wanted to sabotage military plants than because they were going to bomb stores and train stations. The country was at war; casualties were to be expected.

Even when feeling expansive, after a couple of drinks and a barbecued rib dinner, he rejects any praise for his accomplishment. He shrugs his shoulders, denying there was anything special about what he did.

"I was just doing my job," he says, like so many others of the past, then swigs the last of his Scotch and soda, and shuffles back into the cold winter night.

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Alex Abella is co-author of the just-released "Shadow Enemies" (Lyons Press), a fuller account of the foiling of Operation Pastorius.

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