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A terrorist hunt in summer 1942

Retired FBI man Duane Traynor looks back on a foiled Nazi plan to bomb and disrupt the U.S. Its aftermath is still seen today.

January 12, 2003|Alex Abella | 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.)

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