Military Commission Trials Invoked by Bush Pursued German Saboteurs to Their Graves

Terrorists in their time, eight saboteurs sneaked ashore from German submarines in June 1942, hauling enough explosives for a two-year campaign of destruction on U.S. soil.

Thwarted, they became the subjects of an extraordinary trial by military commission -- a secretive process claimed now by President Bush as part of his legal arsenal against terrorism.

Even in that period of all-out war, bypassing the civilian justice system was no routine task for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Supreme Court met in special session for the first time in two decades to consider whether the German agents, all men who had lived in the United States before the war, could be forced to face military justice.

The court decided they could.

That decision let a rarely used process play out, in which defendants can be convicted and sentenced by two-thirds of the jurors -- members of the armed forces -- instead of the unanimity of a civil trial.

The seven-man military commission did its work with the public shut out and the press allowed in only when proceedings were halted. Treating the saboteurs as spies instead of soldiers helped qualify them for the death penalty, which six of them got.

That July, the German agents found themselves caught up in tangled legal maneuvers instead of where they had planned to be: rendezvousing in St. Louis on Independence Day to start bombing plants, bridges, water supplies and stores, and to instill panic in Americans.

Four had slipped ashore on Long Island in New York; the others arrived four days later at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Although most were recruited from civilian jobs, they wore German uniforms with the hope they would be treated as prisoners of war if caught landing.

On the sand, they buried their uniforms and supplies and put on civilian clothes. Between them, they carried more than $150,000 for expenses and bribes.

Their years in the United States helped them blend in. Although all were German-born, two were U.S. citizens.

The Florida foursome got off to a smooth start, ducking into a store to inquire about transit schedules and taking a bus to Jacksonville, then trains to Cincinnati and New York.

The New York squad ran into immediate trouble. John Cullen, an unarmed Coast Guardsman, spotted the group's leader, George John Dasch.

Instead of killing Cullen, as he had been ordered to do if confronted, Dasch gave him $260 and told him to keep quiet. Cullen took the cash but ran back and told his superiors, who alerted the FBI.

By then, the four were on a train to Manhattan.

But Dasch's will was fading fast.

A veteran of both the German and U.S. armies before the war, he called the FBI and admitted the plot. His information helped police catch the rest of the saboteurs, all picked up in New York and Chicago.

At trial, the prosecution was led by Attorney General Francis Biddle. On the other side: a military-appointed defense team that included Lauson Harvey Stone, son of then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone.

The agents' defenders, while of lower rank than the prosecution, mounted an aggressive challenge, arguing the men were mistreated in Germany, were actually fleeing and deserved a civilian trial.

But all were convicted and six were electrocuted.

Dasch and another saboteur who had cooperated with police, Ernest Peter Burger, a naturalized American, were spared the death penalty and deported to Germany after the war.

There, Dasch and his wife were ostracized wherever they tried to set up a business. He told The Associated Press in 1952 that he considered America his home.

He still thought of the young Coast Guardsman he met on the beach and decided not to kill.

"Beat it," he recalled telling Cullen that foggy night. "I saved that kid's life."