BY STEPHEN McGUIRE
Four men on a mission to strike terror into the heart of New York rode the Long Island Railroad into Jamaica with plans to poison the water supply, blow up the Hellgate Bridge and destroy factories. They could have succeeded, but 21-year-old Queens Coast Guardsman John Cullen spotted them and suspected they were Nazis.
The Tribune spoke to the now 81-year-old Cullen this week at his home in Virigina about the encounter and the dubious terrorist mission also recounted in the February edition of The Atlantic Monthly.
The story begins on a beach in Amagansett, Long Island where Cullen was walking a six-mile stretch of beach shortly after midnight on a summer night in 1942.
Cullen, who grew up in Bayside, signed on with the U.S. Coast Guard in 1940 after leaving Bayside High School before graduating.
Before the war he earned a living “selling brushes in Flushing from 149th Street by the hospital, down to Utopia Parkway and Northern Boulevard,” he said.
But on this night he was assigned to watch the beach for any “suspicious activity.”
There was no way the he could have predicted what would take place next.
A BRUSH WITH THE ENEMY
“It was Friday the 13th of June, my lucky day I guess,” Cullen told the Tribune.
“I was on patrol. It was around 12:20 a.m. and the fog was so thick you could barely see your shoes.
“I was walking down the beach. I saw two guys and I called out to them. They said they were fisherman and their boat ran aground.”
What Cullen didn’t know was that moments earlier the same men – part of a group of four – had landed on the beach after disembarking a Nazi U-Boat situated offshore.
One of the men told Cullen they would wait until daybreak to get their boat back into the water.
“I told them that [daybreak] was at least four hours away and invited them back up to the station to have coffee. That’s when I noticed this guy with a seabag. He said something in German. Then one man told him to shut up and get down with the others.”
The apparent leader of the group offered Cullen money “to forget about it,” he said.
Soon after, the same man asked “If you saw me again would you recognize me?”
Cullen’s suspicions about the men began to grow with each passing moment.
He told the leader of the group, “I would say I never saw you before.”
The man offered him $300.
“He counted out what I guess he thought would be $300. He actually shortchanged me. Gave me $280,” Cullen said, explaining that he took the money, fearing for his life. “I had no gun. Only a flare gun,” he said.
Cautiously, Cullen walked away from the spot of the encounter.
“I backed up facing them and when I got far enough away I ran like the deer. I knew there was something wrong,” Cullen said.
Cullen quickly made his way back to the Coast Guard station where he alerted fellow Coast Guardsmen about his encounter.
When Cullen and others returned to the beach, “we saw a submarine,” he said.
“We saw a blinker light and smelled diesel oil.”
When the tide rolled out, the German U-Boat was able to slip away.
However the Coast Guardsmen discovered four cases of explosives, German Navy uniforms, and a pack of German cigarettes buried in the sand.
The men alerted their superiors and the Navy, the F.B.I. and the Army. The U.S. Armed Forces were there within the day, Cullen said.
Meanwhile the Nazis hid on the beach and in the bushes along the roadside making their way to the Amagansett Long Island Rail Road Station. There they bought tickets for the next westbound train.
Despite their gritty appearance they tried to remain inconspicuous as they hurtled towards Queens.
THE SABOTEURS ABOARD THE 9:30 TRAIN
Just after rush hour that summer morning, the band of spies arrived at the Jamaica Long Island Rail Road Station.
The Nazis walked along Jamaica Avenue and bought clothing at the shops that lined the street.
Photo courtesy of Dover Publications
They joined the shuffle of commuters getting off the train and headed for the local shops that lined Jamaica Avenue.
They got a shave at a local barber. Then they entered the clothing shops that lined the avenue and bought new suits, changed in the men’s room of a nearby restaurant, and assimilated into the Queens streetscape.
There were plenty of places for the men to shop and eat, according to Vice President for History of the Queens Historical Society, Jim Driscoll. He said Jamaica, which had a sizeable population of German immigrants at the time, would have been a perfect setting for the German saboteurs to walk around virtually unnoticed.
“Jamaica was a major transportation hub and shopping center,” and would allow the infiltrators access to several subway lines where they could make there way into the heart of New York City, Driscoll said.
And that’s exactly what they did.
A PLOT THWARTED
In Jamaica, the men split up and made their way into Manhattan.
Their mission called for them to stake out New York City locations, return back to the beach where they stashed the explosives and return to destroy their targets.
But they never carried out their plan.
According to published reports, New York in the summertime provided too many temptations for the men.
And F.B.I. agents were hot on their trail following their discovery of the items left behind on the Long Island beach.
The authorities eventually caught up with the Nazis in Manhattan and arrested them along with another team of terrorists who came ashore in Florida — part of the mission dubbed “Operation Pastorious” by the Nazis.
In August, six of a total of eight Nazis who came ashore were put to death after being tried as part of a military tribunal.
A press release from the White House dated Aug. 8, 1942 read: “The President approved the judgment of the Military Commission that all of the prisoners were guilty and that they be given the death sentence by electrocution. However, there was a unanimous recommendation by the Commission, concurred in by the Attorney General and the Judge Advocate General of the Army, that the sentence of two of the prisoners be commuted to life imprisonment because of their assistance to the Government of the United States in the apprehension and conviction of the others.”
The Nazis who avoided a death sentence were deported to Germany in 1948.
The trial now serves as a precedent for military tribunals being proposed by President George W. Bush as part of the ongoing war on terrorism.
THE BLAST THAT ROCKED THE BOROUGH
The Nazi terrorists who made their way into Jamaica weren’t the first to find their way into Queens.
Shortly after 3 p.m. on July 4, 1940, an electrician at the British Pavilion of that year’s World’s Fair, held at what is now Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, discovered a ticking suitcase on the third floor of the building.
The NYPD was called in and members of the department’s Bomb and Forgery Squad arrived at the scene.
Detective Joseph Lynch carefully carried the ticking suitcase out of the building to a grassy area devoid of people on the fairgrounds.
Lynch gingerly opened the suitcase and told his partner, Detective Ferdinand Socha, “This looks like the real goods.”
According to published accounts of the incident, those were Lynch’s last words.
A dynamite bomb planted inside the suitcase exploded, killing Lynch and Socha instantly and severely injuring two other detectives at the scene.
Strands of suitcase fiber and a few screws were all that remained as evidence to trace the bomb’s makers.
In the years that followed, speculation suggested that Nazi Germany – disallowed from participating in the Fair after its invasion of Poland — was behind the bomb attack.
To this day, exactly who made the bomb remains a mystery.
Today, inside Flushing Meadows-Corona Park a small plaque fastened to a stone memorializes the lives lost in the incident.
The plaque is located a few feet from the front entrance of the Queens Museum of Art and reads: “This plaque is dedicated to the memory of detectives Joseph. J. Lynch and Ferdinand A. Socha who were killed in the line of duty while examining a time bomb taken from the British Pavilion of the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow Park at 4:45 p.m., July 4, 1940.”