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John Cullen, encountered spies

Seaman John Cullen (left) received the Legion of Merit Award. Seaman John Cullen (left) received the Legion of Merit Award. (New York Times)
By Richard Goldstein
New York Times / September 8, 2011

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NEW YORK - In spring 1942, Seaman John Cullen was assigned to one of the Coast Guard’s less glamorous tasks in an America newly at war.

Mr. Cullen was a “sand pounder,’’ the term for Coast Guardsmen who patrolled beaches looking for signs of lurking German submarines or perhaps something suspicious.

“Once in a while you might run into somebody, but very rare,’’ Mr. Cullen, who died Aug. 29, said in 2006.

On Friday the 13th of June 1942, Mr. Cullen was on patrol on Long Island after midnight when it was “so foggy that I couldn’t see my shoes.’’

He spotted a figure in the mist and the outlines of three others behind him. “Who are you?’’ he called out.

The man closest said he and his companions were fishermen who had run aground. He spoke English well enough, but one of the others, dragging a bag, shouted something in German.

Mr. Cullen was armed only with a flare gun when he came across what he figured were surely German spies. Moments later, he fled back to his station to sound an alarm. He led fellow Guardsmen to the spot. They were long gone, but explosives they had buried were dug up.

Thus began a hunt for German saboteurs who had been sent to the United States on U-boats to blow up rail facilities and war-industry plants.

Eight men, the four who landed on Long Island and another four who arrived in Florida, were arrested before any sabotage, and Mr. Cullen became a hero.

Mr. Cullen, who was 90 and born in Manhattan, died of heart failure in Chesapeake, Va. .

A few minutes after he discovered the supposed fishermen in 1942, the leader, dropping pretense, asked Mr. Cullen if he had a mother and father who would grieve for him. He did not display a weapon but said, “I wouldn’t want to have to kill you.’’

But then the tone changed. The man offered Mr. Cullen what he said was $300. Seeing a chance to escape, Mr. Cullen took the money, promised he would never identify the men. (He then found he was shortchanged; he had been given $260.)

The four agents took the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan. A week later, the group’s leader, George Dasch, shaken by his encounter with Mr. Cullen, surrendered to the FBI, hoping he would be regarded as a hero in America by exposing the plot.

That led to the roundup of his fellow conspirators.

At a secret military trial in Washington, Mr. Cullen identified Dasch as the man he had encountered on the beach. Six of the eight saboteurs were executed on Aug. 8, 1942. Dasch and another conspirator who cooperated were given prison terms and deported to West Germany after World War II.