Scavengers, Part 2: Minutes After Midnight at Amagansett Station, California Coast, JUNE 13, 1942
From the upcoming book, EIGHTH WONDER: CARL DENHAM AND THE BEAST-GOD OF SKULL ISLAND
It was a mere six months after Pearl Harbor, and America still shrugged its collective shoulders at the threat of foreign-spawned terrorism on the mainland. The war seemed very far away.
Twenty-one year old Coast Guardsman John Cullen and his best friend signed up the day after the Japanese attack. They tried the marines first, but, told that they’d have to be ready to ship out immediately, decided to join the Coast Guard and spend Christmas with their families. After a few weeks training, both were sent to lifeboat stations along the East Coast as “sand pounders,” a job that entailed walking the beach looking for ships or swimmers in distress as well as German submarines. The lifeboat stations lined two thousand miles of coast from Maine to Florida, spaced six miles apart from one another.
Cullen landed in Amagansett, a small resort town near the eastern tip of Long Island. In 1938, a hurricane battered the region and left the area behind the seashore barren; much of the circuit he walked on each shift was deserted scrubland. Each sand pounder was required to walk or run three miles to a navigation beacon, punch a clock he carried with him to prove he’d made the trip, then return to the station.
During Cullin’s night patrols he was also to ensure that each house facing the sea had its windows blacked out so as not to outline the shore for enemy ships or planes. Because of the recently issued alert for German saboteurs, the Coast Guard had ordered simultaneous patrols on both sides of all lifeboat stations whenever possible. Amagansett station could not comply; it had only one clock shared among the men on duty, so one patrolling coastguardsman had to return before another could be sent out.
Cullen left a little after midnight this foggy night because the west-side patrol had been late getting in. He began to sing to himself Glenn Miller’s “I’ve Got a Girl in Kalamazoo,” veering toward the water where the sand was firm to avoid becoming disoriented on the wide beach in the fog.
He spotted three men up ahead. During blackout conditions no one was allowed on the beach without a uniform. He shined his flashlight in the direction of the strangers, but the beam could not penetrate the fog.
“Who are you?” he yelled.
Oddly, one of the men actually ran toward him. “Coast Guard?”
“Yes. Who are you?”
“Fishermen. From East Hampton,” The stranger continued to walk toward Cullen as he spoke. Cullen was equipped as per Coast Guard requirements; he had no way to communicate with his squad at the lifeboat station besides a flare gun, and he had no firearm. He warily attempted to determine how many men he was facing. Three? Four?
“We were trying to get to Montauk Point, but our boat ran aground.” The man continued to walk forward. “We’re waiting for the sunrise.”
Cullen was puzzled. They ran aground five miles from their starting point and fifteen miles from their destination? “What do you mean, East Hampton and Montauk Point? Do you know where you are?”
“I don’t believe I know where we landed. You should know.”
Cullen attempted to look beyond the stranger to determine what the others were doing. In the fog he could only see shapes—were they coming ashore? Or going out to sea?
“You’re in Amagansett. That’s my station over there. Why don’t you come up to the station and stay there for the night.” It wasn’t a question.
The stranger had finally stopped his approach. He wore a red zippered wool sweater, a gray mechanics coat, gray-green trousers, white socks, tennis shoes, and a dark brown fedora. “All right.”
Then, after a few more steps, he seemed to calmly reconsider. “I’m not going with you.”
“I have no identification card, and no permit to fish.”
“That’s alright. You better come along.”
“No, I won’t go.”
“You have to come.” Cullen made a move for the stranger’s arm while also focusing on the activity behind him. The man in the fedora shifted his position to effectively turn Cullen from the others. He began to talk faster.
“Now listen. How old are you, son?”
“You have a mother?”
“Look. I wouldn’t want to kill you. You don’t know what this is all about.” The man then reached into his left pants pocket; Cullen held his breath. Out came a tobacco pouch filled with wadded bills.
“Forget about this and I will give you some money and you can have a good time.” It was like a line from a movie to Cullen, completely absurd.
“I don’t want your money.”
Now another man came into view, out of the haze. He wore only a dripping bathing suit and medals around his neck. He dragged a wet canvas bag behind him.
The stranger spoke again. “We’ve been clamming.”
Then the newcomer began to speak a different language to the man in the fedora, which agitated him immediately; he put his hand over the man’s mouth. “Shut up. Get back to the other guys.”
Now he took Cullen’s arm to turn him again. He plucked more money from his pouch and shoved it into Cullen’s hands. “Three hundred.”
Cullen separated himself from the man carefully. It occurred to him that there were likely at least four of them, maybe five, and he was now certain the language he’d heard spoken was German. He started to turn his head to locate the other men.
“Take a good look at my face,” the stranger said abruptly. He took a step closer and removed his hat. “Look at my eyes. Would you recognize me if you saw me again?”
“No sir, I never saw you before.”
“You might see me in East Hampton sometime. Would you know me?”
“No, I never saw you before in my life.”
“You might hear from me again. My name is George John Davis. What’s your name, boy?”
“Frank Collins, sir,” Cullen lied as surely as he knew the stranger did. He began to back away; then, seeing that the man in the fedora1 was not making a move to stop him, he turned and ran as fast as he could back to the Lifeboat Station.
Aboard the German submarine U-202, everything was going to hell.1
Kapitanleutnant Hans-Heinz Linder had his hands full keeping the craft at station while disgorging four agents via a dinghy. Now the crew was reeling the rubber raft back, laden with crates wrapped in water-tight canvas and a single crewman charged with keeping everything from capsizing in the surf.
Overlapping missions may have been consistent with the German efficiency model, but this was taking far too long. His ship’s role in Operation Pastorius—the Abwehr’s plan to create havoc in the United States via acts of sabotage—had been successfully completed once he’d disgorged toward the beach four passengers he’d brought from across the Atlantic.
Linder’s log would record that he was very concerned with the delays caused by execution of U-202’s second Abwehr-ordered mission, Operation Rubezahl.2 They had miraculously arrived at the coordinates prescribed for pick-up of unknown cargo buried and marked days earlier. The crates were on the last leg of a journey that began on the opposite coast, in Burbank, California (see SCAVENGERS). Getting them aboard was proving incredibly time-consuming.
If that weren’t enough, the ship’s mechanic had been suffering from acute appendicitis for the last week, writhing in agony, and they’d exhausted their stores of opium. With no medical instruments of any kind aboard, Linder was prepared to remove the appendix himself using kitchen utensils once his dual missions were complete.
Finally, the crates and crewman were aboard. Linder was incensed to learn that the agents he put ashore had encountered someone on the beach and didn’t capture or kill him as per orders. An alert would surely go out very soon.
And now, the final insult: the submarine had drifted parallel to shore and buffeted a sandbar, becoming grounded as wave after wave came in and the tide went out. U-202 was stuck fast.
Linder ran the diesel engines and the electric motor together at full power. Nothing—powering out wouldn’t work. He remained calm and went to the next set of actions on his internal checklist. He ordered torpedoes removed from their tubes to raise the bow, then blew the water tanks and dumped diesel fuel. He ran one propeller forward and the other in reverse with the rudder pushed in the direction of the backward-running propeller. The U-202 flailed about, but did not break free. The crates they’d stowed from ashore minutes ago—surely thirty kilos each—crossed Linder’s mind only briefly.
His orders from Abwehr regarding Operation Rubezahl were clear: the mission was to locate the crates and return with whatever was contained therein, so he would put another man ashore before resorting to dumping the new cargo.
The fog was thinning, and Linder could see the shore approximately two hundred yards away. He saw car lights cross on the coastal road and heard a dog bark periodically. He thought it unbelievable that the submarine had not yet been fired upon. With cool detachment he started scuttling procedures, ordering his engineers to place explosive capsules around the ship and prepare to destroy the Enigma coding machine. He had the stricken mechanic loaded into a raft to be taken ashore ahead of the rest of the crew.
It was now nearly three a.m.
“We will make one last try to free the boat,” Linder said into the ship’s P.A. “If it fails, we will go together to captivity. Remember the first commandment: silence is golden.”
Linder noted that the tide had begun to come in and ever-so-slightly lift his craft from the sandbar. Before evacuation and demolition of the sub, he ordered all personnel to the aft section of the ship and once again blew the water tanks. Then he hit the diesel and electric motors simultaneously. As the waves swelled, the submarine rocked slightly. After four bursts of the engines synchronized with the incoming waves, the U-202 was free. The crew—moments before resigned to their fate and with rucksacks packed—cheered and hugged one another.
Linder was left to wonder what was in those crates that had been so important. It was no matter; he would relieve himself of them via a supply ship off the American coast, and then push on to the Caribbean for more hunting.
He reported successful resolution of both missions in the compartmentalized manner prescribed by his orders; to Colonel Erwin von Lahousen and Abwehr chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris at Abwehr headquarters in Berlin he confirmed the success of Operation Pastorius.
His message regarding completion of the “Rubezahl” mission went, incongruously, directly to Canaris, who forwarded his report to Heinrich Himmler within twenty-four hours: “Rubezahl materials en route to Germany June 13-14.”
Several people spotted the submarine, including Chief Radioman Harry McDonald, in charge of the Amagansett Naval Radio Station, part of a top secret network of that tracked movements of enemy submarines all over the Atlantic. As reported in the book Saboteurs by Michael Dobbs, McDonald needed none of his sophisticated tracking equipment to locate the ship as he could hear and smell the U-202’s diesel engines revving only a couple of football fields away. He thought the sub might be disgorging an invasion party intent on attacking his station, so he evacuated the building and sent his family to stay with friends. When he called the Coast Guard for additional guidance he was brushed off. “I am not permitted to discuss details of possible enemy activity,” said the man who answered the phone. He got an equally limp response from an army post five miles up the road; “I’m sorry, we can’t leave the premises without orders from the captain.”
What, exactly, was Operation Rubezahl? Stay tuned …