Seventy years ago Wednesday, four German saboteurs — armed and trained for a mission of destruction — slipped ashore in Amagansett. Though a minor footnote in the annals of World War II, it was one of the very few known incidents in which enemy operatives set foot on United States soil. Moreover, in recent times, the military tribunals in which the would-be attackers were tried and sentenced have been cited as the legal antecedents of how cases are handled of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
On that long-ago night, the Germans had with them some $80,000 in cash, crates of explosives, and a few odd items of spycraft. Within moments of their arrival in a hamlet far removed from the battles in Europe and the Pacific, however, a coast guardsman on patrol from the Atlantic Avenue Life-Saving Station discovered them. The Germans said they were fishermen whose boat had run aground. They then contradicted orders by giving him a bribe instead of shooting him and telling him to get lost. John Cullen, a seaman second class, played along, but he quickly returned to the station and sent out the alert. Four days later, a second team of saboteurs landed near Jacksonville, Fla., on a similar mission.
The manhunt that might have been expected did not exactly follow the discovery of the Germans and their dangerous cache. It was not until one of them managed to convince a skeptical Federal Bureau of Investigation agent that he was really part of a plot against the United States. Still, it was wartime, and J. Edgar Hoover was happy to spread the fiction that the F.B.I. had been on to the Germans from the beginning.
Today the station from which the unarmed Seaman Cullen walked that night stands in a precarious state. Through the generosity of several private citizens, the Town of East Hampton took over its ownership in 2006 and moved it back to the dunes near its original site. There it is has stood since, more or less buttoned up from the elements.
A dramatic re-enactment of sorts is planned for Wednesday evening, in which those who are working to restore the station and open it as a museum and perhaps an alternative meeting place will recall the events of summer 1942. It is hoped that the event will draw attention to the station’s important place in our history.
Money is needed to finish stabilizing and restoring the building. It is a worthy undertaking, one that deserves both official and community support.