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I spy

On the trail of Nazi saboteurs with historian Stan Cohen

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Stan Cohen can’t figure out why his latest book isn’t flying off the shelves. It sure isn’t for lack of a catchy title, and furthermore, the book is extremely timely. Published last May by Cohen’s Pictorial Histories publishing company, They Came to Destroy America concerns a group of terrorists who infiltrated American defenses on a campaign of sabotage and mayhem. Sound familiar?

Probably, except this story takes place way before 9/11. The eight terrorists in question were German spies, most of whom had spent a good deal of time in the United States, recruited by Nazi intelligence for their firsthand knowledge of American ways. Germany and America had been at war for approximately six months, and although it hadn’t been going especially well for America so far (German submarines, virtually unchallenged, were striking American ships within sight of the East Coast), Reich officials were still eager to size up the strength of American industry and toss a few wrenches into the works at the same time.

Unfortunately, they could hardly have selected men less suited to the task. There was at least one ardent Nazi among the would-be saboteurs, but also a few spendthrifts and all-around Good-time-Charlies who promptly blew the Third-Reich mad money entrusted to them for supplies and emergencies on fine clothes, posh hotels and female companionship. Some were also eager to link up with parents, friends, girlfriends and wives; their extracurricular errands and mysterious arrivals from an enemy country further compromised the secrecy that should have surrounded the mission.

The entire operation—code name Pastorius—was, in fact, a disaster from the start. Dropped off by a U-Boat which promptly ran aground, the Long Island contingent hadn’t even made it off the isolated beach before embarking on a comical series of misadventures orchestrated by their vain, neurotic group leader, George Dasch—whose main strategic objective from the outset, it seems, was to hand himself over to federal agents and turn stoolie on his co-spies.

The Dasch case turned into a landmark legal battle that eventually pitted the U.S. Supreme Court against the extraordinary wartime powers afforded to President Roosevelt, who made no secret of the fact that he wanted to see the spies hanged, and the sooner the better. What makes the fate of these feckless, obscure, would-be saboteurs (that’s a 1942 way of saying “terrorists”) relevant today are the legal precedents the case invoked and then produced, limning the interpretive overlap between the Constitution and extraordinary executive powers during times of war.

In another corollary to 9/11 and the Iraq conflict, the Pastorius affair set off a wave of espionage paranoia in 1942 that must have been every bit as nerve-wracking and exhausting then as the constant alarmism over terrorist attacks is now.

So Stan Cohen is a little perplexed that no one’s buying his book, which, as befits the name of his publishing company, admittedly provides more of a pictorial history than a narrative one. “It hasn’t sold very well,” Cohen admits, disappointed. “I’m absolutely amazed. It’s extremely timely. A couple narratives [on Pastorius and other wartime espionage incidents] came out about the same time as my book, but nobody’s gone through and found all the documents.”

Even the one review for They Came to Destroy America he’s seen, Cohen says, panned the book, calling it “fluff” and complaining that it didn’t “explain everything.”

“The whole idea of this book,” he rebuts, “like any of my books, is that it’s not a definitive narrative. I say that right up front. It’s basically a photographic and document history—an overview, is what I call it. Why whoever wrote this review didn’t understand that, I don’t know.”

But Cohen, who has authored or co-authored over 100 books and keeps voluminous scrapbooks filled with glowing reviews, doesn’t take it too personally. His warehouse office is plastered with ephemera that speaks for itself, including a facsimile of a check from George Bush Sr. and an autographed photograph of Leni Riefenstahl thanking him for his pictorial history of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

“If someone wants to pan me,” he says, “that’s fine. But pff, I’ve sold millions of books. Some of them I’m not as proud of as others, but almost all of them have gotten good reviews.”

Cohen’s wide-ranging interests and devotion to research have led to books on topics as diverse as downhill skiing, Missoula history, Pearl Harbor and his home county in West Virginia. He says he used to always have at least six in the works at once, but that lately he’s been slowing down—to two or three.

Operation Pastorius first came to his attention while he was writing V for Victory—his best-selling book to date, and the reason behind his prized photo with portly TV anchorman Willard Scott. His interest was piqued again by more information on Pastorius, provided by a California author granted privileged access to FBI archives, and the suggestion that the time was ripe for a book on the topic. Cohen, a World War II buff through and through, still didn’t bite right away.

“No one else had written much about it,” he says, “even with the barrage of new WWII books coming out. I set it aside. But for some reason he kept bugging me, so I decided I’d better look into it.”

Research began in earnest in fall 2002, when Cohen pooled his resources with Richard Gay, a Maine author whom Cohen read about in a military-interest newsletter. There was a local connection for Gay; yet another ill-fated party of German saboteurs had come ashore in nearby Acadia National Park in 1944. Cohen, on the other hand, was surprised to stumble upon a local angle: Missoula, too, has unwarily sheltered Nazi spies. One of them, though only a future spy during his Missoula stint, was a German-American stationed by the Army at Fort Missoula in the mid-’30s. Cohen’s research suggests the man was hardly the picture of a model serviceman.

“I hate to use the word embezzlement,” says Cohen, “but that’s probably what it was. He was embezzling funds from the hospital.”

Close to discovery, the man fled—first to Minneapolis, then to New York, where he was able to get himself recruited through coded Nazi messages in ads placed in The New York Times. The agent was arrested in 1938 and sentenced to two years in a federal prison in Michigan. Cohen was able to learn through Social Security records that the man died in 1983—at least that’s when the last check was issued—but the trail from 1940 onward is cold.

In the course of his research, Cohen also learned that the agent had married a 16-year-old Target Range girl, whom Cohen believes he sent for after getting set up as a spy in New York. Cohen suspects they parted ways after the agent’s arrest, but another surprise came when records manager Marcia Porter, from her office deep in the bowels of the county courthouse, informed Cohen that the woman was still living in Missoula. Unfortunately for Cohen, Porter also informed him that the former bride had no interest whatsoever in talking to him about it.

“Marcia said it was a very sensitive issue. I don’t know if she heard this through the grapevine or what, but last time I talked to her she told me that the woman didn’t want to talk about this at all. Marsha would never tell me her name. She’d be in her ’80s now, and obviously she wouldn’t have the last name Rumrich—she came back here and remarried. I don’t know any more about her.”

To come so close, only to begrudgingly desist from probing further, must be frustrating for a historian. But Cohen says he knows better than to push Porter on this issue, and at any rate the former bride is just one sideline of the main event.

“I do feel pretty frustrated,” he admits, “not so much about her, but finding out about what happened to this guy. We weren’t at war at that time. What happened to him the day after Pearl Harbor? Did they pick him up and put him in jail again? Did he blend in and go into obscurity?”

For a history buff, writer and publisher who sometimes feels he’s “just about done Missoula history to death,” Cohen still uncovers new surprises in his research.

“I always say I have the biggest collection of Missoula stuff,” he says, standing amid display cases piled high with old newspapers, postcards and collectibles. “I’m certainly not the premiere Missoula historian by any means, but I know more than the average bear. Every time I do one of these books I find out more. There’s more interesting Missoula history than we even think about.”

smetanka@missoulanews.com

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