In June 16, 1942, four German spies stepped ashore at Ponte Vedra Beach. In the pre-dawn hours, a German submarine surfaced, a raft was launched, and the four men rowed to shore with a cache of materials. After burying boxes of explosives, they walked to highway 140 and caught a bus to Jacksonville.
Once in the city, they split up. Edward John Kerling and Herman Neubauer checked into the Seminole Hotel. Herbert Hans Haupt and Werner Thiel registered at the Mayflower Hotel – all using assumed names. These German saboteurs were part of a larger plan known as Operation Pastorius.
Operation Pastorius and German landings on the U.S. eastern coast during World War II are the subject of the 2003 publication, They Came to Destroy America: The FBI Goes to War Against Nazi Spies and Saboteurs Before and During World War II. Author of the book, Stan Cohen is speaker for the society’s Thursday, November 6 program.
Cohen’s book recalls life on the Ponte Vedra coastline during the war years:
Blackouts curtains were required for every household to deceive the German submarines patrolling off the Atlantic coast. Ponte Vedra residents were among the very few stateside Americans to witness acts of war firsthand as German submarines sank ships within sight of the shore, and oil from torpedoed tankers blackened the beaches.
Four other German saboteurs, also part of Operation Pastorius, had landed a few days earlier at Amagansett, New York. The operation’s mission was to destroy American aluminum and metal industries, railroads, and utility plants. There were also plans to plant explosives in crowded public locations as bus terminals and department stores.
Unknown to the four German spies in Jacksonville, the FBI had learned of the operation, but the group escaped the city the next morning without notice. Kerling, the ringleader, was eventually brought back to Ponte Vedra to pinpoint the burial site; among the items were blocks of TNT shaped as laundry soap, a device appearing as a pen that could start fires, and a watch that could be set for detonation watch.
The spy informants who landed in New York were imprisoned. The Ponte Vedra foursome were electrocuted within two months of their June 1942 landing.