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Altoona Curve 19

Notice: All logos on this page are included within the parameters of 17 U.S.C. § 107, which states that the reproduction of a copyrighted work for purposes of criticism and/or comment is not an infringement of copyright. No challenge to the copyrights of these logos is intended by their inclusion here.
Posted 2016 May 7

If you're not from western Pennsylvania, you may be wondering where the heck the name "Altoona Curve" comes from. Sure, there's the association with "curveball", but surely there's more to it than that, right? Indeed, there is. The name — as the logo heavily implies — is a railroad reference. Specifically, it refers to the "Horseshoe Curve" in the Pittsburgh line, a rail line running from Pittsburgh (I'm sure you guessed that much) to Harrisburg. There are, of course, a lot of mountains between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, and since trains can't climb (or safely descend) too steep a hill, the building of railroads sometimes required some fairly creative routes to navigate the terrain. In this instance, the railroad coming from Harrisburg (i.e., travelling westbound to Pittsburgh) starts out heading west, curves around in a circle a little over 1000 feet (300 meters) in diameter until it's moving due east, goes a bit farther in the wrong directon, then curves to the south for about a mile (kilometer and a half) before finally curving back west. The Horseshoe Curve is located just a bit to the west of Altoona, so it seemed reasonable to name the team after the curve, I guess. And once they had the name, it seemed reasonable to give the team a logo which included a railroad conductor. Or maybe a train engineer. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be possible to distinguish between a train engineer and a train conductor by looking at them, but if it is then it requires knowledge I don't have.

You might think that the Horseshoe Curve is just a mildly interesting oddity. It's actually a very important link in our railroad network. If you look at a railroad map of the United States, you'll find surprisingly few paths that cut across the Appalachians, and the route between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh is part of the most direct route between most major cities in the Midwest (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago) and most major cities in the Northeast (Philadelphia, New York, Boston). So that route is kind of a big deal, and was even a bigger deal in the days before interstate highways. In fact, it was important enough to the war effort in World War II that it was targeted by the Germans for destruction.

You may or may not have heard of Operation Pastorious. No, that's not the name of an album by Weather Report (although it would have been a good name for one of their albums). It was the name of Germany's only attempt to have spies in the United States sabotage strategic targets. And if you're wondering why this was their only attempt, let me tell you what happened in that attempt, and it should become pretty clear why they decided not to bother again.

Operation Pastorius was the brainchild of Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, or German military intelligence. Canaris was put in charge of the Abwehr by Hitler in 1935 despite Canaris not being a member of the Nazi Party. Hitler was clearly very smart to choose Canaris, because after being put in charge Canaris tried to subvert Hitler at every turn. First, when Hitler sent him to Spain to convince Franco to let German troops move through Spain and take Gibraltar from the British, Canaris instead convinced Franco not to allow it, and even gave Franco some talking points to explain to Hitler precisely why he wasn't allowing it. Then he tried to stop the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. He eventually was involved in an attempt to assassinate Hitler, and was ultimately executed for that reason.

I don't mean to imply by what I just wrote that Canaris devised Operation Pastorius so that it was guaranteed to fail. He was, from what I've gathered, a patriotic German, and sincerely wanted what was best for Germany. He just didn't think that most of what Hitler wanted to do (or Hitler himself, for that matter) fit into the category of "what's best for Germany" very well. He felt that the war Hitler wanted to start was unwinnable. He was, from what I've gathered, horrified at the atrocities the Nazis were responsible for, and once he learned that Hitler was not only aware of these atrocities but personally ordering many of them, Canaris reached the conclusion that what was best for Germany was to get rid of this monster. But by 1942, when Operation Pastorius was being devised, Germany was already at war with the United States, and with the country at war and Hitler still in charge, what was good for Hitler and what was good for Germany lined up fairly often. Weakening the war-making capabilities of one of its opponents in that war was one such occasion. So I won't presume to know one way or the other whether Canaris intended Operation Pastorius to succeed or fail.

But there's plenty about the planning that makes me wonder.

The plan was to send eight saboteurs to America — four to Long Island and four to an area south of Jacksonville, Florida. Each of the two groups would sabotage various targets in the area it was in, commit a few terrorist attacks on purely civilian targets, and eventually make its way to Cincinnati to meet up with the other group. At the time, the idea was that they would be the first wave of such saboteurs, with more to come later in intervals of roughly six weeks. The main qualification for being chosen for this mission was having spent some time in America at some point in your life. That was pretty much it: none of the eight were experienced in espionage, sabotage, or any other word ending in -age. They would be trained in such things, but they weren't particularly good students. They acted like typical college students, not always paying attention in class and sometimes flat out falling asleep. They also weren't vetted very well for loyalty: two were American citizens, and one had actually been imprisoned in a concentration camp for a while because he had openly criticed the Gestapo. I'm sure one could have picked less qualified individuals for the raid if one wished, but one could also have picked much more qualified individuals for the task as well.

Things fell apart almost immediately for the Long Island team. The leader (one George John Dasch), upon landing, was almost immediately spotted by a member of the United States Coast Guard. The saboteurs had orders to shoot anyone they encountered upon landing, so Dasch did the obvious thing and didn't kill the guard. Instead, he stuffed a wad of money into the guard's hand (worth about $4,000 in 2016 dollars) and told the guard to forget he'd ever seen them. This worked about as well as you'd expect, and I'm guessing about as well as Dasch had expected, too. The guard went straight to his superiors and in so many words, said, "You're not gonna believe this, but this German spy just landed on the beach and handed me a wad of money to pretend I didn't see him." He then showed his superiors the money, and that probably got their attention because it's not every day that someone who reports to you walks up to you, drops $4,000 (or the 1942 equivalent) in cash on the table and tells you he got it from a German spy. So the superiors sent a patrol to check it out, and lo and behold, the patrol saw the German submarine heading out to sea (the saboteurs themselves had left the scene by then, apparently). The patrol then did a search of the area, and found the saboteurs' supplies: explosives, detonation equipment, and the German uniforms the saboteurs had been wearing when they landed, presumably so that they wouldn't arouse any suspicion if anyone saw them. Oh, and lots of German liquor, because apparently the Germans hadn't figured out that the Prohibition had ended nine years earlier. Anyway, the Coast Guard immediately confiscated all of this and put it somewhere safe. (I'm guessing the safest place they could find for the liquor was in their stomachs, but I have no evidence of this other than a general understanding of human nature.)

The saboteurs then proceeded to do what any dedicated group of saboteurs would do in this situation: they found a fancy hotel to stay at and some fancy restaurants to eat at. Dasch, apparently deciding that the best way to keep a secret is to tell someone you don't know whether you can trust, decided to let his roommate, Ernst Peter Burger, in on his plan to betray the mission. Fortunately for Dasch, Burger was no fan of the Nazis, either. (Remember the former concentration camp prisoner I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago? That was Burger.) Burger readily agreed with Dasch's plan to betray the mission. Dasch wasn't certain who to contact (he had been led to believe that the Gestapo had infiltrated the FBI), but decided to take a chance and call the FBI's New York office from a phone booth. By this time, the Coast Guard had made the FBI aware of the saboteurs, so the FBI was gearing up for a massive manhunt. It should therefore come as no surprise that when Dasch made his call, they transferred him over to the guy whose job was to listen to crackpots and assure them the FBI would look into it. Only the person manning the desk couldn't even be bothered to do that much, and hung up on Dasch.

So Dasch told Burger to keep an eye on the other two and headed to Washington D.C., where he asked to speak directly to J. Edgar Hoover. He was sent to an office, which turned out not to have J. Edgar Hoover in it. He explained his story, and was directed to another office which also turned out not to have J. Edgar Hoover in it. This scene replayed itself a few times, until he was at least talking to the person in charge of the manhunt, one D.M. Ladd. Ladd was thoroughly intrigued by Dasch's story, by which I mean he thought Dasch was a nut case and proceeded to nod politely and say they'd look into it.

At this point Dasch had had enough. He had brought a briefcase full of the money he'd been provided to pay for the mission (the equivalent of well over a million dollars in today's money), and he proceeded to open the briefcase and pour its contents onto the Ladd's desk as a way of saying that if he was a crackpot then at least he was a damn rich crackpot. Do you remember the recent Supreme Court decision that said that money is speech? You may agree or disagree with that as a legal doctrine, but there's no denying that a shit-ton of money dropped on an FBI director's desk says a lot. At this point Ladd thought to himself, "you know, maybe this guy's for real".

So Dasch spent the next several hours telling the FBI everything he knew. He told them what sabotage methods he'd been trained in. He told them what the targets were (in addition to the Horseshoe Curve, targets included locks on the Ohio River, aluminum plants, power plants, bridges...you get the idea). He told them the name of his three partners, making certain to point out that Burger was in on the betrayal. He told them about plans for subsequent waves of saboteurs. He also told the FBI everything he knew about Germany's war capabilities, because apparently the Nazis weren't big on the whole "only tell spies what they need to know" thing. He also told them about the team that had landed in Florida, and even provided a handkerchief with the contact information for that team written in invisible ink. Of course, the point in class where he was told how to make the invisible ink visible was one of those moments where Dasch had made like a college student and zoned out, so he had no idea how to do this. Fortunately, the FBI had trained professionals who hadn't zoned out during class, and they quickly figured it out.

So the FBI quickly rounded up the New York spies and went in search of the Florida spies. They weren't hard to find, as they were all scoping out potential targets for sabotage: targets like casinos and brothels. No, that's not quite fair. They weren't all a bunch of lowlifes who were only concerned with sex. One was only concerned with love, having more or less abandoned the mission to look up an old girlfriend and propose. In any case, all eight of them were rounded up in short order, and the FBI proudly explained how they had discovered the information due to the agency's crack investigation skills. Oh, you expected them to admit the only reason they found out about it was because the enemy literally walked up to them and told them all about it? Why do that when they can keep that quiet and make themselves look good? I mean, who's going to rat you out? The spies themselves? And just to make sure the truth never got out, they reneged on their promise to Dasch to arrange a presidential pardon for him and Burger. In fact, they told Roosevelt the same story they told the country at large. It was only after Roosevelt read the transcripts of the trials (which had resulted in a death sentence for all eight) that Roosevelt realized the role Dasch and Burger had played. So he let them go, right? Uh, no. He did commute their death sentences, but only to life imprisonment for Burger and thirty years for Dasch. Fortunately for the two of them, at the end of the war the truth of their roles was made public, and Truman was pressured into freeing the two men. Oh, and he also deported both of them to Germany. You can imagine how popular they were.

Anyway, it would be an understatement to say that "FBI breaks up Nazi spy ring" was big news. It was all over the papers, and the news almost certainly didn't take long to reach Germany. And remember, the official story was that the FBI had done this all by themselves. Plans for any subsequent waves of saboteurs were quickly shelved, since it seemed that any such attempt was doomed from the start. Throughout the war there would be only one more German attempt at bringing spies to U.S. soil via U-boat: an attempt in 1944 called Operation Magpie. Operations Magpie was not planned by Canaris, and the planner clearly learned from Canaris' mistakes. Instead of using Germans who were familiar with America, he got an actual American-born citizen of the United States. This person, rather than hanging out at brothels and casinos, proceeded to hang out at brothels and bars. He then turned himself in and gave the FBI information on where to find his (German) partner. At that point, the Germans just sorta gave up on the whole spies-in-America thing. It took them a while, but they finally figured out a basic fact of life: when given the choice between loyalty to the Fatherland and sex, most men are more horny than patriotic.

Final Score: 19 points.
Penalties: Reference, 10 pts; Singular, 15 pts.
Bonuses: Local, -6 pts.


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