Why coastal defenses here? Well, late on the foggy night ofJune 13, 1942, a German submarine, the U-202, sat off the beach at Amagansett. From it, four Germans in German military uniforms paddled a rubber raft to the shore. Shortly after they landed, they changed into civilian fishermen clothes. They had come in uniforms so that if they were captured on landing, they would be treated as prisoners of war, and not as spies or saboteurs, who under international law, were usually executed. Soon after they landed, a young Coast Guardsman patrolling the beach on foot, alone, came upon them. In perfect American English — each had been raised in theU.S.– they offered him a bribe. Being unarmed and outnumbered, he pretended to go along with it. But when he left them, he ran to alert the military. The four Germans buried their raft and uniforms, and also explosives they had brought with them, intending to come back for the bomb-making material another day. Each carrying a revolver and thousands of U.S. dollars in cash, they walked to the Amagansett station of the Long Island Rail Road, bought tickets for $5.10 each, took a morning train to Manhattan, and from there went to locations in the mid-West, to lie low.
But the Germans had been chosen for their mission simply because they spoke American English. Most had little stomach for blowing up American industrial sites, and soon one of them turned himself in. He told all, including where his three comrades were hiding, and they were arrested. He also told FBI agents, to their astonishment, that another four German saboteurs had landed on the coast ofFloridafrom a U-boat on June 18, completely undetected, and the FBI soon caught them. The agency broke the news to the press, causing a shock throughout the nation. In July, all eight were tried before a military tribunal, found guilty as saboteurs, and all were sentenced to death. President Roosevelt commuted the sentences of two of them, who had cooperated, to long prison terms. Without any advance notice to the public, on August 8, the other six were executed by electric chair, less than two months after they had landed in theU.S. Afterward, the White House issued a terse statement: “The President approved the judgment of the military commission …,” which the U.S. Supreme Court had also approved.
A din of warplanes overhead was anEast Endwartime daily routine. The immense Grumman facility in Calverton — at which many people from both forks worked — during the war test-flew the amazing number of Navy planes it made, mostly east out to theAtlanticand L.I. Sound to avoid more populated lands up-west. These included 12,275 Hellcat and 7,722 Wildcat fighters, and 9,837 Avenger torpedo bombers.
But the sound of a large, four-engine B-24 bomber late on Wednesday evening,December 27, 1944, caught the attention of people on the ground, some sitting around Christmas trees. One, it was flying low over the center of the twin forks. Two, it was flying in a dense snowstorm. And, three, one of its engines was heard to be malfunctioning. The plane crashed and exploded into flames in a farm field inLaurelnext toAldrich Lane, southofSound Avenue, killing all ten of its crew. The explosion was so violent that it threw plane fragments and human body parts over a 500-foot area.
When the war officially ended inEuropeonMay 8, 1945, the celebration in theU.S.was muted, because fighting still raged on inAsia. In fact, each day Americans, between listening to great swing music, like Tommy Dorsey’s wild “Well Git It!” on the radio, and sad war ballads, like Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” heard news accounts of the battle at Okinawa, which had begun on April 1 and was to last until June 22, killing 6, 821 Americans and wounding 19,217. So in May, East Enders went back to their lives, with anxiety about their loved ones among the more than 14 million American service members — more than one in ten of the entireU.S.population — still at risk. And back to rationed food. People out here, like all Americans, had food-rationing books — their stamps, required to buy food, sporting pictures of tanks and warplanes. And rationed gasoline, for people’s aging cars — theU.S.did not make any cars for the general civilian market during the war. Finally, celebrations broke out here whenJapansurrendered on August 14, but not before the war cost 405,399U.S.dead and 1,076,245 wounded, at a time when the American population totaled only 132 million, according to the 1940 census. Was it worth it? When you have some time in quiet, imagine a world in which the Nazis and Japanese militarists had won.