By Terry Tomalin
Ponte Vedra may be now known as the headquarters of Professional Golf Association and home to the Players Championship, but back in the opening months of World War II, this sleepy beach community was a hotbed of international intrigue.
In June 1942, the German submarine U-584 surfaced about 50 yards offshore and dropped off four Nazi secret agents dressed in civilian clothes. The saboteurs buried their explosives in boxes on the beach then walked out to Route 1 where they caught a greyhound bus to Jacksonville.
The men, then split up, two heading to Cincinnati and the others for Chicago, where they had planned to disrupt America’s war effort. They might have succeeded had it not been for the bad luck of their compatriots who had landed on the shores of Long Island a few days earlier.
The leader of that team, George Dasch, soon had doubts about their likelihood of success and contacted an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which dismissed him as a crackpot. So Dasch travelled to Washington where he met with another FBI agent. When the Nazi spy showed the G-Man more than $80,000 in cash that was to be used to finance the operation, he was quickly arrested and interrogated further.
The other saboteurs, including the four who’d landed in Florida, were quickly rounded up. A military tribunal – the first since the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – was formed.
The trial, held in secret on the fifth floor of the Department of Justice, went quickly. On Aug. 1, 1942, all eight men were found guilty and sentenced to death. President Franklin D. Roosevelt commuted the sentence of Dasch and another man who helped with the investigation. The others went to the electric chair a few days later.
The four agents came ashore in Florida in a raft about four miles south of the Ponte Vedra Inn and buried four waterproof boxes of explosives and money in the sand. It was a humid, foggy morning as they made their way to Alice and Roy Landrum Jr.'s combination post office, store, service station and ice house on Ponte Vedra Boulevard.
Today, there’s little evidence of this odd chapter of Florida’s history. But you can visit the Ponte Vedra Inn on a moonless, summer night, hit the beach and head south about four miles. Then turn and look toward the sea.