Tiffin man made history as important figure in war
June 13, 1942, at a lonely beach near Amagansett, Long Island, a German submarine delivered a team of four Nazi agents launching the first phase of what would become a failed mission of sabotage known as Operation Pastorius.
June 16, another U-boat landed a second team at Point Verde Beach, Fla.
Both teams were equipped with explosives and had orders to disable vital targets across America. But within two weeks, all eight agents were rounded up by
the FBI, without actually having committed a single successful act of sabotage.
President Franklin Roosevelt quickly instructed Attorney General Francis Biddle to pursue swift and severe punishment for the prisoners.
In the wake of six months of bad news on global war fronts since the Pearl Harbor attack, the president July 2 ordered the creation of a military tribunal citing earlier precedents from the Revolutionary and Civil wars. The death penalty was set, and there would be no appeal.
Among the seven army generals selected for the 1942 tribunal was Brig. Gen. Lorenzo Dow Gasser of Tiffin.
Son of a Lykens blacksmith, Gasser had retired in 1940 as deputy chief of staff to Gen. George C. Marshall, but was called from retirement in 1941 as director of Defense Health and Welfare Services posted to assist Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in emergency planning for New York.
Born in 1876, Gasser was “old army” and known as a “soldier’s soldier,” having enlisted as a private in “The Tiffin Rifles,” Company E, Second Regiment, Ohio National Guard in 1893, becoming its captain and commander during the Spanish American War. Gasser accepted a commission in the regular army in 1901 after two years of combat duty in the Philippines.
Gasser served with Gen. John J. Pershing pursuing Pancho Villa on the Mexican border in 1916. After graduating from the Army War College in 1917, he again served with Pershing in France.
Gasser was awarded the first of three Distinguished Service Medals for planning the army motor transport service. He served with the 2nd Division at Chateau Thierry and participated in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives.
After building a solid reputation as a general staff officer in Washington, then-Col. Gasser took command of the crack 31st Infantry Regiment known as “America’s Foreign Legion,” stationed in Manila. In 1932, Gasser led the regiment into the troubled city of Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese War.
Newspaper stories depicted the “wiry, quick-witted man who has fought in every American expedition since the Spanish American War.”
Awarded his general’s star in 1936, Gasser was a key player in reorganizing the army in the uncertain days before World War II.
Marshall praised his outgoing deputy in a June 1940 letter, stating, “Your broad experience and sound judgment made you a tower of strength to the War Department and of invaluable assistance to me.”
Gasser’s right-hand man was an obscure colonel by the name of Omar Bradley, who would soon become a household name.
At one time the youngest captain in the Army at 21, Gasser had reached mandatory retirement age of 64 in 1940. But a return to Tiffin with plenty of golf and auto touring was placed on hold.
As Gasser and the other generals opened the tribunal July 22, defense lawyers prepared constitutional appeals for the eight conspirators, one of whom was an American citizen. Known as Ex parte Quirin, the case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court July 29-30.
A decision was rendered July 31. While the opinion was unanimous, the case provoked a lengthy draft opinion from Justice Robert H. Jackson which attributed sweeping powers to the president as commander-in-chief to authorize military tribunals without regulation by Congress.
In effect, Jackson held, in times of war, military judgments were “not susceptible to judicial appraisal.”
The military trial was swift. A guilty verdict was reached Aug. 8, 1942. Six of the eight defendants, including the sole U.S. citizen, Herbert Hans Haupt, were taken from court and electrocuted.
The other two, George Dasch and Peter Berger, who had voluntarily turned themselves in to the FBI and helped foil the plot, were given stiff prison sentences and later deported to Germany in 1948.
In a letter to Gasser dated Aug. 11, 1942, Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote that “a precedent has been set which, I am sure, will have great influence and value in the protection of the national interests against dangerous and subversive attacks. I send you very hearty thanks.”
By June 1943, Gasser had been promoted to major general and given an important new post as chairman of the War Department Manpower Board.
Total global war on multiple battle fronts and homefront war production had created a “manpower” shortage in the armed forces. The draft alone would not meet the growing need for combat soldiers as the invasion of Europe approached.
It was Gasser’s job to find and produce shooting soldiers within the army. He accomplished this by curtailing some specialized training programs, such as the Army Specialized Training Program unit at Heidelberg College, and expanding the use of women for non-combat duty.
One newspaper article reported “hardheaded old man” Gasser had by November 1944 come up with an additional 100,000 troops for combat arms.
By January 1945, the army estimated there were fewer than 7,000 combat-fit ground troops in the U.S. and less than 5,000 service force troops ready for battle duty.
Desperate for riflemen in the bloody advance into Germany after the costly German breakthrough in December, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower received help from his old friend “Cap” Gasser.
Ordered to Europe by Marshall and given “sweeping authority” by Ike, Gasser would “comb out” combat troops from service and rear-echelon units to replace the 40,000 casualties suffered in the Battle of the Bulge. Significantly, this process included the recruitment of African-American soldiers on the continent serving in transportation and other non-combat roles in the still-segregated armed forces.
In a 1945 letter to Gasser, Eisenhower expressed his “deep appreciation of the personal sacrifice you have made to lend us the weight of your prestige and expertise in launching the manpower economy program in this theater. I feel most fortunate to have had the benefit of your help and personal advice in this vital matter.”
After more than four years of wartime duty and almost 50 years of active service, Gasser retired permanently in December 1945 at the age of 69. He had served from the era of imperialism to the Atomic Age under every president from William McKinley to Harry Truman.
Like the Horatio Alger novels of his youth, Gasser’s was a success story built on hard work and merit. He rose to flag rank without benefit of either a West Point education or college degree.
Gasser’s loyalty to his hometown remained steadfast. He listed Tiffin as his legal address while overseas. He returned on Memorial Day in 1938 to lead the veterans of Company E in the annual parade on the anniversary of their departure for the Spanish-American War.
The Advertiser-Tribune reported “forty years ago the company was marching away for war service over a Washington Street paved with cobblestones and lined with hitching posts.”
The General and Mrs. Gasser would remain in Washington but would often visit Tiffin, staying with Mrs. Gasser’s brother, Judge Thomas Sugrue, in his home at 136 E. Perry St.
Gasser married Molly Sugrue in San Francisco in 1904 after a long courtship interrupted by his service in the Philippines.
Molly, known as “a charming and accomplished young woman,” grew up on Miami Street and graduated from Tiffin High School in 1892. She died in 1951.
In 1949, Gasser sent his military decorations, memorabilia and scrapbooks to the Seneca County Museum, where they remain today, tangible evidence of his important role in American military history.
He died Oct. 29, 1955, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Doug Collar is associate dean of honors and associate professor of English and integrated studies at Heidelberg University.