There are many myths and legends surrounding Grand Central Terminal. We have an entire list that we’ve debunked. One of those myths, which contains slivers of truth, involves a clandestine World War II operation led by German spies, also known as saboteurs. The story goes, that these spies were sent to the United States to disrupt train travel by throwing sand into the giant rotary converters below Grand Central in the secret M42 basement power station. The truth is a bit more complicated.

M42 basement at Grand Central Terminal
The Grand Central M42 Basement

During World War II, there was a German plot to disrupt wartime operations in the United States. It was well documented and railroad infrastructure sites were targeted. The plan was called Operation Pastorius. Operation Pastorius involved eight saboteurs with a mission to “slow down production at certain factories concerned with the American war effort.” To do so, they were instructed to “interfere with transportation systems, including railways and canals,” according to a 1943 report. The main targets were aluminum factories and cryolite plants, materials vital for wartime necessities like artillery, ammunition, and aircraft construction.

Many railroad infrastructure sites were targets of this plot including Hell Gate Bridge and Newark Penn Station. Routes traveling through those two sites were vital links for the movement of military supplies and personnel, so taking out those hubs would have been a strategic move. However, in the many extensive reports about the operation that came out later, Grand Central Terminal was never mentioned as a target. In a list of targets published by the New York Times in 1942, Grand Central is not listed.

Hell Gate Bridge

The saboteurs had extensive training on the most effective ways to achieve their goals of sabotage. According to the 1943 report, they were advised to attack the most vulnerable parts of a train including the pressure pipes that control the brake system, signals and switches, and parts of tracks that curve or go over bridges and are therefore harder to repair. No mention of power plants.

Author Sam Roberts notes in his book, Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed Americathat Grand Central could have been a target. The saboteurs were instructed to incite panic by planting bombs in train station lockers. However, as I Ride the Harlem Line points out, first-hand accounts from the spies themselves and official government reports all leave out Grand Central. It’s doubtful any of the members of the operation even made it to Grand Central during their time in New York, but they did pop up in other spots around the city.

Martinique New York Hotel
Photo Courtesy of Martinique New York

The saboteurs of Operation Pastorius arrived in the U.S. via U-boats in the summer of 1942, landing in Florida and Long Island. From the shores of Amagansett, they traveled into New York City, taking the LIRR and arriving at Penn Station. Two saboteurs, Heinrich Heinck and Richard Quirin, stayed at the Martinique Hotel in Midtown, now Martinique New York on Broadway, Curio Collection by Hilton. Two other saboteurs on the New York team, including leader (and eventual whistleblower) George John Dasch, stayed at the Hotel Governor Clinton, now the Stewart Hotel. According to Martinique New York’s resident historian Tara Williams, Heinck and Quirin felt exposed in the public space, and found the room rates to be quite expensive!

You can learn more about the spies’ hotel stay, and how they were eventually caught, at our upcoming after-dark tour of Martinique New York! At this Halloween week experience, you’ll hear tales of the many spirits alleged to linger at the 125-year-old landmark, from the daring but doomed acrobat who met his demise while promoting a 1923 silent film, to the mischievous guest, Sara, whose spectral pranks have been caught on film. Guests on the tour will also enjoy complimentary refreshments from the hotel restaurant, The Press Club.

Spirits of the Martinique New York Tour

Martinique New York

This tour on October 29th and October 30th is free for Untapped New York Insiders! Not an Insider yet? Become a member today and gain access to member-exclusive experiences, both in-person and online, as well as our archive of 200+ on-demand webinars. Use code JOINUS for your first month free! 

Next, check out 13 of NYC’s Most Haunted Places and bust more myths of Grand Central Terminal!