On a cold November night in 1944, two German spies were rowed from their U-boat to a rocky, Downeast Maine beach. Carrying briefcases loaded with cash, diamonds, guns, and fake documentation, they made their way to New York via Bangor, Portland, and Boston. Their 2-year mission was designed to have them gather intelligence and radio it back to Germany. Instead, they went on a month-long, boozy, womanizing bender in 1940s New York City and the operation ended abruptly.
Soon after the U.S. joined World War II, German submarines terrorized the East coast of America.
In the first 7 months alone, U-boats torpedoed almost 200 U.S. boats
Submarines were wreaking havoc on shipping and striking fear all along the coast and especially in New England. Minefields were laid, boats patrolled the waters, planes flew overhead, guns were installed in Casco Bay, and soldiers walked the remote beaches looking for signs of submarine activity. It turns out that the Nazis had their eyes on Maine because of its remoteness and for its deep ports and rivers that would allow its submarines to get close to shore.
We Need Spies Who Like Baseball
Although Germany had been sneaking agents into the U.S. since the war began (and before the U.S. joined), Hitler instructed the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence Corps) to up their game in 1942 and really sabotage the American war effort by destroying infrastructure within the U.S. The intent was to demoralize the civilian population by blowing things up. Targets included industrial plants, bridges, railroads, and waterworks. The plan was to send small teams every six weeks or so to carry out missions that might span multiple years. These agents would be delivered by U-boat and rowed ashore at night to remote locations. They used Germans who had lived in the U.S. before the war so that they could more easily blend in – or Germans who had been captured, imprisoned in the U.S., and subsequently returned to Germany.
While being trained in intelligence, electronics, and explosives, the agents also studied American newspapers, TV, movies, sports – anything they could soak up that would help them pass as Americans. They would be sent with money, fake birth certificates, drivers’ licenses, and draft deferment cards, and would assimilate into communities so that they could be more effective. With so many German immigrants living in the U.S. already, it would be easy for Germans who spoke English without an accent to move freely around the country.
“No, Really, I’m a Spy. I Can Prove It!”
In June, 1942, Operation Pastorius sent two separate 4-man German teams to land on the East Coast – one in the Hamptons on Long Island and the other on Ponte Vedre Beach near Jacksonville, Florida. They were supposed to make their way to Cincinnati, Ohio to meet up at a hotel to plan their nefarious operations.
However, one of the agents, a German immigrant and former member of the U.S. Army named George Dasch, got cold feet and convinced one of the others to give themselves up – a mere three days into the operation. From their New York hotel room, Dasch called the FBI to report the plot. The agent who took the call didn’t believe him and promptly hung up. Undeterred, Dasch took a train to Washington, D.C. and presented the FBI with proof of the operation in person. Those folks actually believed him and with his eager help, they rounded up the other agents. President Roosevelt called for a military tribunal where all eight were found guilty and the two who had given themselves up were given long prison sentences while the others were executed. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, took full credit for cracking the spy ring and neglected to mention that the entire thing was handed on a platter to the agency by Dasch.
In November, 1942, another German spy took a U-boat to North America to start an operation. Werner von Janowski showed up at a hotel in New Carlisle, Quebec, and tried to pay for his room using outsized currency that hadn’t been in circulation in Canada since the 1st World War. That, plus his odd accent and the fact that he stunk from having been on a submarine for weeks, caused the hotel staff to get suspicious and call the police. He was apprehended without incident as he sat down on a train bound for Montreal.
Desperate Times Call for More Spies
The war rolled on and by late 1944, Germany was in real trouble. Italy had already surrendered and Allied forces forces were attacking from all directions while Russia was advancing from the East. Germany was desperate to learn any intelligence that might help them stave off defeat.
U-boats were still very active but the U.S. Navy had gotten very good at finding and sinking them by 1944. Allied intelligence had also heard frightening rumors that Germany was able to use U-boats to launch V-1 “flying bombs” to attack cities on the east coast of the U.S (later shown not to be at all true). So everyone was looking for submarines off the East Coast and Germany was finding that many U-boat missions were death sentences.
The Money Man is Captured off the Maine Coast
In August, 1944, U-1229 was sunk south of Newfoundland. The submarine was on a mission to land a single agent, Oskar Mantel, on the coast of Maine to begin a mission. He had lived in New York City for 12 years before the war, working in the wholesale cosmetics business, before heading back to Germany to train as a Nazi agent – where he had several successful missions. When the Navy rescued the 40 German survivors from the sinking U-boat, they found that he was carrying a large sum of money and it was later determined that he was being sent to the U.S. to provide money and support to later spy missions.
Germany’s next spy mission was to be called Operation Elster (Magpie in English). The goal of the mission was to gather information gauging the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda in the United States, especially as the 1944 Presidential election warmed up. The spies would also gather information on shipyards, airplane factories, and rocket-testing facilities. There were later rumors that they were supposed to learn what they could about the Manhattan Project, but no proof of that could be found.
Like the other missions, Operation Elster was supposed to last for 2 years. The agents would communicate back to Germany over shortwave using a transmitter that they were expected to build. If they weren’t able to build the radio, the backup plan was to send letters by mail written in secret ink and addressed to a number of “mail drops”, which included both American prisoners of war and intermediaries in Spain. The Nazis hoped that the agents would be able to build additional radio transmitters that other German agents could use in the future. But who should they send on such a secret mission?
The Odd Couple: A Spy and a Wanna-be
The two agents eventually chosen for the mission were a 26 year-old American named William Colepaugh who had defected to Germany and a 34 year-old German named Erich Gimpel, who was actually a spy.
The Actual Spy
Gimpel had been operating as a spy since the 1930s in Peru, radioing ship locations to U-boats waiting offshore while working for a German communications company. He was living a cushy life while helping the German war cause. As he later said:
“We were fighting our war in dinner jackets and with cocktail glasses in our hands”
– Erich Gimpel
Gimpel was eventually caught in Peru and deported to Texas, where he was interned for a while, before being sent back to Germany now able to speak English with only a hint of an accent.
He trained in espionage, including microdot photographs, radios, jujitsu, and firearms. He was assigned the code name of Agent 146.
The other spy, William Colepaugh, was a far less accomplished, weak-chinned polio survivor from Connecticut. His mother’s parents were German immigrants, and for some reason, his mother clung strongly to those roots. She and raised Colepaugh to love Germany, often listening to loud German broadcasts on the short-wave radio. As the Nazis gained power, his mother became infatuated with Hitler and young William even hung a framed photograph of Hitler on his bedroom wall.
“Call me Wilhelm” – The spy-to-be William Colepaugh told friends and neighbors.
His mother sent him to the Admiral Farragut Academy in New Jersey, then he went on to M.I.T. where he flunked out. He ended up working in a German bar in Boston, where he befriended many Germans and spent a lot of time on an interned German oil tanker. He made friends at the Germany consulate where he even attended a Hitler birthday party celebration. His activities attracted the attention of the FBI and they opened a file on him.
Rejection Leads to Defection
Colepaugh was arrested in 1942 for dodging the draft, but avoided jail time by enlisting in the Navy. He was discharged in 1943 because they (rightfully) had suspicions that he was pro-German. He then joined the Merchant Marines as a mess boy so that he could get a free ride to Europe where he bailed out in Portugal. He headed to the German consulate, renounced his US citizenship, and declared that wanted to join the German Army.
The connections he made in Boston eventually got him into the consulate in Berlin. After being interrogated and watched for 3 months, he was sent to several spy and saboteur schools where he met future partner Gimpel. The men studied radio operations, photography and explosives. The Nazis were not particularly fond of Colepaugh and actually viewed him as a liability. But they were able to look past his weaknesses because he could easily and safely travel in America. They gave him a fake name, William Caldwell, and fake papers to go with the name. Erich Gimpel was to be known as Edward Green.
Let’s Sail to Maine
After finishing training in the Netherlands, the pair boarded U-1230 on September 22, 1944 bound for Maine. The U-1230 was a 252-foot, IXC/40-class submarine with a crew of 56. The landing spot chosen was Hancock Point, Maine, just North of Mt. Desert Island, because of its deep water and remote location.
After a 5 week voyage, they reached Frenchman’s Bay. Due to the heightened defensive patrols, and rumors that another U-boat had been recently captured nearby, the U-1230 laid on the floor of the Gulf of Maine for 8 long days, waiting for a chance. The radio operator on U-1230 remarked that Colepaugh was “exceptionally nervous and frightened.” Finally, on the snowy night of November 29, 1944, the sub made its way up near Sunset Point on the West side of Hancock Point and surfaced 200 yards offshore. A rubber dinghy was inflated and Colepaugh and Gimpel were rowed ashore by two sailors. Supposedly, when they approached the shore, a dog started barking and they got spooked. So they rowed back to the submarine to get sausages to distract the dog.
They returned to the rocky beach and hopped out of the raft around 11pm. The two sailors, in full uniform, threw a “Heil Hitler” salute on the beach so they could brag to their buddies on the sub. Colepaugh and Gimpel made their way off the beach to a road and walked 5 miles to Route 1. Along the way, they were spotted by two drivers, who thought they were out of place as they were wearing “city clothing,” were not wearing hats, and were carrying suitcases through the snow.
One of the locals who spotted them was Mary Forni, a local housewife, who was on her way home from playing cards at a friend’s house on Hancock Point. The other was a 17 year old Boy Scout who was driving back from a dance. He thought it was odd enough that he doubled back and followed their footsteps in the snow down to the beach.
“They just weren’t like normal Mainers in November,” Forni said in 2001. “You just never saw anybody walking without boots when it was snowy like that. It’s a wonder I didn’t stop and offer them a ride.”
When she got home, Mary Forni called a friend who was the wife of Sheriff’s Deputy Dana Hodgkins. It turns out that the Hodgkins’ son, Harvard, was the Boy Scout who had seen the pair walking towards Route 1 and tracked their footprints. The Deputy was off on a hunting trip, so wasn’t able to follow up on these reports for a few days (at which point he contacted the FBI). By then, the spies were long gone.
In a remarkable stroke of good luck, a cab from Ellsworth returning from dropping off a fare on Hancock Point happened upon the spies and agreed to drive them to Bangor for $6. From Bangor, they took a 2am train to Portland, grabbed a breakfast of ham and eggs, then boarded a 7am train to Boston. In Boston, they bought some “American clothes” and slept wearing them to try to make them look not so new. The following morning, they took a train to New York City and arrived at Grand Central Station.
The Big Apple
Once the duo got to New York City, they found and rented a studio apartment on Beekman Place overlooking the East River. They unloaded their suitcases which contained fake IDs and draft cards, $60,000 in cash (about $1M in 2021), 99 diamonds as “backup”, two .32 caliber Colt automatic pistols, a Leica camera with a special lens for document copying, two Krahl wristwatches, secret inks and developers, and microdots that contained radio schematics and transmission schedules as well as mail drop addresses. Microdots were popular among spies at the time as they were used to imprint text on special dots that were only 1mm in diameter and could be attached to anything. The problem is that they had left the special magnifier they needed to read the microdots on the submarine because it was heavy.
They immediately set out to find the parts that Agent Gimpel needed to build his short-wave radio.
Party Like It’s 1944.
The two spies had a lot of trouble focusing on the mission in the City that never sleeps. They had a huge pile of cash and New York City provided many ways to spend it. They started going to movies, eating in fancy restaurants, and going to nightclubs. Colepaugh enthusiastically embraced New York City and basically refused to help Gimpel. Instead, he spent his time, and lots of money, picking up women for trysts at hotels. In his memoir, Gimpel said this of Colepaugh:
“He was one of the thirstiest and most accomplished drinkers I have ever met.”
When Gimpel tried to pressure him, Colepaugh took the majority of the cash and checked into a different hotel on December 21st. A couple of days later, Colepaugh panicked and realized that if he was caught, he’d be convicted of treason and executed. Hoping to avoid the latter, he contacted an old schoolmate named Edmund Mulcahy and asked his advice. Mulcahy advised him to give himself up and made initial contact with the FBI on Colepaugh’s behalf.
On December 26th, FBI agents picked up Colepaugh at Mulcahy’s house in Queens. It turns out that the FBI had already been searching for two German agents because of the two sightings on Hancock Point and the fact that the U-boat that dropped them off in Maine immediately sunk a Canadian ship (which indicated a submarine was operating close to shore). The Boston FBI had sent agents to Hancock Point to investigate and learned what they could.
During interrogation, Colepaugh told agents that Gimpel liked to buy newspapers from a certain newsstand so they staked it out for a few days and were able to grab him on December 30th.
The pair were interrogated separately for three weeks. The official Navy report stated “Prisoner GIMPEL is a very difficult subject for interrogation. He was a professional German espionage agent, thoroughly indoctrinated in security. He believes that the death penalty awaits him and that nothing he can do will mitigate his sentence. He was untruthful on several occasions with his interrogators and told them only what he believed they already knew. His statements are of very little value.
Prisoner COLEPAUGH’s statements are much more valuable. He is a somewhat unstable New Englander but impressed his interrogators as attempting to tell the truth. He is intelligent, very observant, and has an extraordinary visual memory for details. His attitude toward the interrogators was friendly and cooperative. He was always careful to distinguish between eye witness evidence and hearsay. The interrogators were under the impression that his helpfulness was inspired by the hope of escaping the death penalty.”
They faced a military tribunal in January and both were convicted of espionage and sentenced to death. After the war ended, President Truman lowered the sentences to life imprisonment. Gimpel was sent to Alcatraz, paroled in 1955, and went back to Germany.
Gimpel decided to capitalize on this sensational story by writing a book about his experiences entitled Agent 146. It was adapted for a west German film with the same name in 1956. He ended up living to be 100 years old and died in Brazil. By all accounts, his book (and the movie) differed considerably from what actually transpired.
Gimpel claimed the true mission was to uncover information about the Manhattan Project
Colepaugh was sent to Leavenworth, Kansas to serve his time. After he was paroled in 1960, Colepaugh moved to King of Prussia, Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia. He worked hard to keep his treasonous past a secret and declined every interview request until he died. He managed to live a normal suburban life in King of Prussia. He got married, ran a business, drove a Mercedes, volunteered with the Boy Scouts, and was an honored member of Rotary. He died in 2005, afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
The Boy Scout, Harvard Hodgkins, who had spotted the spies on Hancock Point, got his moment of fame. He and his family were flown to New York City by the New York Journal-American, where he was met at the airport by 75 fellow Boy Scouts. He was taken to Broadway shows, met Babe Ruth and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, and given the key to the city. He was later given a full scholarship to Maine Maritime Academy. In later years, he owned and operated Tidal Falls Lobster Pound in Hancock.
Here is a link to a newsreel video at Getty Images produced in a very 1940s way.
And here is a link to an episode of “War Stories with Oliver North” about the story.