4. It was a cold and snowy night… November, 2015
This story has many beginnings: a high school dance, a card game, but I am going to start it in Nazi Germany in 1944.
Joachim von Ribbentrop, Germany’s Foreign Minister, was seeking ways to learn more about America. In particular, he wanted to know how German propaganda was being received. Toward that end, he turned to the Schutzstaffel (the infamous SS) which, in turn, selected a German citizen, Erich Gimpel (alias Edward George Green) and an American defector, William Curtis Colepaugh, for a spy mission.
Gimpel, born March 25, 1910, had served as a radio engineer for seven years in South America before being tapped for service as a spy and saboteur. William Curtis Colepaugh (alias William C. Caldwell) was a disillusioned American, (born in Connecticut in 1918), who had dropped out of MIT after three years, had briefly served in the US Navy (before being honorably discharged on suspicion of German sympathies). He then joined the Merchant Marine, sailed to Lisbon, Portugal where he jumped ship and presented himself for duty at the German Consulate.
Following special training at The Hague, the cool German professional and the eager American amateur had an assignment, code name: Untermehmen Elster (or “Operation Magpie”). Originally intended to gather information gauging the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda in the United States, the objective was later widened to include the gathering of technical engineering information, generally from public sources. Of particular interest was intelligence on shipyards, airplane factories, and rocket-testing facilities.
Gimpel and Colepaugh were to sail from Kiel, Germany aboard a German submarine bound for the east coast of the U.S. where they would be secreted ashore.
To set some context: in 1944 the war in Europe was beginning to shift in favor of the Allies:
_ Allied troops landed in Anzio in January and freed Rome on
_ The invasion of Normandy took place on June 6th and by late
July the Allies had broken out of the beachhead and were racing toward Paris.
_ On June 22nd the Russians launched a massive counter-
offensive in eastern Belarus.
_ Allied forces landed in southern France on August 14 near
Nice and advanced rapidly to the northeast.
You get the idea: not a good time to be wearing a swastika.
That was the state of the war as Gimpel and Colepaugh’s submarine, U-1230, slipped out of Kiel harbor on September 24, 1944 and laid quietly on the ocean floor just outside the harbor (perhaps testing systems?). On Sept 26 she then headed for Horten, Norway where she arrived at about 7:00am on the 27th. There additional tests were run. On Oct 3, she sailed to Kristianand, arriving early the following morning. On October 6, she headed out into the north Atlantic, separated from her escort, submerged and set course for the banks of Newfoundland. She made the crossing typically submerged but for four to six hours spent on the surface each night. Averaging only 6 knots, it was a long (five week) crossing.
As they approached Newfoundland U-1230 began running entirely submerged, (except for “Schnorcheling”, i.e. snorkeling), to recharge batteries. They acquired the banks of Newfoundland on Nov. 20.
From there they headed due south for Sable Island, from which they headed west for the Nova Scotia light. Not being able to spot the light the Captain surfaced to take bearings — in this case from commercial radio stations — only to find that they were just south of Mt. Desert Rock, to which they proceeded.
For the next six days the crew worked on ship repairs. (The humidity of the long, largely submerged, crossing had damaged many of the electronics). They would schnorchel at night and lay on the bottom, (in about 100 meters of water), during the day. In particular, they were paying close attention to tides and currents which would be critical for their landing.
On the evening of November 29, (71 years ago today), U-1230 rose to periscope depth and headed into Frenchman Bay entering between Porcupine and Ironbound Islands.
At approximately 10:30 pm, she was a few hundred yards off shore. She surfaced with her decks awash. An rubber raft was brought up and inflated. Gimpel and Colepaugh, dressed in civilian cloths — (light “trench coat, fedoras, suitcase) — boarded the small craft; two uniformed members of the ship’s crew rowed them ashore. They landed at: 44°28′25″N 68°14′41″W — a finger of rock known to locals as “Sunset Ledge”, protruding westward into the Bay.
[Digression: if you call up Google Maps and enter those coordinates your little red pin will drop on the western shore of Crabtree Neck. Move in closer and you will see West Shore Road tracing the western coast, past Bragg Lane and Adleman Way. Switch to satellite (What a wonder!), and move closer still: a right-angled house will appear, next to it a separate garage by the drive, and curving paths to the shore. Whose house is that? OURS!!! Indeed, 44°28′25″N 68°14′41″W puts you just off our southern pocket beach where you can see, to the north the inviting rocks.
The house, garage, paths, etc. were obviously not there in 1944 (when I would have been about two and a half year’s old).
There is a puzzlement in this. Locals, myself included, associate Sunset Ledge with the rocks at the northern end of our northern pocket beach (also visible on the Google satellite photo), which would be our neighbor’s ledge, not ours. But I ask you? Would Germans lie? Would they get their coordinates wrong? Pardon my self-centered digression. Back to our story.]
The two uniformed crew members handed Gimpel and Colepaugh their luggage, stood on the shore themselves to give a “Heil Hitler” salute (just so they could later brag that they had), and returned to the waiting sub.
Gimpel and Colepaugh were on their own.
Well, not entirely. The SS had provided them with two loaded revolvers, forged birth and draft certificates, secret inks as well as $60,000 in small bills (almost $700,000 today) and 99 small diamonds to sell if the US currency had changed by the time they arrived or if they eventually needed additional funds. Clearly, the Germans had made a major investment in this mission — in addition to committing a submarine and crew.
The two spies set off through the woods to the Point Road and proceeded to walk north approximately four and a half miles to US Route 1.
Enter the high school dance: seventeen year-old, Boy Scout, Harvard Hopkins (Is that a great name or what!) was driving home from a high school dance when he spotted two strange men walking through the night’s snow who were obviously “not from around here”, i.e. city-garb, suitcases and most-telling-of-all: topcoats! Shortly thereafter Harvard’s neighbor, Mary Forni was driving home from a card game and saw them as well. (More on this later.)
After they reached US Route 1 the spies hailed a cab!!! Yes, a cab at what must have been about midnight on a cold and snowy night in late November in rural Maine. If you were to attempt that today, i.e. stand by US Route 1 at the junction with the Point Road and wait for a cab you might be there for the better part of a day, but they hailed a cab! How is that possible?
This was war time. Navy officers on their way back to their Winter Harbor base, (about fifteen miles farther east on Route 1), had just occupied the seats of the returning cab that would soon pick up the German spies and, in exchange for $6.00, take them to Bangor. From Bangor the spies caught a 2:00am train to Portland (Alas, we have no such train service from Bangor today.)
Think of that:
_ landing in a rubber raft at approximately 10:30 pm,
_ a four and a half mile walk, securing a cab,
_ driving to Bangor (probably 90 minutes then)
_ and catching a 2:00am train!!!
Talk about a string of serendipity.
A 7:00am train took the spies from Portland to Boston where Gimpel attempted to buy a tie. (Upon subsequent interrogation by the FBI the salesman said he had recognized the cloth and cut of Gimpel’s trench coat as not being American.)
The next day they trained on to Grand Central Station and the Big Apple.
Meanwhile things were “moving on” in Maine. U-1230, was once again lying low off the Maine coast. Two days after dropping off Gimpel and Colepaugh the German sub sighted and sank a 5,548-ton Canadian freighter, the Cornwallis, (once again a looser — think Yorktown.), carrying sugar and molasses from Barbados to St. John, New Brunswick.
Alarmed by the possibility that this U-boat might have dropped off enemy agents, the Boston FBI office sent men north to Maine to investigate. The agents soon located 29-year-old Mary Forni and her next-door neighbor, 17-year-old Harvard Hodgkins, the two Hancock residents who had driven past the spies walking in the snow.
When interviewed Mary explained that,
“They stood out like sore thumbs because they were so overdressed,” she said. “We knew everybody in town, and these strange fellows you couldn’t help but notice with their expensive looking topcoats, fedoras, and attache’ case. They didn’t have that Down East look. It was much like Wall Street.”
Mary then proceeded to throw her husband under the bus, “When I arrived home, I described the sighting to my husband, Dante. He told me not to be so nosy.” But, ignoring the noseless gentleman (as Maine wives often do), Mary alerted the deputy sheriff, Dana Hodgkins, the next day. The FBI was called in and interviewed her. Given Mary’s description the spies tracks were followed back to where they left the road and then through the woods to the landing site.
It is not known what Harvard Hodgkins said to the FBI, but there is no truth to the persistent rumors that he asked if there might be a merit badge in it for him.
In any event, the hunt was on.
It is not clear that Eliot Ness and the boys could have found the spies had if not been that Colepaugh decided to give up spying and abscond with the money-stuffed suitcases. Not being from Maine, and having a male need to brag, he ran into an old friend and introduced himself as a spy. Not smart! The FBI was alerted; Colepaugh was taken into custody and sang like a canary; Gimpel, (still in New York), was arrested on December 30.
Indications were that the-Newly arrived pair had not yet effected any sabotage. Since landing on American soil on Nov. 29 they were said to have been making a round of New York City’s night clubs and bars in an effort to get information which they planned to transmit to Germany by short wave radio. When seized they had $56,574 left of the $60,000 -provided them by the German government.
Our tale is not yet over.
The Office of Naval Operations described Gimpel as follows:
“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.”
Of Colepaugh they write:
“Prisoner COLEPAUGH’s statements are much more valuable. He is a somewhat unstable New Englander [almost a contradiction in terms], 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.”
You can read the account of Gimpel and Colepaugh’s interrogation at http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/rep/U-1230/index.html.
In early February 1945, Gimpel and Colepaugh were tried by a military court at Fort Jay on Governors Island, New York. They were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging on Valentine’s Day. Before their sentence was carried out, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died, and all federal executions were suspended for four weeks. (Isn’t that quaint!) By the time that month was up, the war had ended in Europe. On June 23, the new president, Harry S. Truman, announced that he was commuting the two sentences to life in prison — Gimpel’s because the United States and Germany were no longer at war, and Colepaugh’s because he had given himself up and provided the FBI with the information needed to arrest Gimpel.
Colepaugh served 17 years in prison, then moved to the Philadelphia area where he operated a business in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania before he retired to Florida.
Gimpel served 10 years at Leavenworth, Alcatraz, and Atlanta before he was released and deported to Germany in 1955. He later moved to Brazil, where he celebrated his 94th birthday in 2004.
Forni continued to live in the Hancock area and was one of the guests of honor at a June 2005 party to celebrate the 90th birthday of some local residents. Sixty years earlier, she had been honored at another local party; shortly after the spy incident, when her friends organized an event to honor her for her role in providing information that helped capture Gimpel and Colepaugh and to present her with a $100 war bond.
Americans ate up the story of Hodgkins, the Hancock Boy Scout. (We were just as shallow then as we are now.) The New York Journal-American sponsored the high school senior’s first ride in an airplane, bringing him and his family to New York for a week in January 1945, where he was given a key to the city. He saw the Statue of Liberty, Radio City Music Hall, and some Broadway shows, and met Governor Thomas Dewey, boxing champion Joe Louis, and Babe Ruth. After he graduated from Ellsworth High School, Hodgkins received a full scholarship to the Maine Maritime Academy for his anti-spy efforts. He died in May 1984.
So, other than the pleasure of telling a good story, why do I share this essay with you? First because it reminds me that history is all around us. Second, because that history can often provide context and perspective. At a time when Chicken Little’s are seeing enemy agents behind every Syrian refugee it might be wise to remember that real enemy agents have walked among us before — and that they were frustrated by a card-playing Maine housewife and a 17 year-old Boy Scout.
Compiled with some help from the internet.