60th Anniversary of Landing
Nazi Spies at Hancock Point Recalled Anew by Local Author

 By Jonathan Levitt

HANCOCK — On a snowy November night in 1944 more than just seaweed and driftwood washed up on the western shore of Crabtree Neck.

Last Friday the Hancock Historical Society celebrated its 25th anniversary with a talk by Bar Harbor native Richard Gay about the night 60 years ago when Nazi spies landed at sunset ledge on Hancock Point.

The spies, William Colepaugh and Erich Gimpel, were found with handguns, diamonds and $60,000 in cash.

Images courtesy of Richard Gay

Gay, a Blue Hill resident, and former CIA covert operative, has co-authored the book, “They Came to Destroy America: The FBI Goes to War Against Nazi Spies and Saboteurs Before and During World War II.”

Gay, along with the New England chapter of AFIO, an association of former intelligence officers, has been involved in an effort to establish a commemorative information plaque to explain the landing. The plaque would be displayed somewhere on Mount Desert Island.

For his proposal to the National Park Service, Gay researched the minutiae of the spy landing, determined to get all of the facts straight. He read FBI and U.S. Navy accounts of the event, checked the history books, and talked to Hancock residents. After much research, he wasn’t satisfied that people knew the truth about the landing.

According to Gay, “the widely accepted version of the story was that the German spies were caught when they came ashore, caught because they stood out in their city clothes.”

Gay said he realized that the way the men were dressed had nothing to do with them being caught.

He said he also had a suspicion that contrary to what had been reported, the spies were not merely on a mission to gather intelligence. Gay identified the Nazi agents not just as spies but as saboteurs with sinister objectives.

“As a spy you learn about wars and rumors of wars,” he said. “You come to believe in rumors. I believe in rumors because I was a rumor. For much of my life, I was nothing but a rumor.”

Dissatisfied with the accuracy of the accepted story, Gay went right to the source. He tracked down and contacted the Nazi spies.

At Friday’s event Gay outlined the most up–to-date version of the story for Hancock residents.

According to Gay, on Nov. 29, 1944, submarine U1230 cruised into Frenchman’s Bay to drop off secret agents on Operation Elster (German for magpie), a mission to sabotage the Manhattan Project.

Just after 10 p.m., the spies, William Colepaugh and Erich Gimpel, were rowed to shore by submarine crewmembers and left on the sandy beach with handguns, diamonds and $60,000 in U.S. cash.

Colepaugh, from Niantic, Conn., was an American defector who had flunked out of MIT. His role in Operation Elster was as an access agent, a guide for chief agent Gimpel.

The men, dressed in city clothes, walked 4.5 miles from the shore to Route 1. If they had been stopped and questioned, they were prepared with a cover story about their broken down car.

Between the shore and Route 1, the spies were twice spotted by Hancock residents. First by Harvard Hodgkins, a 17-year-old high school senior on his way home from a dance, and later by a housewife named Mary Forni.

When the spies reached Route 1, they rested by an old watering trough and were eventually offered a ride to Bangor in a taxicab on its way back from the Navy base in Winter Harbor. In Bangor, they caught a train to Boston and then to New York City. 

Gimpel and Colepaugh were sent to New York to rendezvous with other German agents. There was a newsstand near Times Square where they would exchange information.

The spies were there only a month when Colepaugh walked off with the cash, diamonds and guns. He went to the FBI cooking up a phony double-agent story to give up Gimpel. The FBI didn’t buy the double agent part, but it did stakeout the magazine stand and eventually caught Gimpel.

Both men were sentenced to death but were pardoned at the last minute when President Roosevelt died in office. Colepaugh served 15 years in Leavenworth. Gimpel served 10 years in Attica, was repatriated, married a Bavarian model and settled somewhere in South America. Gay maintains a pen-pal relationship with Gimpel and considers him a good friend.

The National Park Service denied Gay’s request for a plaque inside the park. According to Gay, “the Park Service deemed the spy landing an important historical event ,not an important part of Acadia’s history.”

Gay is still looking for a suitable location for his plaque and informational panel. Bar Harbor is his first choice.

This winter, Gay will release another book related to events surrounding the Nazi spy landing on Hancock Point. According to Gay, the new book, still untitled, is “pretty hot stuff.”

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