HANCOCK — On a
snowy November night in 1944 more than just
seaweed and driftwood washed up on the western
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.
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.
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
“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.”
with the accuracy of the accepted story, Gay
went right to the source. He tracked down and
contacted the Nazi spies.
event Gay outlined the most up–to-date version
of the story for Hancock residents.
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.
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.
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
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.
Colepaugh were sent to New York to rendezvous
with other German agents. There was a newsstand
near Times Square where they would exchange
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
America. Gay maintains a pen-pal relationship
with Gimpel and considers him a good friend.
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
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.”