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Defected to Germany in World War II
March 25, 1918|
|Died||March 16, 2005
|Occupation||Able seaman, secret agent|
|Parent(s)||William C. and Havel G. (Schmidt) Colepaugh|
William Curtis Colepaugh (March 25, 1918 – March 16, 2005) was an American who, following his 1943 discharge from the US Naval Reserve ("for the good of the service", according to official reports), defected to Nazi Germany in 1944. While a crewman on a United States Merchant Marine ship that stopped off in Lisbon, Colepaugh defected at the German consulate. Colepaugh had attended Admiral Farragut Academy in Pine Beach, New Jersey.
Colepaugh was given extensive firearms and espionage training at a spy-school in the German-occupied Den Haag. He spoke virtually no German. With the German agent Erich Gimpel, he was transported back to the USA by the U-1230, landing at Hancock Point in the Gulf of Maine on 29 November 1944. Their mission, Operation Elster, was to gather technical information on the Allied war effort and transmit it back to Germany using a radio they were expected to build.
Together Colepaugh and Gimpel made their way to Boston and then by train to New York. Before long Colepaugh abandoned the mission, taking US$48,000 ($653,000 today) of the currency they had brought and spending a month partying and carousing with local women. After spending $1,500 ($20,400 today) in less than a month, Colepaugh visited an old schoolfriend and asked for help to turn himself in to the FBI, hoping for immunity. The FBI was already searching for the two German agents following the sinking of a Canadian ship a few miles from the Maine coastline (indicating a U-boat had been nearby) and reports of suspicious sightings by local residents. The FBI interrogated Colepaugh, which then enabled them to track down Gimpel.
After their capture, the pair were handed over to US military authorities on the instructions of the Attorney General. In February 1945 they stood trial before a Military Commission, accused of conspiracy and violating the 82nd Article of War. They were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, although this was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment by President Harry Truman. Gimpel was paroled in 1955; Colepaugh was paroled in 1960.
After his release, Colepaugh moved to King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, where he worked in a print shop. He subsequently owned and operated a retail business that sold lockers, desks and other metal office products he had learned to build in prison. He married and participated in community activities, volunteered with the Boy Scouts and became a member of Rotary. He died of complications from Alzheimer's Disease in 2005.
- Willing, Richard (February 27, 2002). "The Nazi spy next door". USA Today. Retrieved March 11, 2011.
- Gimpel, Erich Agent 146; the true story of a Nazi spy in America. St. Martin's Press, 2002; reprint of "Spion für Deutschland," 1957. Page 165. ISBN 0-312-30797-7
- Miller, Robert A. A True story of An American Nazi Spy: William Curtis Colepaugh. Trafford Publishing Co., 2013, pp. 228, 313. ISBN 1-466-98219-5
- Article on Colepaugh and Gimpel at fas.org
- Allied report on the interrogation of Colepaugh and Gimpel at ibiblio.org
- Contains a report on Colepaugh and Gimpel at navy.mil
- On A Dark and Stormy Night (dead link Nov. 18, 2016)
- 1944: When spies came to Maine at mainetoday.com
- CRS Report for Congress "Military Tribunals: The Quirin Precedent," March 26, 2002
- G-Men Grab Two Nazi Spies