William Colepaugh

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William Colepaugh : biography

March 25, 1918 – March 16, 2005

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.

Secret agent

Colepaugh was given extensive firearms and espionage training at a spy-school in the German-occupied Hague. He spoke virtually no German. With the German agent Erich Gimpel, he was transported back to the USA by the U-boat 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, visiting an old schoolfriend and asking to turn himself in to the FBI, which 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;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 Colepaugh was paroled in 1960.

Last years

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.

Gimpel and Colepaugh are believed to have been the last German spies in World War II who reached the United States.