You never really know your neighbors. The couple with the nice lawn might be about to lose everything because of gambling debts. Or the guy next door in the King of Prussia Rotary might be an ex-Nazi spy.
Such was the case for William C. Colepaugh, an American who made his way to Germany in 1944, trained in espionage with the Schutzstaffel (SS) and, with orders to learn what he could about the Manhattan Project, landed on the coast of Maine from a U-boat. Once in U.S. custody, his treatment set legal precedents later used during the so-called War on Terror.
“I was curious as to what he did for a living when he was younger and specifically what he did during World War II,” recalled historian Robert Miller, who knew Colepaugh through the Rotary and later wrote a posthumous account of his friend’s World War II experience. “He would never answer these questions directly, like Prof. Harold Hill avoiding the townsmen’s questions about his credentials in The Music Man: Change the subject and move on.”
Born in Niantic, Conn., Colepaugh was the son of William Colepaugh and Havel Schmidt, the latter the daughter of German immigrants. Though she’d never lived in Germany, Havel clung fiercely to her heritage. One neighbor later recalled “an enormous shortwave radio spouting German, and [Colepaugh’s] mother was German and influenced him.”
The Colepaughs came to Niantic around 1900, when Colepaugh’s paternal grandparents acquired a hotel in the summer community of Black Point. The hotel was sold when Colepaugh was an infant, but the family stayed on. His father sold fish and did odd jobs, while his mother cleaned houses.
Black Point was an odd place to raise a child. The families that visited were of another class and didn’t welcome the Colepaughs into their circle.
A 1945 article in Life described “Willie” Colepaugh’s social isolation: “In the late summer afternoons, the summer boys would taper off the day’s activities with a game of croquet. It was usually then that Willie would appear and pick up a mallet and make aimless shots about the wickets, waiting to be invited into the game. He rarely was. After a while, he went away.”
Colepaugh contracted polio. By the time he returned to school, he was two years older than his classmates and socially out of sync. After Colepaugh’s father died when he was 9, he and a sister spent much of their time alone with their mother.
“There was a great deal of German heritage in that household,” wrote Miller. Several neighbors remembered Havel as a scary character. “My mother was terrified of her,” recalled Jane Caulkins. “When our family bought the Colepaugh home back in the early 1950s, she was scared to death the woman would someday come back to haunt the place.”
In the 1930s, nostalgia for Germany became admiration for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, who Colepaugh’s mother thought were doing great things for Germany. He had a framed photograph of Hitler on his bedroom wall, and he kept a scrapbook filled with photos of German soldiers and Nazi leaders. “Call me Wilhelm,” he told friends and neighbors.
But that wasn’t unusual at the time. After all, more Americans claim German ancestry than any other ethnicity. Before World War II, they expressed it through groups like the German-American Bund or the Philadelphia-based German Society of Pennsylvania. Before the war, domestic fascists used such groups for propaganda.
In 1935, dissatisfied with the education Colepaugh was receiving at the local high school in New London, his mother enrolled him at the Admiral Farragut Academy in Tom’s River, N.J. In that military-style prep school, the teen found other fans of the “new Germany” and its modern mechanized army.
Colepaugh addressed one friend there as “Major, F.R.A. (Fascist Revolutionary Army).” And he, in turn, called Colepaugh “Herr Major.”
None of Colepaugh’s friends carried their admiration for Germany into action. Most served honorably in the U.S. military during World War II.
After graduating from Farragut in 1938, Colepaugh went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study naval architecture and marine engineering. He flunked out, but he did make some fateful contacts.
Working part-time at a Boston boat yard, Colepaugh began hanging out at a German-themed waterfront bar. The place was full of Germans, including crewman from the Pauline Friederich, a German oil tanker interned at Boston. They took Colepaugh back to their ship—more than 20 times, according to a customs log—and introduced him to officials at the German consulate. Alerted by customs officials, the FBI opened a file on Colepaugh.
In the summer of 1940, Colepaugh took several ship officers and consular officials home to Niantic to meet his mother. In April 1941, he attended a birthday party for Hitler at the Boston consulate. “Soon, the confidential FBI investigation spilled over to many of [Colepaugh’s] friends and acquaintances, and all of his known relatives,” wrote Miller. “Several of Bill’s neighbors and friends in Niantic became FBI informants.”
Colepaugh joined the merchant marine but failed to notify his draft board, so he was arrested when his ship docked in Philadelphia in 1942. Told charges would be dropped if he enlisted, he joined the Naval Reserve. He was discharged after four months for Nazi sympathies and doubtful loyalty. In January 1944, he told his draft board that he was rejoining the merchant marine and sailed as a mess boy on the S.S. Gripsholm for Lisbon, Portugal, intending to jump ship on arrival.
With a reference from Germany’s Boston consul, Colepaugh got into Germany easily. From the German embassy at Lisbon, Colepaugh told interrogators that he wanted to join the German army. Turned over to a Gestapo agent in Berlin, he was sent to the Hague, Netherlands, where German intelligence ran a school for spies.
There, Colepaugh learned how to develop film, write with secret inks, use code books and explosives, and build a radio. He also learned telegraphy and how to fire pistols, rifles and submachine guns with either hand.
Colepaugh was given a fake name—William Caldwell—and forged documents, and he was paired with a partner, Erich Gimpel. Having reached Germany, he would return home.
“Colepaugh soon learned that Gimpel was a person of importance in the security service,” wrote historian Robert Breitenbach. “Gimpel told Colepaugh that, after their radio had been set up in the United States, he would like to bring German saboteurs to America.”
By November, Colepaugh and Gimpel were off to Bar Harbor, Maine, aboard the submarine U-1230, whose radio operator later recalled the American as “exceptionally nervous and frightened.” After threading its way into Frenchman’s Bay, U-1230 surfaced long enough to put the two men, dressed in suits and topcoats, ashore in a rubber boat in the cover of night.
Gimpel and Colepaugh carried $60,000 in U.S. currency, intended to support them for two years. A few local residents later reported two men who didn’t look like locals near the beach. By the time these reports reached the FBI, Colepaugh and Gimpel were long gone.
The mission accomplished nothing. The men caught a train to Boston and then New York, where they rented an apartment. There, Gimpel began building a radio while Colepaugh prowled bars and picked up women. Disgusted, Gimpel suggested they divide the cash and go their separate ways.
“This got Bill’s attention,” wrote Miller. “He stopped fooling around for several days, staying close to Gimpel.”
When an opportunity arose, Colepaugh attempted to grab the money for himself and ditch the German. It worked out the other way around, and Colepaugh found himself alone in New York, penniless and with the FBI aware that he’d jumped ship in Lisbon and gone to the German embassy. Out of options, he turned himself in. With the information Colepaugh provided, the FBI soon had Gimpel, too.
Initially sentenced to death, Colepaugh and Gimpel’s sentences were postponed by the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then commuted to life by Harry S. Truman. Gimpel was paroled in 1955 and deported. When Colepaugh was paroled in 1960, he landed in King of Prussia, where he designed, built and sold steel lockers and office furniture. From a $65 unit at the Kingwood Apartments, he later moved up to a small rancher on Holstein Drive, married and drove a Mercedes. In 1990, he won the local rotary’s first-ever distinguished service award.
“Things would have been different had I known that,” said a former colleague when he learned Colepaugh’s story.
Then again, how many of us really know our neighbors?