It’s a story that has been retold many times over the last 70 years, but it’s worth revisiting.
In late November of 1944, a German U-boat (U-1230) with nearly 60 enemy Nazis on-board lurked underwater near the entrance of Frenchman Bay for more than a week, according to an account published in the magazine “America in WWII.”
There they waited patiently as Maine fishing boats routinely passed overhead, seeking just the right moment to deploy a pair of spies to shore for their last best chance at invading America and reclaiming momentum in the second Great War.
About four months earlier, a previous attempt to use Maine as an entry point for a German agent failed spectacularly. The U-1229 was discovered by aircraft patrolling from the nearby carrier USS Bogue while surfaced, and the U-boat was sunk off the coast of Maine.
Would-be German spy Oskar Mantel was among the 40-someodd survivors of the wreck and was apprehended as an Abwehr agent.
The Nazis aboard U-1230 found the opportunity they were looking for during a snowstorm on Nov. 29. By their logic, the time and location made perfect sense — the area was sparsely populated and a snowstorm might convince the few people around to bundle up indoors for the night.
The spies, who hoped to make their way to New York City and gather intelligence about the American war effort, rowed an inflated raft to shore and trudged up through the Hancock woods to Route 1 during the late night hours.
Once there, they were noticed by local woman Mary Forni, 29 at the time, who was driving by on her way home from an evening card game.
The aspiring saboteurs underestimated Mainers’ abilities to shrug off snowstorms. And because it was such a small town — only about 750 people lived there at the time — new people stuck out like a sore thumb.
“They just weren’t like normal Mainers in November,” Forni would later tell the Bangor Daily News. “You just never saw anybody walking without boots when it was snowy like that. It’s a wonder I didn’t stop and offer them a ride.”
One such Mainer in boots — 17-year-old Boy Scout Harvard Hodgkins — saw the two strangers while returning home from a local dance.
“They seemed like young men,” Hodgkins said a few weeks after the incident, according to the New York Times. “But the thing that struck me as funny was the fact that they had such light clothes. No one around here wears a topcoat in the winter, and least of all on a night like that one.
“Everybody up here has been thinking about spies landing along the coast, and I got to thinking those two men might be up to some funny business,” he continued. “So when I saw the tracks in the woods, I stopped the car and walked in a little way. They led right down to the shore where the sea was pounding in.”
Both witnesses would report the suspicious activity to Hodgkins’ mother, and when his father, a deputy sheriff, learned of it, word quickly spread to the FBI.
“The truth is that Mary Forni and Harvard Hodgkins sounded the alarm that the Germans had landed, and it was their alert that launched the FBI dragnet,” said Richard Gay, a retired government agent who wrote two books about the incident. “They are New England patriots — no less than Paul Revere — and deserve full credit for their place in Maine and U.S. history.”
Federal agents ultimately tracked down the Nazi spies — American defector William Colepaugh and secret agent Erich Gimpel — in New York City about a month later.
The ambitious Unternehmen Elster, or Operation Magpie in English, was a failure.
Germany surrendered less than five months later, in May of 1945.
While Colepaugh and Gimpel were initially sentenced to death by a U.S. military commission, but had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment by President Harry Truman.
Hodgkins was given a full scholarship to the Maine Maritime Academy, reportedly became the youngest chief engineer in the Merchant Marines and later returned to Hancock to operate his own lobster pound. He passed away in 1984 at the age of 57.
Colepaugh, who was paroled in 1960, moved to Pennsylvania, becoming an active member of his community and, interestingly enough, volunteered with the local Boy Scouts, according to a USA Today profile. He died in 2005 from complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
“Bill and his wife are nothing but fine and upstanding people, and you’d be hard pressed here to find anyone who thinks otherwise,” Grover Emrich, who served in the local Rotary club alongside Colepaugh, told USA Today. “The idea of [him sentenced to] prison would be pretty unbelievable.”
Forni lived until the age of 91, passing away about a year after Colepaugh, in 2006.
Gimpel was paroled in 1955 and returned to West Germany, and despite repeated rumors he died there in 1996, reportedly spent his later years in South America, dying in Brazil in 2010. Gimpel wrote a book about his time as a Nazi spy, which was released in America in 2003 by the title “Agent 146.”