This is the story of a Boy Scout from Connecticut who grew up to become a Nazi spy during World War II — and another Boy Scout who helped capture the traitor.
This true tale contains all the elements of a film about espionage — a defection to Germany, attendance at a spy school and a covert return to America aboard a submarine.
The plot thickens with references to explosives, guns, cash, diamonds, a shortwave radio and special ink. And, in an unexpected twist, there's even a cameo appearance by Babe Ruth.
"The case created a sensation in the late days of World War II," The Courant wrote years later.
William Curtis Colepaugh was born in 1918 in the Niantic section of East Lyme. His mother, dissatisfied with the public schools, sent him to the Admiral Farragut Academy, a college preparatory school with naval training in Pine Beach, N.J.
After graduating, Colepaugh attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for three years before flunking out, The Courant reported.
It was as an MIT student, Colepaugh later told federal officials, that he became "a man with an entree in 1940-41 to the German consulate in Boston," according to The Courant.
His friends in Boston at the time included the secretary to the German consul, the captain of a German tanker moored there after seeking refuge in 1939 when the war started, and a Nazi Party leader aboard the ship, The Courant reported.
Colepaugh also admitted that he had entertained the Nazi Party leader at his home in Niantic twice in 1940 and that he had attended "a Hitler birthday party celebration" at the consulate in April 1941, the newspaper said.
Those activities later would come back to haunt him. A witness testified at Colepaugh's espionage trial that the Niantic man had said in Boston that he liked the people on board the German tanker "better than the people ashore or in this country," according to the newspaper.
After leaving MIT, Colepaugh made his way from Boston to Philadelphia, where he was arrested and charged with failing to keep his draft board advised of his whereabouts, The Courant reported.
Despite his 1942 arrest on draft-dodging charges, Colepaugh was allowed to join the U.S. Navy later that year, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover later admitted. But in 1943, the Navy gave Colepaugh an honorable discharge, which Hoover first said was "for the good of the service," but later said was "because there was a suspicion [Colepaugh] held pro-German sympathies."
A Snowstorm In Maine
In early 1944, Colepaugh worked on a ship as a mess boy but bailed out in Portugal, where he contacted the German consul, hoping to join the German Army, which he had come to admire for its modernization. But he was told that he would be sent back to America to help the Germans gather information about the United States' ships, airplanes and rockets.
Colepaugh and a cohort, German radio engineer Erich Gimpel, attended several spy and saboteur schools in Germany, including an elite S.S. school. The two men studied radio operation, photography and explosives, the paper reported.
In late 1944, they boarded a submarine, which brought them to the coast of Maine. They landed in a rubber boat near Hancock Point at Frenchman Bay. Harvard Hodgkins, a Boy Scout heading home in the snow from a high school dance, noticed the two men, who were using a compass along a country road to find their way to Bangor.
"I was sure neither was anyone who lived around here and I thought it unusual for anyone to be walking around in a snowstorm," Hodgkins later told The Courant.
He followed their footprints to the shoreline. And his tip to authorities ultimately helped them capture the two spies.
"Hodgkins couldn't have known he was helping to apprehend a fellow Boy Scout turned German spy," The Courant reported.
The feds were in hot pursuit because a Canadian ship had been sunk a few miles from the Maine coastline, indicating that a German submarine had been in the area.
Still, Colepaugh and Gimpel made their way to New York.
Colepaugh had clearly lost his way since scouting. And he seemed to have no direction when he returned to the States.
"Without any clear directives for accomplishing his mission, Colepaugh began spending recklessly on food, wine, and women," according to a synopsis of Colepaugh's life provided by the Connecticut Humanities Council. "After spending $1,500 of Nazi money partying in New York, Colepaugh had a change of heart..."
Colepaugh, 26, told a former classmate that he was in trouble, feared Gimpel and wanted to reach the FBI. He turned himself in to federal agents in December 1944. Gimpel, 35, was arrested a few days later.
Hoover announced the arrests at a January 1945 press conference in New York.
"The FBI head said the men had in their possession when arrested a shortwave radio, special ink for transmitting messages and a quantity of fraudulent documents..." The Courant reported. "Each man carried a loaded revolver, Hoover said, and together had $56,574 in American currency."
Gimpel was also reportedly carrying 99 diamonds.
For his part, Hodgkins got his 15 minutes of fame. During a visit to New York, the teen was met by a Boy Scout honor guard, the American Legion, a representative of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Ruth, the baseball legend.
"I am a Boy Scout, and the motto of the Boy Scouts is, 'Be Prepared,'" Hodgkins said at the time.
Ruth called the teenager "a credit to the nation" and gave him an autographed picture and baseball, The Courant reported. "We're all proud of you, boy. You did a swell job," Ruth told Hodgkins.
A Secret Tribunal
The two spies pleaded not guilty at a secret tribunal held in a small room at a building on Governors Island in New York Bay, The Courant reported. The press was barred from the trial, but provided with twice-daily accounts of the proceedings, the newspaper reported, and the sensational case made national headlines.
A federal agent reportedly testified that after being picked up for espionage, Colepaugh told him, "I do not feel any particular allegiance to the United States," and, "It would have been a little difficult to fight my friends, but it would have made no difference to fight the American Army."
Facing the death penalty, Colepaugh took the stand in an attempt to save his life. He said that he had arrived in Germany "walking about in a sort of dream," hoping to join that country's state-of-the-art army. He said he suddenly was living a nightmare when he was told that he was being sent back to America to help the Germans.
Colepaugh said he only agreed to the mission because he couldn't wait to get out of Germany, where wages were low and taxes were high. He added that he felt he had no other choice because in Germany, "you do what you are told," The Courant reported.
"I felt pretty good about being back in the United States," he testified.
On cross-examination, Colepaugh said, among other things, that he considered himself a U.S. citizen who would be "breaking my relations with America" by going to Germany. But he denied that he was renouncing his citizenship.
"If I had gone to Germany to fight and had come back, I would have been willing to fight for America like any other American citizen," he reportedly testified.
Colepaugh — painted by prosecutors as a "double-crossing traitor" — was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging, as was Gimpel.
However, on April 12, 1945, three days before their scheduled execution, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, and his successor, President Harry Truman, commuted their sentences to life in prison. Six Nazi saboteurs, who had landed by submarine on the coasts of Long Island and Florida in an unrelated case, were not so lucky. The Courant reported that they had been convicted and executed in the electric chair.
In 1955, the United States announced that it had deported Gimpel, offering no explanation.
Colepaugh was paroled in 1960 and moved near Philadelphia. A reference from a prison official who praised Colepaugh's work behind bars, drafting and designing items such as lockers, helped the ex-con land a job selling lockers, according to "A True Story of an American Spy: William Curtis Colepaugh," by Robert A. Miller.
Colepaugh later married and volunteered with community activities — including the Boy Scouts.