Column: A local traitor was in our midst during WWII
When those of us living in New London County think of traitors, it doesn’t take long for Benedict Arnold’s name to surface. Born in nearby Norwich, this once enterprising American Revolutionary War general, shed his allegiance to join the ranks of his enemy. He would lead the British ashore in New London in the fall of 1781 and destroy much of the city. The city has never forgiven him for his treachery and even today continues to yearly burn his effigy on the city streets.
Arnold had come by sea with a fleet of 32 British warships. He and his troops came ashore and set fire to New London (Bank Street suffered greatly) and over 140 houses, warehouses, shops, storehouses and wharfs were destroyed. Many residents were killed by the invaders.
Almost two centuries later, an enemy ship would deposit another local traitor from the New London area back on our shores. There would be no enemy fleet this time, just a single, clandestine, underwater vessel. The German U-Boat U-1230 would surface near the coast of Bar Harbor, Maine on November 29, 1944, and two Nazi agents would be rowed ashore in a small rubber life raft. Their job was to spy on the American airplane and rocket industries. One of them was a graduate of Bulkeley High School in New London and had run on their track team.
Coming ashore on that dark winter night, Nazi agents Erich Gimpel and William Colepaugh began their trek to New York City, where they would set up their base of operations. They carried briefcases with .32 caliber pistols and $60,000 in American currency, courtesy of the German government. Gimpel was a hard-core Nazi, but Colepaugh grew up in Niantic, Conn., went to local schools, sang in the church choir and was a member of a local Boys Scout troop. But somehow, this young man ended up following in the footsteps of the notorious Benedict Arnold.
Now, I had never heard of William Curtis Colepaugh even though, like him, I grew up in Niantic. But, as happened with so many other local history stories, this one would eventually come my way due to an archaeological discovery my class had made in 2008.
While looking for the footprint of an old blacksmith shop thought to have once been located near our current area of investigation (Roxbury Road in Niantic) one of the students found a thin, flat metal object in what appeared to be an old trash pit. It was shovel-shaped and adorned with a Nazi swastika and a lighthouse-like building. The five and one-half inches wide and five-inch-long object was made of brass and was pointed at the bottom. It gave the appearance of a shield of some sort. An unexpected and quite remarkable find.
Some research into the artifact revealed the image to be that of the tomb of an early German emperor named Barbarossa. Adolf Hitler had chosen this monument to represent all Germans who had fought and lost their lives in battle. We had inadvertently stumbled upon a representation of the Nazi “Veterans Administration or “Reichskriegerbund, as it was then officially called. The specific arrangement of the monument and swastika was further discovered to have been used in Germany on shields, hats and patches in 1936 and 1937.
How did such an object find its way to our dig site? One of the students offered up a theory as to its origin.
The student announced that he was doing yardwork down in the Black Point area of town for a homeowner who claimed the house he lived in had once been owned by a Nazi spy. We followed up on that premise only to discover the homeowner had been wrong about the house but not about a Nazi spy who had, indeed, once lived in that beach area of town. We did locate the actual Colepaugh home and with the help of Life Magazine, Bob Miller, USA Today and some East Lyme old-timers, we were able to piece together his story.
As a boy, Colepaugh was thin, tall, socially awkward and basically kept to himself. His German grandparents lived in his home (they spoke only German) along with his sister and mother. As WWII approached, the family listened to Hitler speak on their short-wave radio. German power was very attractive to the Colepaugh family.
Fatherless, and with a mother who was often emotionally distracted (neighbors reported they thought she had a persecution complex), it was probably no surprise the young boy’s performance in East Lyme and New London schools would suffer. Despite that, both mother and son harbored high hopes that he might someday enter the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He was sent away to Admiral Farragut Academy in New Jersey at age 17 to prepare for that rather remote possibility. There, Willie would meet his first two real close friends in life, both who just happened to share his love of Germany and all things German. His grades did not improve enough, however, to qualify for the Naval Academy, but his love of Germany while at the academy had grown even stronger. Joining the US Navy after his rejection proved a poor choice as he was soon discharged from the service for disciplinary reasons.
With WWII now raging, William Colepaugh joined the Merchant Marines and managed to use that to his advantage by jumping ship in Portugal and finding his way to Berlin, where he would offer his services to the Third Reich as a spy.
Colepaugh and Gimpel’s New York spy mission failed because William had a change of heart (or got cold feet) and contacted the FBI. As a result, both men were arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. President Roosevelt’s death, however, granted them a stay of execution, and after the war, both were sentenced to long terms in federal prison. Gimpel was released in 1955 and returned to Germany. William Colepaugh was released in 1960 but did not return to the New London area as he was not welcome here. He relocated in Pennsylvania and took up the printing trade, which he had learned while in prison.
When Colepaugh was released from prison in 1960, the man would go silent about his past, not even telling his best newfound Pennsylvanian friend, Robert A. Miller.
A new life would find him a successful businessman and very active in civic affairs. He flew the American flag and worked with the local boy scouts. It was as fellow Rotarians that Bill and Bob would cross paths. Bob Miller was so impressed with his new friend’s community commitment that he even nominated him for “Rotarian of the Year” in 1990, citing Colepaugh’s “civic leadership, friendly spirit of fellowship, patriotic fervor and consistent dedication to the principles of Rotary.” But later came an article in USA Today in 2002 that recalled this nominee’s activities during the Second World War.
Miller was floored. Unable to confront Colepaugh, who was already in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s disease, Miller would journey to the New London area to learn more about his enigmatic friend. What he found would become the subject of a book ”A True Story of an American Nazi Spy, William C. Colepaugh,” published in 2013. I was happy to have been involved and happy to be given my own personalized copy.
One last note: The brass artifact that initiated this incredible journey had nothing to do with Mr. Colepaugh. A local WWII soldier was found responsible for that, but then that’s another story altogether.
Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.