August 04, 2020

Story of WWII spies lives on in Maine

BANGOR – The story of the World War II landing of two German spies at Hancock Point and their capture in New York City has been told and retold, and a former CIA and National Security Agency operative from Blue Hill still has more to say.

Originally from Bar Harbor, Richard Gay recently contributed to a book detailing his experience with WWII spy operations, including the infamous Frenchman Bay landing on Nov. 29, 1944. He’s already working on a second edition of the book, “They Came to Destroy America,” using new information gleaned from his conversations with former German spy Erich Gimpel.

Code named Unternehmen Elster,” or Operation Magpie, the landing of German U-boat 1230 involving Gimpel and fellow spy and American defector William Colepaugh is well known by Mainers, especially by Hancock motorists Mary Forni and Harvard Hodgkins.

They spotted the duo on Route 1 before the spies hailed a taxi to Bangor and made their way to New York City by train.

Gimpel and Colepaugh were both caught and imprisoned after Colepaugh confessed the operation to the FBI when his attempt to steal $60,000 from the Germans backfired. But were there other spies at Hancock Point that night who escaped capture, or even detection? Gay says yes, according to his most recent exchanges with the aging Gimpel, who now resides in South America.

“There may still be two or more spies that didn’t get caught,” he said. “There was at least two other submarines involved. And it involves not only Maine, but also Canada.”

Forty-two crew members aboard a Canadian ship bound for St. John, New Brunswick, were killed off Mount Desert Island on Dec. 3, 1944, when the U-boat 1230 sunk their vessel as a distraction, Gay said.

“I believe they sank it as a diversion for their real mission,” he said. “And you never heard about it.”

And what was their real mission? To gain information about an MIT facility disguised as a radar lab working to refine “heavy water” as part of the U.S. effort to develop an atomic bomb, Gay believes. Gimpel had learned that heavy water, or deuterium oxide, was the key component of the bomb on a counter-intelligence mission in Norway after British intelligence subverted a German atom bomb program.

The project operated under so much secrecy that it’s hard to find out much about it, even today, Gay said.

And who was working on that MIT project but Gay’s late uncle, a former Bangor resident and physicist. Dr. Karl D. Larson was credited for readying the use of heavy water for the Hiroshima bomb reactor.

“They were waiting for him to get it done, and he did,” Gay said. “It was uranium in a bath of heavy water.”

As head of the physics department at Lafayette University, where Gay was a student in 1950, Larson shared the stories of his vital research with his nephew on their way to class.

As Gay would more fully realize the significance of his uncle’s research through his CIA and NSA career, so too would a taxi driver understand the importance of a series of rides he offered on Nov. 29, 1944.

Navy officers on their way back to the Winter Harbor base, after being mysteriously called to alert, had just occupied the seats of the cab that would soon pick up the German spies, Gay said. After dropping Gimpel and Colepaugh off in Bangor, the same driver picked up officers called back to their base in Southwest Harbor.

“The seats were still warm when the GIs got in,” Gay said.

The taxi driver never breathed a word about that infamous night, but Gay will continue to tell its story.

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