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Mary Forni, 91; spotted 2 spies left by Nazi U-boat

December 23, 2006|From the Associated Press

Mary Forni, who had a key role in a little-known incident in World War II when she spotted two Nazi spies who arrived by submarine along the Maine coast, has died. She was 91.

Officials in her hometown of Hancock, Maine, said Forni died there Dec. 16. No cause of death was announced.

Forni recalled the incident in a 2001 story in the Bangor Daily News. She reported that on Nov. 29, 1944, she saw the two men on the side of a rural road as she drove home from a card game in Hancock Point, near Bar Harbor on the central Maine coast.

The two men -- Erich Gimpel, a German, and William Colepaugh, an American defector -- had slipped ashore from a German U-boat.

"They just weren't like normal Mainers in November," Forni said in 2001. "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."

Forni called a friend, the wife of Sheriff's Deputy Dana Hodgkins. Forni and the Hodgkinses' 17-year-old son, Harvard, who also reported seeing the pair, were questioned later by authorities. In January 1945, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover announced the capture of the two men as spies in New York City.

Richard Gay, a retired government official who wrote a book about the incident, said Forni and Harvard Hodgkins were the first to sound the alarm that the Germans had landed, "and it was their alert that launched the FBI dragnet."

"They are New England patriots -- no less than Paul Revere -- and deserve full credit for their place in Maine and U.S. history," said Gay, who attended a 2004 event marking the 60th anniversary of the landing.

He described Forni, a lifelong Maine resident, as "a feisty woman with a quick wit and a keen sense of humor."

The two men had left the submarine with loaded revolvers and more than $100,000 in cash and diamonds.

Captured after Colepaugh broke with Gimpel and turned himself in, they were tried in secret military tribunals and sentenced to hanging. Both were spared by President Truman after President Roosevelt's death in April 1945 as the war with Germany was nearing its end.

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