THE SIDEKICK FROM HELL How a Nazi agent was thwarted by his drunken partner

Sunday, January 19th 2003, 1:03AM

A GENT 146: The True Story of a Nazi Spy in America

By Erich Gimpel

St. Martin's Press, $24.95

In November 1944, German U-boat 1230 put Erich Gimpel, a German spy, and William Colepaugh, an American traitor, ashore at Frenchman Bay, near Hancock Bay, Maine. Their assignment was to infiltrate and sabotage the Manhattan Project, America's top-secret program to develop an atomic bomb.

Gimpel, Agent 146, was at large for 31 days. He spent most of that time in Manhattan as a hunted man lugging around a radio transmitter and a bag filled with diamonds.

Colepaugh, a Connecticut-born German sympathizer who defected in 1944, had, in a drunken stupor, betrayed his accomplice. According to Gimpel, an FBI agent later told him the only mistake he'd made was not giving "Billy a shot between the eyes as soon as you landed."

Gimpel's is an old story, published in Germany in 1956, a year later in Britain and now in a U.S. edition. He makes reference in it to a 1942 mission that ended with the capture of eight German spies in Manhattan, all of whom died in the electric chair. Operation Pastorius, as it was known, is the subject of the new book "Shadow Enemies" by Alex Abella and Scott Gordon. Obviously, publishers believe that enemy-within accounts have particular resonance for Americans today.

Gimpel, who escaped execution in 1945 by hours, when his sentence was commuted by President Harry Truman after FDR's death, describes himself as an elite spy deployed by the Third Reich. Previously, he'd created a plan to blow up Gibraltar, no less. Another assignment, which came closer to being realized, was the destruction of the Panama Canal.

In a terse narrative, Gimpel describes shepherding the loutish Colepaugh through long, drunken nights acutely anxious that this weak link with a tremendous thirst would give them away. They had already come close to being discovered by authorities when a Boy Scout traced their snowy footprints in Maine back to the shore. The teenager informed the police, who didn't believe him; this account is verified in newspapers from the time.

The morning came when Gimpel returned to a Manhattan hotel to find Colepaugh, the transmitter and the diamonds gone. Gimpel managed to locate his suitcases and spirit them from a Grand Central holding room. But that left Colepaugh at large and without resources. When Gimpel hid in a friend's vacated apartment on 44th St. with every intention of completing his mission, Colepaugh drunkenly disclosed his own plight to an acquaintance, who turned him in.

Gimpel's account is a log of tense episodes a near capture in a hotel lobby; the moment he unwittingly gives himself away at a newsstand that reads like a boiled-down spy thriller. This is a true story, but how much of it is heightened particularly his romance with an American woman in the final hours before capture to provide an even better yarn is hard to say.

Nevertheless, "Agent 146" is gripping. Gimpel served close to 10 years in U.S. prisons, including Alcatraz. He was paroled and repatriated to West Germany in 1956, where he died in 1996.

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