Thirty-five years ago, the FBI foiled a plot to nuke New London. Sort of.
Given the military presence along the Thames River, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Soviet Union had a missile or two pointed in this direction during the Cold War. But this was a plan I stumbled across in the news archives, one with high aspirations and low feasibility. It got coverage nationwide and then was promptly forgotten.
It didn’t involve your Die Hard level super-terrorists who could pull off a major heist, but rather a bumbling trio of men in their 20s. This crack team was made up of James W. Cosgrove, a Navy veteran; Edward J. Mendenhall, an insurance company employee; and Kurtis J. Schmidt, a carpet cleaner. Their plan: pull together a 12-man pirate crew and blow up a maintenance vessel alongside the USS Trepang, a nuclear submarine then docked at State Pier. In the ensuing confusion, the men would board the Trepang, kill her crew of more than 100 sailors, and sail into the Atlantic to sell the $69 million vessel.
Oh, and that last step would be done “possibly after firing a nuclear missile at New London or another East Coast city” as a distraction, according to a contemporary account.
New London has survived a lot. Benedict Arnold burned it down and it came back. The Hurricane of 1938 demolished a good deal of the city, but it came back. It would have been something of an anticlimactic end for New London if it was knocked out for the count by a deranged carpet cleaner with his finger on the button.
Thankfully, the plan never came to pass. The FBI got wind of the plan and, as tends to happen in the planning such outlandish stunts, they tried to secure funding and support from a person who turned out to be an undercover agent. The men set up a meeting with the interested party/agent in St. Louis and were promptly arrested.
It seemed no one thought the plan had any chance of success. The Navy asserted that the raid never would have succeeded and that a skeleton crew wouldn’t be able to operate the Trepang anyway. As for the idea of nuking New London, the explanation that always came down was that the nuclear missiles in the submarine’s armament were only designed for use against water targets and that it wouldn’t be possible to use them against a city.
It turned out that the men hadn’t even really been planning to carry this plan out. The lawyers suggested that their scheme was perhaps even more thickheaded: pitch the idea to the Mafia, get a $300,000 down payment, and then simply split up the money and disappear. Because apparently Tony Soprano favors stolen Navy property to a nice yacht and nothing bad ever happens when you try to cheat the mob.
This was the version that eventually went to trial. So it was that Cosgrove and Mendenhall were convicted only of wire fraud. If I’m reading this correctly, it means the men were guilty of fraud because they weren’t going to follow through on their promise to steal a submarine and commit mass murder. Mendenhall got five years in prison, Cosgrove four. Schmidt avoided incarceration by agreeing to testify for the prosecution.
There was one final oddball coda. Several years after the incident, a businessman named Charles Rosene—whom the trio initially approached on the assumption that he had connections to the underworld—sued the government. Rosene had tipped off the FBI after the men broached the plot to him, and now complained that he had not received any reward for his help.
One of his stipulations: he wanted a ride on a submarine.