Headlines: The Cold War Murder Mystery | The titles of the story
“If you want to understand this strange and rather sad story, you must have at least a sense of the background – the sad devastated city of Vienna divided into zones between the four powers: the Russian, British, American and French zones. “
“The Third Man”, by Graham Greene
Samuel Gearhart never backed down from a fight. By 1947, this 23-year-old ex-Marine, 5’3 “from Allentown, now serving with the US Army in the occupation of Austria, had seen some of the toughest fighting World War II had to deal with. Honestly demobilized from the Marines, he must have thought the military was where he wanted to be. But it wasn’t on a coral atoll in the Pacific but on the floor of a cold hotel lobby in Vienna where his brief life ended.Beat to death by Stephen Ingrin, described as a “Russian correspondent”, his act was called by the US Provost Marshal an outright murder.
Yet, as far as is known, Ingrin was never tried for it and the US government, after some minor protests, never demanded that the Soviets fire Ingrin for trial. When the State Department was asked about it, it referred the matter to the War Department. Some today might regard Gearhart as the first casualty of the Cold War.
The matter was recently brought to the attention of WFMZ thanks to Gary Milligan of Sunbury, Ohio. Milligan’s curiosity for Gearhart began when he read “The Guadalcanal Diary,” an account of the early weeks of this Battle of the Pacific Islands by World War II correspondent Richard Tregaskis, which is still considered a classic today. military history. Here’s how he described his meeting with Gearhart:
“As we spoke, a chubby little boy with a shaved head stood at the edge of our circle. “There is the youngest on the ship,” said one of the Marines. The boy told me that he was only seventeen and his name was Sam Gearhart, and that he was from Allentown, PA. “You must have signed up before you were seventeen, Sam,” I said. “I did it,” he replied. “But they can’t kick me out now. “
A search of the Allentown Town Directory for the 1920s to 1940s shows a Benjamin Gearhart and his wife, Florence, who were most likely Gearhart’s parents. Samuel is known from cemetery records that Samuel was born on September 14, 1924. According to Morning Call, he was later a student at Allentown High School, a Call-Chronicle newspaper carrier and a member of a boy gang. Scottish sponsored by St. John’s Reformed Church.
Subsequent directories suggest that Sam Gearhart’s parents may have gone their separate ways. In 1940, the directory shows Florence working as a nurse at the public hospital. Later, in 1946, she married Stanley Grim. The 1947 Morning Call article on Sam Gearhart’s death also confirms this. After that, Gearhart disappeared from press accounts until 1947. Unlike many others whose enlistment was at least mentioned in the newspaper, Gearhart was not, probably because he was a minor.
Milligan notes that Gearhart as a member of the famed 1st Marine Division fought and survived in some of the Marine Corps’ bloodiest battles such as Guadalcanal, Peleliu, and Okinawa. The article about his death states that he won his marksman medal with bars for handing out grenades and bayonets during his training in New River. Gearhart was discharged from the Marines in late 1945 and in January 1946 enlisted in the military. There is no explanation given in the newspaper article about his death as to why Gearhart wanted to return to military life. Perhaps the most understandable is that he loved this life and wanted to stay there.
How long Gearhart had been in Vienna and what duties he performed there are not stated in the newspaper article. What we do know is that at that time the situation was desperate for civilians. The city had been heavily bombed. Heat and charcoal were lacking, and food was particularly scarce. Later, when the Marshall Plan came into effect, things gradually improved, but it took time. There have even been food riots. Vienna had been one of the cultural centers of Europe, a place where, on summer evenings, ordinary citizens would go out on the sidewalks with instruments and play classical music for their own enjoyment. A man whose father took part in such impromptu concerts (the family being Jewish fled to America just before the Nazis), remembered that he was crying at the thought of this wasted time.
Graham Greene has one of the characters in “The Third Man” who describes Vienna very different from the late 1940s this way:
“I never knew Vienna between the wars, and I’m too young to remember old Vienna with its Strauss music and easy false charm; for me, it is simply a city of unworthy ruins that has transformed this month of February into great glaciers of snow and ice. The Danube was a gray, flat and muddy river, in the distance through the Russian area, where the Prater lay crushed and desolate and full of grasses, only the Ferris Wheel slowly spinning on the foundations of the rides like abandoned grindstones, iron rusty broken tanks that no one had cleared. Frosted weeds where the snow was thin.
On December 22, 1947, Florence Gearhart, now Florence Grim, received a Christmas card from her son saying he was fine. She showed it to her neighbors. The first she learned of her death the next day was through the newspaper and a radio report, and she immediately left for a sister’s house in New Jersey.
The meeting that claimed Sam Gearhart’s life took place around midnight on December 19, 1947, at the Lugeck Hotel. The hotel, a white neo-baroque building, was restored in 1897 from an early Renaissance structure. Today, with a modern interior, it remains a hotel. The word Lugeck has its root in the German word “auslugen” or “peek” for the hotel’s round twin towers which provide excellent coverage for looking around the corner without being seen.
Here is the story given in the Morning Call of December 23, 1947:
“Her attacker has been identified as a Russian, Stephen Ingrin, 23, and a newspaper correspondent. Gearhart wore civilian clothes and was with a young woman. According to the Russian, an argument started in front of the hotel where Gearhart was hanging out with an Austrian girl. Passing through in civilian clothes, Ingrin said she heard the American say “Russ”. Apparently viewing this as an insult, Ingrin approached the couple to speak to Gearhart about the remark and said he had been punched. They entered the hotel lobby, Ingrin said, and thinking Gearhart was about to hit him again, he first hit him and knocked him down. The Russian admitted to kicking the fallen Gearhart twice. Investigators said there were several heel marks on the US soldier’s face. Other witnesses, however, said Gearhart was standing inside the hotel and Ingrin approached and asked for his nationality. When Gearhart replied that he was American, according to these witnesses, the Russian knocked him down and kicked him on the body and head until he became unresponsive.
Two other American soldiers, William Lane and William Clark, arrived just after Gearhart lost consciousness. Lane saw Ingrin trying to leave the hotel and grabbed him. Clark was hunched over Gearhart’s recumbent body when Ingrin broke away from Lane and attacked Clark, biting him on the arm several times, leaving tooth marks. At this point, the international police patrol arrived and arrested Ingrin.
Gearhart was never able to tell his side of the story. He died without regaining consciousness. Eventually, his body was brought back to Allentown and placed in Grandview Cemetery.
The next day, the US Army Marshal’s Office declared Gerhart’s death “a blatant case of murder.” There was no doubt, he said, that he would advise the Russians to try him on this charge. He then had Ingrin handed over to the Soviet authorities. And with that, what might be called a small-scale “iron curtain” fell into history. The following March, Lehigh County Congressman Franklin Lichtenwalner, at the request of a group of Allentown citizens, delivered a speech to the House of Representatives outlining the details of Gearhart’s death and demanding to find out why nothing had not been done. The State Department, after numerous phone calls, told Lichtenwalner that this was the War Department’s problem.
But at that time, the Cold War was in full swing with the Berlin Airlift. As for what happened to Ingrin, at least nothing that is easily accessible can be found. Perhaps he received the Order of Lenin or he was quickly handed over to a firing squad for execution. Stranger things had happened in Stalin’s Russia. As its sovereign would have remarked, “a death is a tragedy, a million a statistic”. Perhaps Ingrin’s fate runs deep in Soviet records, but the current leader of Russia, President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, probably wouldn’t make it easy to find. Since he was 23 in 1947, Ingrin would be 97 today, plenty of time to reflect on that day.