“If you are to understand this strange and rather sad story you must have an impression at least of the background – the smashed dreary city of Vienna divided up in zones among the four powers: the Russians, the British, the American and French zones.”
“The Third Man,” by Graham Greene
Samuel Gearhart never backed off from a fight. By 1947 this 23- year-old, 5’3” ex-Marine from Allentown, now serving with the U.S. Army in the occupation of Austria, had seen some of the toughest fighting that World War II had to offer. Honorably discharged from the Marines, he must have thought the military was where he wanted to be. But it was not on some coral atoll in the Pacific but on the floor of a cold hotel lobby in Vienna where his brief life came to an end. Pummeled to death by Stephen Ingrin, described as a “Russian correspondent,” his act was described by the U.S. provost marshal as one of plain murder.
Yet as far as is known Ingrin was never tried for it nor did the U.S. government, after a few minor protests, ever demand that the Soviets turn Ingrin over for trial. When the State Department was asked about it, it referred the case to the War Department. Some today might regard Gearhart as the first victim of the Cold War.
The case recently came to the attention of WFMZ thanks to Gary Milligan of Sunbury, Ohio. Milligan’s curiosity about Gearhart began while reading “The Guadalcanal Diary,” an account of the first several weeks of that Pacific Island battle by World War II correspondent Richard Tregaskis, that even to this day is considered a classic of military history. Here is how he described his meeting with Gearhart:
“As we were talking a short, chubby boy with a shaved head stood at the edge of our circle. ‘There’s the youngest guy on the ship,’ said one of the marines. The lad told me he was just seventeen and that his name was Sam Gearhart, and he came from Allentown Pa. ‘You must have joined up before you were seventeen, Sam,’ I said. ‘I did ,’ he answered. ‘But they can’t throw me out now.’”
A search in the Allentown city directory for the 1920s to the 1940s shows a Benjamin Gearhart and his wife, Florence, who were most probably Gearhart’s parents. It is known from cemetery records that Samuel was born on September 14, 1924. According to the Morning Call he later was a student at Allentown High School, a Call-Chronicle newspaper carrier and a member of a Boy Scot troop sponsored by St. John’s Reformed Church.
Later directories suggest that Sam Gearhart’s parents may have separated. In 1940 the directory shows Florence working as a nurse at the state hospital. Later, in 1946 she has married to Stanley Grim. The 1947 article about Sam Gearhart’s death in the Morning Call also confirms this. After that Gearhart disappeared from the accounts in the press until 1947. Unlike many others whose enlistment was a least given a mention in the newspaper, Gearhart was not, probably because he was underage.
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 on his death states that he had won his sharpshooter’s medal with bars for handing out grenades and bayonets during his training at New River. Gearhart was discharged from the Marines in late 1945 and in January 1946 enlisted in the Army. 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 liked that life and wanted to remain in it.
How long Gearhart had been in Vienna and what duties he performed there are not given in the newspaper article. What is known was at that time the situation there was desperate for civilians. The city had been heavily bombed. Heat and coal were in short supply and food was particularly scarce. Later as the Marshall Plan went into effect things were gradually better, but it took time. There were even food riots. Vienna had been one of the cultural centers of Europe, a place where on summer evenings ordinary citizens would come out on the sidewalks with instruments and play classical music for their own enjoyment. One man whose father took part in such impromptu concerts (the family being Jewish fled to America barely ahead of the Nazis), recalled him weeping at the thought of that lost time.
Graham Greene has one of the characters in “The Third Man” describe the very different late 1940s Vienna this way:
“I never knew Vienna between the wars, and I am too young to remember the old Vienna with its Strauss music and its bogus easy charm; to me it is simply a city of undignified ruins which turned that February into great glaciers of snow and ice. The Danube was a grey, flat, muddy river, a long way off across the Russian zone, where the Prater lay smashed and desolate and full of weeds, only the Great Wheel revolving slowly over the foundations of merry-go-rounds like abandoned millstones, the rusting iron of smashed tanks which nobody had cleared away. The frost-nipped 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 well. She showed it off to her neighbors. The first she learned of his death was the next day from the newspaper and a radio report and she left immediately for the home of a sister in New Jersey.
The encounter that took Sam Gearhart’s life occurred around midnight on December 19, 1947, in the Hotel Lugeck. The hotel, a white, Baroque Revival style 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 that provide excellent cover to peer around the corner unseen.
Here is the account given in the Morning Call on December 23, 1947:
“His attacker was identified as a Russian, Stephen Ingrin, age 23, and a newspaper correspondent. Gearhart was wearing civilian clothes and was with a young woman. According to the Russian, an argument started outside the hotel where Gearhart was standing with an Austrian girl. As he passed by in civilian clothes, Ingrin said he heard the American say ‘Russ.’ Apparently considering this an insult, Ingrin went up to the couple to speak to Gearhart about the remark and said he was struck. They went into the hotel lobby, Ingrin said, and thinking Gearhart was about to hit him again, he struck him first and knocked him down. The Russian admitted kicking the fallen Gearhart twice. Investigators said there were several heel marks on the face of the American soldier. Other witnesses however said Gearhart was standing inside the hotel and that Ingrin walked up and asked his nationality. When Gearhart replied he was an American, according to these witnesses the Russian knocked him down and kicked him about the body and head until he was insensible.”
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 leaning over Gearhart’s prone body when Ingrin broke away from Lane and attacked Clark, biting him several times on the arm, leaving teeth marks. At that moment the international police patrol arrived and arrested Ingrin.
Gearhart never got to tell his side of the story. He died without regaining consciousness. Eventually his body was returned to Allentown and placed in Grandview Cemetery.
The next day the U.S. Army Provost Office declared Gerhart’s death “a plain case of murder.” There was no doubt, he said, that he would advise the Russians to try him on that charge. He then had Ingrin been turned over to the Soviet authorities. And with that, what might be called a small scale “Iron Curtain” came down over the story. The following March Lehigh County Congressman Franklin Lichtenwalner, at the urging of a group of Allentown citizens, gave a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives outlining the details of Gearhart’s death and demanding to find out why nothing had been done. The State Department after many phone calls told Lichtenwalner it was the War Department’s problem.
But by then the Cold War was in full swing with the Berlin Airlift. As to what happened to Ingrin, nothing at least that there is easy access to can be found. Perhaps he was given the Order of Lenin or promptly turned over to a firing squad for execution. Stranger things had happened in Stalin’s Russia. As its ruler is said to have remarked, “One death is a tragedy, a million a statistic.” Maybe Ingrin’s fate is deep in the Soviet archives but the current leader of Russia, President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, would probably not make that easy to find. As he was 23 years old in 1947, Ingrin would be 97 years old today, a lot of time to think that day over.