William Sanford, author of “Fritz Vincken: A Christmas Story from the Files of Unsolved Mysteries”, is an attorney and freelance writer living in Rhode Island. His writing on the criminology and true crime has been featured on “Crime Traveler” and other places.
For those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, the voice of all things true crime and unexplained was Robert Stack. His platform was the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries.” Often clad in a trench coat, Stack narrated re-enactments of missing person cases, unsolved murders, ghost stories and UFO encounters.
The show also aired reunion segments. It was in this vein, on March 24th, 1995, that the show aired the story of 63 year-old Fritz Vincken. Fritz was searching for the soldiers with whom he had shared an extraordinary Christmas Eve during World War II.
In the winter of 1944, 12 year-old Fritz lived with his mother in a remote cabin in the Hurtgen forest, in the Ardennes region of western Germany. By late 1944 the tide of World War II was shifting, as the Allies advanced across Europe toward Germany. Hitler was preparing for one last offensive. It would be launched on the portion of the western front that the Germans deemed to be the weakest: an area between Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg in the Ardennes.
Beginning on December 16th, over 400,000 German soldiers advanced on the Allied lines. They succeeded in catching the Americans by surprise and quickly pushed westward, creating the “bulge” in the lines that gave the ensuing battle its name. The Battle of the Bulge would last for six weeks during which the Germans and Allies fought each other and a common enemy: snow and freezing temperatures.
As the sun set on December 24th, Fritz’s mother Elisabeth was busy in the cabin preparing a dinner of potatoes and chicken. Fritz remembered it was a clear, cold night with a sky full of stars; Icicles hung from the roof. In the midst of Elisabeth’s dinner preparations, there was a knock at the door. Mother and son looked at each other with apprehension. Elisabeth slowly opened the door to two soldiers standing before her, while a third lay in the snow. One of the soldiers began to speak — in English. They were Americans.
Though the Vinckens did not speak English and the soldiers did not speak German, it was clear through their gestures and appearance that they were seeking shelter from the sub-freezing temperatures. Elisabeth now faced the first of several critical decisions that she would be called upon to make the evening.
Although the soldiers appeared exhausted and one was seriously injured (Fritz described him as looking “more dead than alive”), they were armed. The Vinckens were patriotic Germans and these were enemy invaders, engaged in a bloody battle with their countrymen. What would happen to her and to Fritz if she slammed the door on them? What would become of the soldiers if she did not give them shelter?
Though the Vinckens did not speak English and the soldiers did not speak German, it was clear through their gestures and appearance that they were seeking shelter from the sub-freezing temperatures.
Elisabeth let them in. The language barrier was partially overcome when she and one of the American’s realized that they could both speak some French.
The Americans had lost their unit 3 days earlier, and had been wandering in snow and ever since. She told the soldiers they could tear her bed sheets to make bandages for the wounded man, as he had lost a large amount of blood. While one of the soldiers tended to his wounded friend, Elisabeth directed the others to assist her with the cooking. She told Fritz to get more potatoes — and a bigger chicken. Then, above the hum of activity inside the cabin, there was another knock at the door.
This time when Elisabeth opened the door, four German soldiers stood before her. Fritz later recalled that he was “paralyzed with fear.” Mother and son where both well aware that offering sanctuary to the enemy was punishable by death. Once again Elisabeth was forced to make a decision with potential life or death consequences. She quickly stepped outside and shut the door behind her. One of the German soldiers came forward and politely bid her Merry Christmas. He explained that he and his companions had been wandering the Hurtgen, trying to find their way back to their regiment.
He asked if they could shelter inside for the night. Elisabeth knew that the Germans could come inside, with or without her permission. If they did, they would find the Americans. When asked many years later what he thought drove his mother’s actions on that night, Fritz answered quickly with one word: “Survival!” Her actions in the next few moments reflected that singular goal.
She told the soldiers that they could shelter inside and that they would be fed a warm meal under one condition: they must leave their guns on the woodpile. The soldiers complied. Only then did she divulge her secret: There were other “guests” inside the cabin. The German commander became agitated, demanding to know who was inside — were they Americans? Yes, she told them: There were American soldiers inside; 3 of them.
One was injured and near death. All of them, she explained, were young enough to be her own sons. According to Fritz she told them, “This is Christmas Eve. There will be no shooting here.” The Germans could have grabbed their weapons and stormed the cabin. They could have taken the Vinckens and the Americans prisoner — or worse. Instead they stood there in the snow.
Elisabeth was not ready for the Germans and Americans to meet — not yet. She asked the Germans to wait a moment as she went back into the cabin. She explained to the Americans that there were four German soldiers on the other side of the door. They too were lost, cold and hungry and would be coming inside for the night. She told them that the Germans had set aside their weapons and that they must now do the same. The Americans anxiously compiled, giving over their guns to be put on the woodpile. Then the Germans were led inside.
Elisabeth was not ready for the Germans and Americans to meet — not yet. She asked the Germans to wait a moment as she went back into the cabin.
Tension and suspicion hung in the cabin as Elisabeth took charge. She told Fritz to gather more potatoes, quietly admonishing him that “a hungry man is an angry one.” Then, while dinner was cooking, a German soldier got up, walked to the bed of the wounded American and began to examine him.
He started to treat the American, using what meager supplies could be found in the cabin. He spoke limited English and explained that he had been a medical student before being conscripted. He told the Americans that their friend had lost a great deal of blood, but the extreme cold appeared to have staved off any infection. The German soldier continued to tend to the injured American throughout the evening.
When dinner was ready, Fritz looked around the cabin at the tired, hungry faces and was taken aback by their youth. The oldest of the soldiers was 23. Two of the German soldiers were 16. Scores of young men just like them were dying in the forests nearby. Because of the language barrier there was little conversation between the Germans and Americans, but as they began to eat the mood in the cabin changed. Fritz recalled looking at his mother and seeing tears in her eyes.
There were tears in the eyes of the soldiers as well — even, to Fritz’s surprise — in the eyes of the German commander. After dinner, Elisabeth called everyone outside to look at the stars. Then they returned to the warmth of the cabin and each found a spot on the floor to sleep. Germans and Americans laying only feet apart; their weapons just outside.
The soldiers did not go for their weapons that night. When daylight came, Elisabeth prepared chicken soup for her guests. Re-armed and face to face the soldiers could have turned on one another, with nothing further to be gained from their truce. Instead, the German commander used the American’s map to show them the way back to their lines.
One of the Americans looked at the map and asked if it would not be much quicker for them to head for the nearby town of Monschau, as it was held by the Allies. “Nein!” The German soldier interrupted: The Germans had retaken Monschau. This bit of information may well have saved the Americans’ lives.
The Battle of the Bulge ended with Allied victory. But the price was high. It was the bloodiest battle of the war for the Americans. Over 19,000 were killed. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would call The Battle of the Bulge “the greatest American battle of the war.” The Germans lost over 12,000 men.
The Vinckens survived the war. Elisabeth passed away in the 1960s. Fritz married and moved with his wife to Hawaii. As the years past, the memories of that Christmas Eve were never far from Fritz’s mind. He began to search for the soldiers with whom he had shared that night. He was certain that the injured American soldier’s name was Harry. He thought that one of the other American soldiers might have been named Ralph.
Slowly, Fritz’s story began to spread. Reader’s Digest wrote about it in the 1970s. Then, in 1985, President Ronald Reagan recounted the story when he traveled to a US Air Force Base in West Germany to deliver a speech on reconciliation. But despite the increased publicity, Fritz would search for another 10 years before a break finally came.
Enter the TV show, Unsolved Mysteries. In the mid-1990s producers at Unsolved Mysteries heard about Fritz’s story and approached him to film a segment. On March 24th, 1995, in an episode that also featured stories on a man who claimed to channel the spirits of dead artists and another who stole money from church parishioners, the show aired a reenactment of the events that took place in and around the Vincken’s cabin. The segment included an interview with an articulate, emotional 63 year-old Fritz Vincekn and concluded with Robert Stack conveying Fritz’s wish to reunite with the soldiers from that Christmas Eve.
In the mid-1990s producers at Unsolved Mysteries heard about Fritz’s story and approached him to film a segment.
The episode was watched by a man who worked as a chaplain at a Maryland nursing home. He phoned the Unsolved Mysteries call center and reported that a resident at the home had told him a very similar story. The resident was a World War II veteran. His name was Ralph Blank.
Ralph was a member of the Army’s 121st Infantry Division stationed on the western front in the Ardennes in December 1944. On Christmas Eve, after being lost in the Hurtgen forest for several days, he and two of his fellow soldiers saw a lone cabin on a mountain side, and summoned the courage to knock on the door.
With the help of Unsolved Mysteries producers, Fritz was put in contact with Ralph. They spoke on the phone, then on January 19, 1996, after 52 years, the two men were reunited in Maryland. Ralph was then 76 years old. In honor of the reunion, Ralph’s family prepared the same dish that Ralph had long recalled Elisabeth making for them on that Christmas morning: chicken soup. Ralph and Fritz reminisced as the Unsolved Mysteries cameras rolled.
Ralph joked about Elisabeth “ordering” him to leave his gun outside the cabin. He also revealed that he had kept the map and compass given to him by the German commander as they parted ways on Christmas morning. Finally, he told Fritz: “Your mother saved my life.”
Toward the end of his life, after meeting Ralph and another one of the American soldiers, Fritz told interviewers that he could die in peace knowing that they too credited his Mother Elisabeth with brokering their improbable Christmas Eve truce.