How Korean War vet’s Purple Heart multiplied

Last of eight parts

Gene Salay’s POW, Purple Heart and Good Conduct medals, his Combat Infantryman Badge (in the upper left case) and Purple Heart certificate on display at the 213th Regiment Museum in the Charles C. Curtis Armory, Allentown. All were recovered in 2009 in a mail-fraud case against a St. Louis-area investment adviser who collected military memorabilia. The three medals have Gene’s name on the back.

My friend Gene Salay of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, earned a Purple Heart on July 13, 1953, in Korea. A bullet fired by a Chinese soldier hit him below his left shoulder, near his heart. It was still there when he died in 2010.

At some point, Gene grew disillusioned and got rid of his Purple Heart, the certificate that came with it, his Good Conduct and POW medals and his Combat Infantryman Badge. I don’t know what he did with them, but they weren’t lost forever. In 2009, they turned up in the Missouri home of a crooked investment adviser. Federal agents seized them, determined they were authentic and returned them to Gene’s family three years after his passing. Today, they’re on display at the National Guard armory in Allentown.

I thought that was the end of the medals mystery, but then I heard from retired Los Angeles police officer Sue Yandell. She sent me two Purple Hearts with Gene’s name on the back, two identical certificates attesting to Gene’s wounding in Korea, and two Combat Infantryman Badges. After her father died, she found the items in a shoe box at his home in Lakewood, California, near L.A. Her dad, Jess “Vern” Yandell, was a collector of military memorabilia as well as a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff.

Portraits of LAPD officer Sue Yandell and her father, Jess ‘Vern’ Yandell, a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff. Sue is now retired. Vern died in 2016.
(Courtesy of Sue Yandell)

Sue told me she didn’t know when, where or how her dad got Gene’s decorations, only that “he always liked stuff like that.”

How to account for three Purple Hearts bearing Gene’s name? He earned one. If he had earned more, he might’ve received more medals. By regulations, though, he would’ve gotten an oak leaf cluster for each additional award.

Anyone can buy Purple Hearts, but it wasn’t always legal to sell them. Researcher Kenny Woolley III at the Allentown Public Library, who helped me debunk the myth that Bethlehem Steel made the steel for New York’s Chrysler Building, did some checking. The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 made the sale of Purple Hearts and other medals illegal. After a half-dozen years, though, the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional. The Private Corrado Piccoli Purple Heart Preservation Act was introduced in Congress several times starting in 2016 but hasn’t been made law. It would impose fines and a prison term for selling a veteran’s Purple Heart without permission.

What had me wondering in Gene’s case was, how did his name get on the two Purple Hearts that Vern Yandell had, and how did he have copies of Gene’s certificate?

Gene Salay in 2003. Fifty years earlier, as an Army private first class, he was wounded and taken prisoner by the Chinese in Korea. Later, he was promoted to corporal.

A veteran can request replacement medals if they’re lost or stolen, and they’d be engraved. Would Gene have asked for replacements, and somehow those, too, got into circulation? I doubt it. More likely, the medals Vern Yandell had are copies of Gene’s genuine Purple Heart. I’m guessing that somewhere along the line, when his medals surfaced, someone copied Gene’s name onto generic Purple Hearts to sell them to collectors, along with copies of the certificate.

For a better handle on this, I turned to History Hub, the public crowdsourcing platform of the National Archives where you can post questions, share information, and get research help. I asked how the same name could be on multiple Purple Hearts, if the veteran had earned just one and hadn’t asked for a replacement set. That got me into a conversation with Donald Hall, an Iraq War veteran with thirty-one years in the Army.

“If the certificates both have the same date on them, and there are two Purple Hearts with [Gene’s] name on them, then I would suspect that they are counterfeit,” Hall wrote. “And by that I mean they are probably authentic medals, but somebody found either a certificate or a set of orders and made a medal to match. It’s a problem in the military memorabilia collecting field, because medals with provenance – that can be traced to an individual, with documentation – are worth more than an unnamed, mint-in-box medal.”

And he had this to say about the paperwork: “If you Google ‘replacement Purple Heart certificate,’ you’ll see that they’re literally a dime a dozen on the internet. And a true memorabilia collector/dealer would not have laminated an award certificate. It would destroy any value it had.”

Army veteran John Yanno does volunteer work in the 213th Regiment Museum in Allentown, keeping tabs on the items donated.

In this case, the authentic certificate was laminated, like the two copies Vern Yandell had. Gene or someone close to him might have done that.

Recently, I visited the 213th Regiment Museum in the Charles C. Curtis Armory, where Gene’s Good Conduct and POW medals, his Combat Infantryman Badge and his Purple Heart with the certificate are on display, donated by his family after a U.S. marshal delivered them. They were all together, neatly arrayed under glass in a case. Museum volunteers opened the case for me. All three medals have Gene’s name on the back.

For him, they were a reminder of a bloody hill and cruel captivity in Korea, experiences that troubled him for the rest of his life.

“I’ve asked myself a thousand times why God permitted me to live,” he told me once, “while so many of my buddies died in that godforsaken place.”

How sad that there are people who trade on the courage and sacrifice of veterans like Gene Salay.

Found in a shoe box: ‘Gene Salay’ Purple Hearts

Seventh of eight parts

Jess ‘Vern’ Yandell of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department with daughter Sue in 1959
(Courtesy of Sue Yandell)

Jess “Vern” Yandell was a retired Los Angeles County deputy sheriff and avid collector of military memorabilia. Along with a municipal police officer, he ran a museum of collectibles. It was housed in a nondescript building next to the police station in Huntington Park, an L.A. suburb.

Vern got interested in war memorabilia as a boy. When he got older, he bought military tokens at auctions, bidding on them in lots so he’d get a bunch.

He served in the National Guard for eight years and with the county sheriff’s department for twenty-five, retiring in 1982. That’s the year he and his partner opened their museum to display police and military souvenirs.

“They were kind of discreet about it,” said his daughter Sue Yandell, a retired Los Angeles police officer. “It was only for other law enforcement.”

Vern had other interests. He helped lead a gardening group, the Long Beach Cactus Club, and owned a company that sold burglar alarms and monitoring systems.

When the museum closed, he moved many of the keepsakes to a back room of his house in Lakewood, just east of Long Beach.  After his wife died, he moved in with Sue, who also lived in Lakewood.

“We kept the house he and my mom lived in,” she said, “and we’d go back and forth because his house was just three miles away.”

Vern developed brain cancer and went from hospital to hospice. He died in July 2016 at age seventy-nine.

“I’d lost my mom and my sister, too,” Sue said. “I held a memorial service for all three in my home.”

She went about cleaning out her dad’s house. A shoe box in a closet had two Purple Heart medals in display cases, two laminated Purple Heart certificates and two Combat Infantryman Badges. Both medals had Gene Salay’s name on the back. The identical certificates were for the Purple Heart he received in 1954, a year after he was wounded in the Korean War.

Vern Yandell had a shoe box containing these two Purple Heart medals, both with Gene Salay’s name on the back, and two laminated certificates stating Gene was wounded July 13, 1953, in Korea, plus two Combat Infantryman Badges.

Sue, who’d found another veteran’s medal and returned it to his family, searched “Gene Salay” on the internet and saw the stories I’d written about him, and that I had called him my friend. She posted this message on my blog site on November 1, 2017: “I may have medals from Gene Salay. If you could please email me, thank you.” When I wrote back to her, she texted me photos of her find.

But Gene’s medals, recovered from a swindler and authenticated by federal agents, had been returned to his family in 2013. How did a collector 2,700 miles from Gene’s home in eastern Pennsylvania have two Purple Hearts bearing his name and two copies of his Purple Heart certificate?

COMING NEXT: A market for personalized medals

How the feds fetched Korean War vet’s medals

Sixth of eight parts

Don C. Weir Jr. was an investment adviser in a St. Louis suburb and, at times, a principal in several financial services firms. In 1999, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in eastern Missouri, he told clients they should invest in paper currency, gold coins and other precious metals. Dozens took his advice and authorized him to make such purchases for their accounts. But instead of holding onto them, he sold them behind their backs “to fund his lifestyle.”

Riverfront Times of St. Louis, September 30, 2009

Weir used the money to send his five children to college, fix up his home and add a pool, and make “significant contributions” to charities, among other things. He also bought baseball cards and military collectibles, in particular from the Korean War. To cover his tracks, he mailed his clients false statements saying their investments were growing in value.

It all came crashing down when the FBI nailed Weir for cheating his investors out of more than $10 million. In February 2009, he pleaded guilty to mail fraud. He suggested his collectibles be sold to compensate victims.

The next month, federal agents went to his home to get his baseball cards and war memorabilia, part of the treasure of his criminal enterprise. The goods included an autographed picture of Adolf Hitler from the 1920s and a cast-iron bust of Joseph Stalin. Agents also found a Cold War-era, Soviet-style landmine and some shells, all of which were inert.

Among the souvenirs seized were a Purple Heart and certificate, and Good Conduct and POW medals, all bearing the name of a Korean War veteran whose home was 870 miles away — Gene Salay.

That September, Weir was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison and ordered to pay $12.1 million in restitution. He was fifty-five at the time, the son of a World War II Army colonel.

How did Weir get Gene’s medals? In 2014, I asked a key investigator in the case, St. Louis Postal Inspector Doug Boland. Weir said he bought Gene’s medals on eBay, Boland said, but investigators found no record of the transaction.

Why didn’t Gene keep his medals? His close pal Joe Zeller told me that Gene had become disenchanted and planned to get rid of them. What was bothering him? Joe didn’t know. He thought Gene meant to throw his medals in the trash. If that’s what he did, could someone have picked them out, knowing collectors would want them?

In 2011, the U.S. Marshals Service held an online auction of Weir’s military collectibles, but Gene’s medals weren’t for sale. Federal agents held onto them because they were personalized, with “Gene Salay” engraved on the back. A check of Army records followed.

Agents determined the medals were authentic, that Gene had in fact earned them. With that, an effort to return the awards to him or a living relative got underway. Marshals learned that both Gene and his wife, Ellie, were already gone. Gene died in June 2010 at age seventy-eight. Ellie followed him six months later. She was seventy-seven. They had no living children. Their only child, a daughter named Lisa, died of cancer in 1997.

A marshal in the service’s Asset Forfeiture Division sought help from a veterans advocate in Ohio, who in turn contacted a well-connected, prominent Pennsylvania veteran. That was Joe Zeller. Joe was a politician and leader in the Allentown veterans community. He knew Gene’s three sisters, all of whom lived in the Lehigh Valley.

Gene Salay

In January 2013, Marge Szabo got a letter from the Marshals Service, saying her brother’s medals would be returned to her. She got them later that year from the chief U.S. marshal in Philadelphia, John Patrignani. After reading about Gene, he brought the medals to her in Bethlehem. “I wanted to handle this myself,” Patrignani told me in 2014, “because I thought he deserved it. He lived his life the right way.”

Marge presented Gene’s Purple Heart and certificate, Combat Infantryman Badge and Good Conduct and POW Medals to the Korea Vietnam Memorial Inc., which Gene had helped to found. The ceremony was held in the spring of 2014 at Lehigh Carbon Community College, site of the memorial group’s Armed Forces Plaza. The KVM had no venue to display the medals, so it turned them over to the 213th Regiment Museum at the Curtis Armory in Allentown.

Six months later, Don Weir was released from a federal prison.

My 2003 “in their own words” war story on Gene is on the internet. So are two blogs I wrote about Gene’s medals in 2014, one about the KVM ceremony and a follow-up about how the medals were recovered. That was the end of it until the fall of 2017, when a message appeared on my blog site from someone I didn’t know. It read:

“I may have medals from Gene Salay.”

COMING NEXT: Finding a deputy sheriff’s stash

‘It’s as if a weight has been lifted from me’

Fifth of eight parts

Gene Salay made clear he wouldn’t talk to me about his Korean War experience. It was too wrenching. But just two days later, he softened. He had spoken with his wife, Ellie, about it. She thought it was a good idea. The fiftieth anniversary of the armistice was the right time to present Gene’s story to the general public.

Gene Salay salutes a crowd gathered to honor him at the Lehigh County Government Center in Allentown. It was the end of 1999. The occasion was his retirement as county director of veterans affairs after fourteen years. “Truly, I’m overwhelmed,” he said.

“Ellie and I did a lot of talking regarding the Korean fiftieth and a story about some of my experiences,” he emailed. “Let’s get together to discuss. Ellie convinced me that you’re right. ‘David wouldn’t print anything that would cause any pain or embarrassment to you,’ she suggested. And I know that better than anyone.

“Please try to put up with my head. I’ll give serious thought to the scenario surrounding my capture, and begin making some notes for your edification.”

We met and the story, presented in his own words, took shape with surprising ease over a few weeks. Ellie read the final draft and cried. Gene was pleased but apprehensive. How would readers react?

My wife and I were vacationing in upstate New York when the article ran on Page 1 of The Morning Call of Allentown. It was July 27, 2003, fifty years to the day after the fighting ended. Over the following days, in a flood of emails and phone calls, friends and strangers alike showered Gene with kindness.

“I just finished reading the article about your stay in Korea and … wanted to tell you how overwhelmed with pride I was at knowing you,” a friend wrote.

Gene’s close buddy the Reverend Edward McElduff, a Catholic priest and Navy veteran of D-Day, mentioned the story while saying Mass at St. Nicholas Church in nearby Berlinsville. He encouraged everyone to read it, saying Gene “deserves our thanks and prayers.”

Historian Ed Root, a member of the Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project Roundtable, wrote to Gene: “Only through first-person accounts such as yours will succeeding generations get even a hint of the horror of combat.”

One poignant email came from a grown nephew of Gene’s looking back on his boyhood. He wrote to me that his uncle was his hero and described him as “a sometimes quiet man, stubborn, pragmatic, and at times hard to get along with. … But my uncle also possessed a humor like none other, and could make a nine-year-old boy laugh until his belly hurt.”

For Gene, publication was cathartic.

“It’s as if a weight has been lifted from me,” he said, “but I’m glad it’s over.”

In telling his story, he had made a contribution to history. It was magnified in 2009, when Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick included part of Gene’s account in her bestselling book about ordinary North Koreans, Nothing to Envy, a National Book Award finalist.

Gene and I stayed friends. My wife, Mary, and I went out to dinner with him and Ellie. He and I met for lunches. I heard him speak to Bob Bryant’s social studies classes at Northampton Area High School. I was his guest at a banquet of the Allentown Chapter of the Honorary First Defenders. We talked about going to Gettysburg together — he was a student of the Civil War — but it never happened.

My home office has things he gave me. They include Bethlehem Steel bookends shaped like I-beams, and a signed, leather-bound first edition of Tom Brokaw’s memoir, A Long Way from Home.

In June 2010, the Korean Church of the Lehigh Valley planned to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the start of the Korean War with a service thanking Americans who fought in it. I wanted to offer Gene a ride there, so I called his home outside Bethlehem.

Ellie answered. “Well, David,” she said. “Gene died yesterday.”

He was at home and complained of trouble breathing, she said, and died soon afterward in the hospital. His passing came on June 24, a day before the anniversary.

Gene was remembered for rising above his physical and emotional pain from the war, helping fellow veterans however and whenever he could.

“He thought they deserved attention for what they did for their country,” Ellie told The Morning Call. “Oh, it was hard for him sometimes. He used to get very depressed when he heard all the stories.”

Gene was seventy-eight. I’d known his health was failing, but still his death came as a shock. At the Korean Church program that weekend, he was with me in spirit. I could hear him saying, “Hey, buddy.”

That fall, I gave the eulogy at a “Gene Salay Tribute” at the Lehigh County Government Center organized by his friend Joe Zeller. Joe was a Navy veteran of World War II and the Korean War, and a former state lawmaker and Emmaus mayor who led a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Allentown. Ellie was at the ceremony. The next month, she too was gone.

By that time, a swindler who coveted the symbols of Gene’s Korean War sacrifice had gotten his comeuppance.

COMING NEXT: A criminal case yields Gene’s medals

A passion for helping his fellow veterans

Fourth of eight parts

Gene Charles Salay, of Hungarian heritage, grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, one of five children of a steelworker and a secretary. When he was fourteen, he caddied for Bethlehem Steel Chairman Eugene Grace, one of the most powerful men on the planet. If Mr. Grace wanted to golf and Gene was in school, no problem. Gene was pulled out of Broughal Junior High and sent to Saucon Valley Country Club to be with the boss.

Ex-POW Gene Salay, an Army infantryman, during halftime at the Bethlehem-Hershey football game October 9, 1953, at Liberty High School, which Gene had attended. With him are (from left) Mr. and Mrs. John Griffith of the Bethlehem Merrymakers, who gave him a plaque; Mayor Earl E. Schaffer; and Edward McCarroll, commander of AmVets Post 4, who gave Gene a life membership in the organization. It was “Gene Salay Day” in his hometown. He was on a thirty-day furlough and would return to Valley Forge General Hospital to continue his rehabilitation.

He quit Bethlehem’s Liberty High School in tenth grade to work at “The Steel,” first in the sintering plant and then with the electrical repair gang. Two years later, in 1952, he joined the Army, trained at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and went to Korea as a radio operator.

A private first class in the 8202nd Army Unit, he was attached to the Korean Military Advisory Group and in turn assigned to the Capitol ROK Division. (ROK stands for Republic of Korea, which is South Korea.) His specialty was the AN/GRC-9 radio, better known as the Angry-9, which could send both Morse code and voice messages.

In the summer of 1953, he was shot in hand-to-hand fighting near the North Korea border, captured by the Chinese and held for weeks in a camp somewhere north of Pyongyang. Then came freedom, months of recovery at Valley Forge General Hospital and getting on with his life. He married his fiancée, Elsa “Ellie” Hafner, a nurse, and studied at Moravian College (now Moravian University) while working full time at the steel plant.

Doctors with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs monitored the bullet lodged near his heart. After two years, they were satisfied that a layer of fat had formed around it, and it had become part of him. They were concerned that if they operated, his left arm might become useless. Besides, the bullet caused him no discomfort.

Gene graduated from Moravian in 1960 and got into Bethlehem’s Loop Course management training program, spending a year at the Lackawanna plant near Buffalo, New York. Then it was back to Bethlehem, where he worked in the Manufacturing Division, mainly the massive No. 2 Machine Shop, the storied forger of battleship guns. He ended up a cashier in the accounting department. In his leisure time out on the links, he was a topnotch golfer.

All the while, he was traumatized from the war and could be difficult to live with. Ellie kept telling him, “You need help.” He finally got some when the VA opened an outpatient clinic in Allentown in 1979.

Five years later, he retired from Bethlehem Steel and volunteered at the VA clinic, helping fellow veterans get the benefits due them. He had a passion for it. When the position of Lehigh County director of veterans affairs became vacant in 1986, he got the job and held it until the millennium. Pennsylvania singled him out for distinguished service and as a champion of veterans’ preference in hiring.

Lisa Salay was a 1974 graduate of Bethlehem Catholic High School.

With all that he’d endured in Korea, a new and crushing grief visited him. His and Ellie’s only child, Lisa, was an art historian educated at Penn State and Columbia University. In 1997, at age forty, she died of cancer.

I knew Gene had been a POW. At the time I was in contact with him, he had only discussed his war experiences with VA mental health practitioners. From time to time, I asked to do a story on him. He always answered with a polite, firm “no.” Instead he steered me to other veterans he felt deserved to have their stories told.

With the Korean War armistice nearing the half-century mark, I nudged Gene yet again. He emailed: “I am unable to go through with your request of me. … Sharing my feelings about certain atrocities I was witness to, breaks my heart. To see my story in print for others to see as well, I am afraid I would be incapable of handling it.”

That seemed to close the door for good. I resolved not to press him again. It turned out I wouldn’t have to.

COMING NEXT: ‘A weight has been lifted from me’

For POWs, a cruel game of interrogation

Third of eight parts

The Morning Call, July 25, 1953

After their capture by the Chinese, Gene Salay and Dick Annunziata were joined by dozens of other Korean War prisoners and marched north in fierce heat. They were given no food or water.

One morning, Gene told Dick he couldn’t go on. His left leg, which he’d injured while playing high school football, was swollen and causing him excruciating pain.

“If you don’t get up and march, they’ll shoot you,” Dick said.

“Let ’em shoot me.”

Dick wasn’t going to let that happen. He half dragged, half carried Gene until he could limp on his own.

The prisoners slept in a cave one night, on dirt covered in several inches of water. The next day, they were taken out one by one. After each was led away, gunfire followed. When it was Gene’s turn, he made the sign of the cross. The Army radio operator, twenty-one years old, expected to die.

A guard escorted him to a tent, where an English-speaking Chinese officer interrogated him. Another officer burst in and slapped Gene several times. He asked Gene where he lived. Gene pointed to Pennsylvania on a map. Asked what his parents do, Gene said his mother worked in a Bethlehem Steel blast furnace and his father on a farm. He was lying. His father worked at the steelmaker, and his mother was a secretary in the English department at Lehigh University.

A guard grabbed Gene by the arm and led him out of the tent. Gene made the sign of the cross again. Turning a corner, he saw the guys who had preceded him out of the cave. They were alive. As Gene neared them, a Chinese soldier fired his burp gun into a dirt bank.

It had all been a game to scare the captives.

Farther on, as they rode in rickety trucks on a dirt road, two American fighter jets strafed them. No one was hit. The next day, they were strafed again.

By the time the prisoners reached Camp 5 north of Pyongyang, the truce that ended the fighting had already been signed. They didn’t know it, but the Chinese did. They kept their captives in crude structures that resembled chicken coops. The men had to crouch inside them and sleep on dirt atop one another. For nourishment, they got a cup of tea in the morning and a cup of rice at night. There were work details, but Gene and the other wounded men were excused from them. He was glad he didn’t have to clean out the foul pit where the prisoners relieved themselves.

The Morning Call, August 25, 1953

A few times, they were marched to a dirt amphitheater to see Chinese propaganda films. North Korean villagers spat on them, punched and clubbed them on the path as they walked single file. When a teen whacked Gene hard, he punched him in the face. There could have been more trouble for Gene, but the guards rescued him.

One day, the POWs were trucked away from camp, not knowing their destination, and brought to Panmunjom. It was where the truce talks had been held and where the Americans from Camp 5 were set free almost a month after the armistice. Gene and the others got a hearty handshake from General Mark Clark, the commander of U.N. forces. They were going home.

My presentation of Gene’s account ran in The Morning Call of Allentown on July 27, 2003, the fiftieth anniversary of the Korean War armistice. The story appeared in his own words under the headline, “So this is what it feels like to die.” Local historian Ed Root called it “moving, frightening and uplifting.”

As an editor at the newspaper, I had occasional, brief phone contact with Gene in the 1990s, when he was Lehigh County’s director of veterans affairs.

The first time we had a real conversation, I called to ask him how I could get records about my cousin Nicky, an Army helicopter pilot who was killed in Vietnam. I remember the call distinctly, not because of what Gene told me, but because of his manner. I hung up and thought: What a good guy! Helpful, patient, friendly. We’d never met face to face, but still he called me buddy. “Hey, buddy.”

I would get used to hearing that.

COMING NEXT: A reluctant storyteller

‘So this is what it feels like to die’

Second of eight parts

Private First Class Gene Salay with a South Korean interpreter in 1953 near the North Korean border. The interpreter, Kim Yung Jo, was killed soon afterward in the same fighting that led to Gene’s capture, the Battle of the Kumsong River Salient.

The attack on July 13, 1953, followed more than three hours of incessant shelling. Bugles blared in the night. Flares lit up South Korea’s Kumhwa Valley, just below the North Korean border. Thousands of Chinese troops surged forward.

From the barren hillside where he was posted with about fifty other American and South Korean troops, Private First Class Gene Salay thought the enemy looked like a multitude of ants feverishly at work.

Gene and the men with him could hardly believe what was happening. They hollered and fired their M-1 rifles from the hip. In no time at all, the Chinese were upon them. The fighting turned hand to hand. An enemy soldier grabbed Gene’s rifle at the muzzle end. Gene, who was six feet tall and played football in high school, shook the M-1 free and clubbed him with it, sending him to the ground.

Something, probably a gun butt, hit Gene in the head, and he went down. He couldn’t move his left side and didn’t realize he’d been shot below the shoulder.

He lay dazed. So this is what it feels like to die, he thought.

Hundreds of Chinese were all around. Many ran over him. The first wave passed, and a mop-up crew was approaching. Gene, a devout Catholic, felt God’s presence and prayed.

(The Morning Call)

Somehow he was spared. He and two other wounded buddies huddled among the dead in a crater, unarmed and bloody, through the night.

At dawn, several Chinese soldiers appeared on the rim of the crater. Gene saw them and heard them talking. There was a South Korean soldier in the pit with the Americans. He must have been afraid of being captured. Armed with a “grease” submachine gun, he got on his knees, bent over forward, put the barrel to his belly and pulled the trigger. Gene saw the bullets coming out of his back. He was dead.

The Chinese hadn’t seen the South Korean and might have thought someone was shooting at them. They fired their “burp” submachine guns into the pit, missing Gene but hitting his already grievously hurt friend Kenny Clough in the gut. Kenny moved when struck, so the Chinese descended into the crater to investigate. They went around kicking the fallen and pulled out Dick Annunziata and Gene, who in turn pulled out Kenny.

“We’re not gonna leave him,” Gene said when the Chinese wanted them to move out. Kenny was turning gray. “Gene, don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’ll be all right.” With that, he died.

Moving on, Dick and Gene saw body parts and corpses everywhere they turned. Blood flowed down the hill into a ditch and ran along a road.

Gene had barely survived the start of the week-long Battle of the Kumsong River Salient, the last communist offensive of the war. On his march to a prison camp, he would come close to death again.

COMING NEXT: Fifty years after the armistice

On the trail of a Korean War veteran’s medals

First of eight parts

Gene Salay in 2003, fifty years after the Korean War armistice

He was revered for his work on behalf of veterans, a former soldier and POW with a bullet lodged near his heart, a man of deep faith in God.

For fourteen years, Gene Salay (pronounced suh-LAY) led the Veterans Affairs office of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. “He always made time for a veteran in need,” a colleague said. Another called him “a soldier’s soldier … very knowledgeable … and 1,000% for the veterans.”

Gene was my friend. After much hesitation, he allowed me to write about his Army experience in the Korean War, though it pained him. The combat he’d faced and how his Chinese captors treated him were a frequent torment.

“When I think about certain of my experiences, I’m a wreck for days,” he told me. “And I think about my experiences every day of my life.”

Gene presents a plaque to Bob Hope, making him an honorary member of the American Ex-Prisoners of War. Gene was adjutant for the group’s Lehigh Valley chapter. He made the presentation in 1983 while Hope was performing at Lehigh University.

At some point, he got rid of the honors bestowed on him — his Good Conduct Medal, his POW Medal, his Combat Infantryman Badge, his Purple Heart and the certificate that came with it. A close friend said he had become embittered.

The awards ended up almost halfway across the country in the hands of a financial adviser who collected military memorabilia on the side. He got caught stealing more than $10 million in precious metal coins from investors. Among the valuables that federal agents seized from his home were Gene’s medals. 

The keepsakes found their way home in 2013, three years after Gene died. They were placed in the museum of a Pennsylvania National Guard armory near where he had lived.

All was well. Gene’s sacrifice was there to see and would not be forgotten.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Some years later, I got a message from a stranger on the West Coast that jolted me. It was about Gene’s medals.

COMING NEXT: Near death on a bloody hillside

Charting the course of an Avenger gunner’s service

Jim ‘Ace’ Gallagher as a combat aircrewman in the Navy

When you interview military veterans, it’s helpful to create a timeline of their training, assignments and experiences. The information comes from their own memories, training certificates they’ve kept, their discharge papers and other documents. You should go over the stuff with them, because paperwork doesn’t always tell the truth.

Beyond ordering events, the details give you the sweep of their lives and service.

I did that for my story on a Navy veteran of World War II that ran yesterday, Veterans Day, in The Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania, my former longtime employer.

The veteran is Allentown native Jim “Ace” Gallagher, who was a turret gunner on Avenger torpedo bombers in the Pacific. He is ninety-seven. I met him in August at a picnic marking the anniversary of V-J Day. He’d brought a photo album and told me about a training accident that killed his buddy, the radioman on Gallagher’s plane, and how he still grieves for him. I was hooked. The anecdote became the heart of Gallagher’s account, which appeared as part of my War Stories in Their Own Words series.

Gallagher and daughter Patti Dottery on August 15 at a picnic to mark the seventy-seventh anniversary of V-J Day. It was held at Macungie Memorial Park and presented by the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the Battle of the Bulge Association. Eight other other World War II veterans attended.

Here’s the timeline I developed while interviewing Gallagher over several visits:

June 1925: Born in Allentown.

Spring 1942: Graduates from Allentown High School. The yearbook, the Comus, describes him as “enthusiastic and persistent in all he undertakes.”

May 10, 1943: Enters active service in Navy. Boot camp is at the Naval Training Station at Sampson, New York.

November 20, 1943: Completes aviation ordnanceman course at Naval Air Technical Training Center in Memphis, Tennessee.

January 15, 1944: Completes Naval Air Gunners School in Hollywood, Florida.

January 16, 1944: Starts operational training at Opa-Locka, Florida, one of three fields at Naval Air Station Miami. (The others were Miami Municipal and Master Field.) Goes on first plane ride, in a twin-engine Beechcraft.

Gallagher (far right) and four other Pennsylvanians get their combat aircrewman wings from WAVE Polly Spooner, a yeoman second class, in April 1944 at Naval Air Station Miami.

April 17, 1944: Completes operational training at Opa-Locka, winning combat aircrewman wings.

June 1944: Turns nineteen.

October 5, 1944: Night Carrier Air Group 91 is formed at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. Gallagher is assigned to a night torpedo squadron there, VT(N)-91, which flies Avengers.

Eddie Fisher (right) and friends on a night out in Miami

Late 1944 into 1945: Trains at Naval Base Key West at Boca Chica, Florida. On a night practice mission where radioman Eddie Fisher flies in Gallagher’s place, Avenger crashes into the sea and Fisher is killed. After training, Gallagher is sent to San Diego.

February 27, 1945: Night Torpedo Squadron 91 sails for Hawaii on the seaplane tender USS Norton Sound.

March 6, 1945: Norton Sound arrives at Oahu. Gallagher reports to Naval Air Station Barbers Point.

Gallagher on leave in Allentown

May 22, 1945: Night Torpedo Squadron 91 boards Essex-class carrier USS Bon Homme Richard. Within a month, Gallagher’s pilot is kicked off squadron. Gallagher’s Avenger crew takes United Fruit liner to Saipan, joins Carrier Aircraft Service Unit 7 to support naval aircraft operations.

June 1945: Gallagher turns twenty.

August 14, 1945: Japan surrenders.

April 1, 1946: Gallagher is honorably discharged from the Navy at Bremerton, Washington, as an aviation ordnanceman third class.

World War II top gunner Clarence Smoyer, 1923-2022

Clarence Smoyer poses with me at a luncheon of the Lehigh Valley Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge on October 15, 2019.

Clarence Smoyer came from coal country, went to war in a tank and became a hero on the urban battleground of Cologne, Germany.

On Friday, September 30, he died at his home in Allentown, Pennsylvania, at the age of ninety-nine.

I met Clarence in 2019 while he was giving talks about his World War II experiences as a gunner in the 3rd Armored Division. His story was chronicled that year in the bestselling book Spearhead by Adam Makos.

Here’s my tribute to Clarence that was posted by his hometown newspaper, The Morning Call.