The Korean Church of the Lehigh Valley was planning to mark the 50th anniversary of the start of the Korean War with a service to thank veterans who had fought in it, and I knew just who I wanted to invite.
Gene Salay had been director of veterans affairs for Lehigh County for fourteen years and was a Korean War veteran who took a bullet near the heart during hand-to-hand fighting and was captured and held prisoner by the Chinese.
As an assignment editor at The Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania, I had some brief contact with Gene in the early 1990s. But the first time we spoke more than casually was in 1995, after one of my co-workers suggested the longtime veterans advocate might be able to help me find information about my cousin Nicky Venditti.
Nicky was an Army helicopter pilot from Malvern, Pennsylvania, who was wounded on only his sixth day in Vietnam and died at an evacuation hospital several days later, on July 15, 1969. My quest to know about Nicky’s life and death – which ultimately led to my book, Quiet Man Rising: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam — had only just begun, and I didn’t know where to turn for Army documents. I called Gene, and he told me about the various government sources I could tap. Thanks to his guidance, I got a good start on a project that would take me more than a dozen years to complete.
After my series War Stories: In Their Own Words began in The Morning Call in 1999, I asked Gene from time to time if he would tell me about his Korean War experiences. His answer was always a polite but firm “no.” In the meantime, he steered me to veterans who did tell me their stories: Bob Serafin, who served in both World War II and the Vietnam War; Bataan Death March survivor Joe Poster; and a Catholic priest, the Rev. Ed McElduff, a Navy veteran and Purple Heart recipient who was aboard an LST (landing ship tank) that hit two mines on D-Day.
Early in 2003, I asked Gene again if he would tell me his story, this time saying it would be appropriate for the upcoming 50th anniversary of the end of the war. He said he had only discussed his war experiences with Department of Veterans Affairs mental health practitioners. But after talking it over with his wife, Ellie, he finally agreed to be interviewed.
The story ran on Page 1 Sunday, July 27, 2003, the half-century anniversary of the end of the war, under the headline “So this is what it feels like to die,” which is what Gene thought in the moments after he was shot. (You can read it at http://www.mcall.com/news/warstories/all-genesalay,0,6228449.story.) He was bombarded with responses from readers who were profoundly moved by his remembrances and thanked him for his service to the country. Local historian Ed Root said Gene’s account of what happened to him in the 1953 Battle of the Kumsong River Salient and during his captivity was “moving, frightening and uplifting.”
Gene was relieved and glad he had gone ahead with the story. “It’s as though a weight has been lifted from me,” he wrote a few days after publication.
Over the years, Gene and I stayed friends. My wife, Mary, and I went out to dinner with him and Ellie. Gene and I chatted over numerous lunches. He’d always greet me with a “hey, buddy.” He gave me tokens of his friendship – bookends shaped like steel I-beams and forged at Bethlehem Steel, where Gene had worked, and a leather-bound first edition of Tom Brokaw’s A Long Way Home, signed by the author. But until the week before the Korean church’s salute to the Lehigh Valley’s Korean War vets, I hadn’t tried to contact Gene in months, though I knew his health was failing.
Now I phoned and his wife answered. “Hi Ellie, I’m calling to see if Gene is going to the Korean church ceremony and if he’d like a ride. It’s been so long since I’ve seen him.”
“Well, David,” Ellie said, “Gene died yesterday.”
He had died at home June 24 at age 78.
Three days later, I went to the beautiful, heartfelt ceremony at the church in Whitehall, Pennsylvania, where the Koreans personally thanked the Americans who had come to their country’s aid. They were men like Walter Redlich of the 2nd Infantry Division, who had fought on Heartbreak Ridge, and Joe Pulley, who had served with a Marine antiaircraft battery at Pusan.
My buddy Gene was there, too.
He was with me, in heart and mind.