Remembering veterans advocate Gene Salay

Korean War Memorial, Washington

The Korean War Memorial in Washington

It was heartwarming to see more than a hundred people show up Sunday at the Lehigh County Government Center in Allentown for a tribute to the late Gene Salay.

Gene was a Korean War POW and longtime director of veterans affairs for the county — and my good friend. The tribute, coming four months after his death on June 24 at age 78, was sponsored by the new Military Nursing Corps of Pennsylvania, VFW Post 12099 of Lehigh County. Gene was a founder of the post, along with Wendall Phillips and Joe Zeller. On Sunday, Wendall offered a prayer and Joe was master of ceremonies.

A number of people who knew Gene spoke movingly about his kindness and dedication to veterans.

I also had a role in this ceremony. Joe had asked me to be the speaker, based on an interview I had with Gene in 2003 that was published in The Morning Call on the 50th anniversary of the end of the fighting in Korea. In my talk, I read parts of the story.      

Here is what I said: 

As an editor at The Morning Call, I had occasional brief phone contact with Gene in the early ’90s when he was director of veterans affairs for Lehigh County.

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 hang up and think: What a good guy. Helpful. Patient. Friendly. We’d never met face to face and he called me his buddy.

“Hey buddy.”

I would get used to hearing that.

Gene grew up south Bethlehem. When he was 14, he was caddying 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 hit the course with the boss.

In 1950, Gene started working at The Steel, first in the sintering plant and then in the electrical repair gang. Two years later, he joined the Army. He went to Korea and in 1953 got caught up in the last communist offensive of the war, just two weeks before the armistice.

I’d known he had been a POW and had a bullet lodged near his heart. From time to time, I asked him to let me do a story on his experiences, but he always answered with a polite, firm “no.” Instead he steered me to interview other veterans he felt deserved to have their stories told. One of them is here, Bob Serafin.

In 2003, I wanted to do a story marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the fighting in the Korean War. I wanted to interview Gene, but he again declined. He wrote in an e-mail:

“I am unable to go through with your request of me. I’ve had nightmares thinking about it. I am very emotional. I break down very easily. When I think about certain of my experiences, I’m a wreck for days. And I think about my experiences every day of my life. ..To see my story in print for others to see as well, I am afraid I would be incapable of handling it.”

Two days later he softened. He had spoken with Ellie about it – Ellie, who would be with him for a total of 56 years – and she convinced him that he should talk about his war experiences for publication.

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

Soon after that, Gene and I sat down together and the story took shape.

In July 1953, when he was 21, Gene was a PFC assigned to the Capital ROK Division – ROK meaning Republic of Korea, the formal name for South Korea. He was wounded and taken prisoner during the Battle of the Kumsong River Salient.

I’d like to read parts of his story to you.

“We were posted on a hillside at Kumhwa, near the border with North Korea. Division headquarters was three or four miles behind us.

“For the most part, it was a static war.

“July 13, 1953, was the same as any other day. Periodically, we could hear the sounds of outgoing rounds from The Triple Nickel, the 555th Field Artillery Battalion, about a mile to our rear. They fired 105 mm and 155 mm cannons. This was our way of staying in touch with the enemy. Of course, it’s how they communicated with us, as well. But for the most part, their incoming rounds fell harmlessly onto the mountainside. We hoped ours were more effective.

“It had been raining off and on for over a week. Perfect weather for an attack, I thought.

“Around 7:30 p.m., the Chinese started an incessant bombardment of our hillside position that lasted more than two hours. Around 10 p.m., they fired flares that lit up the Kumhwa Valley.

“We saw the hills and valleys come alive with thousands of enemy soldiers, reminding me of millions of ants feverishly at work. First one, then another bugle was heard, then another, and still another, from tops of mountains and ridges around us.

“I was in radio contact with Sgt. Mel Shannon, who was at division headquarters.

“‘Gene, he said, ‘you’re completely surrounded.’

“Including ROKs, there were about 50 of us on the bare hillside. Below, three Chinese divisions were coming toward us.

“They were running up the slight slope, so close we fired our M-1 rifles from the hip. We were incredulous. It was like a scene unfolding in a motion picture. We hollered and looked around for more cartridges, but there weren’t any.

“In seconds the fighting was hand-to-hand. One Chinese soldier grabbed my M-1 at the muzzle end and was trying to pull it away from me. I yanked it out of his hands and swung it at him and hit him, and he went down. I was using my rifle like a baseball bat.

“Then I felt something like a mule kicking me in the head — it was probably a gun butt — and I went down.

“I couldn’t move my left side.

 “I was on my back, in a daze. Hundreds of Chinese were all around, running over bodies. Many ran over me, jarring me awake.

“In 20 minutes, the first wave had passed, decimating our position. I heard firing in the rear. Up ahead, the mop-up crew was coming. I prayed. I thought this was the end. I could feel the presence of God.

“There was a lull in the fighting, and I could hear the moans of others in the distance.

“As loudly as I dared, I whispered for some of my buddies. ‘Hey Dick, Kenny, Duke.’ Only Dick Annunziata responded. We crawled to one another, between and over the bodies of friend and foe. He, too, was wounded. A bullet had creased his left shoulder.

“In the darkness we tried to assess our situation. We thought we could hold out for maybe 24 hours. In the meantime, we’d hope and pray for a counterattack.

“We heard Kenny Clough’s call among the moans and crawled to him. He was seriously wounded.

“Unarmed, we nestled in among the dead in a crater and fell silent. We waited and waited through the night. I prayed to the Blessed Mother and asked her to please tell Mom and Pop I’m OK.

“No counterattack came by the time day broke. Our ammo supply trucks had been cut off, we found out later. The Triple Nickel was completely overrun, and each gun emplacement destroyed. The enemy had us totally zeroed in.

“From our crater, where we lay intermingled with more than 20 dead, we could hear enemy patrols firing short bursts from their burp guns. They were the mop-up crew. Their guns chattered brrrrrrt, brrrrrrt, and they were getting closer.

“The crater was about 15 feet wide and 3 feet deep, with a ridge about 8 feet high at one end. It might have been caused by incoming artillery early in the fighting. Kenny, Dick and I were 3 or 4 feet apart from each other.

“I was bleeding. My left arm and side were useless.

“Until dawn, we didn’t know there was anyone alive around us. Then we saw a lone ROK soldier who had a grease gun, a .45-caliber machine gun. We tried to talk him out of it, so that we would have a weapon, but he couldn’t understand English.

“Four or five Chinese showed up on the ridge along our crater. I was lying partly on my side, looking up with my left eye, and saw them. They were talking. We assumed one of them said, ‘What do you think about those guys? You think they’re all dead?’

“The ROK must have heard them and got scared. Maybe he understood what they were saying. He didn’t want to be taken prisoner. He got on his knees, bent over forward, put the barrel to his belly and pulled the trigger.

“I saw the bullets coming out of his back.

 “He died instantly.

“From where they were standing, the Chinese couldn’t see him. They probably thought they were being fired at, so two or more of them started firing their burp guns into the pit, spitting out bullets.

“They missed Dick and me, but one shot got Kenny in the stomach. He was already horribly wounded. He moved when he was struck, so the Chinese realized there must be somebody alive where we were, and they came down from the ridge and encircled us.

“If they had been North Koreans, none of us would have survived. They were known to take no prisoners.

“Instead, the Chinese came around and kicked people, and grabbed us and pulled us out of the pit. We were all bloody from ourselves and from the others.

“Dick and I thought we were going to die.

“We pulled Kenny out — he was completely paralyzed — and moved into a clearing where there were no bodies. Kenny was turning gray but was conscious. … We stayed with him.

“The Chinese searched us, but Dick and I had buried our wallets during the night, because we were afraid they would get into enemy hands. So the only things we had were our dog tags.

“About 11 a.m., when they wanted us to go, I said, ‘We’re not gonna leave him.’

“But Kenny said, ‘Gene, don’t worry about me. I’ll be all right.’

“And he died.

“We moved on and saw headless torsos, arms, legs, pools of blood everywhere. There were thousands and thousands of dead, and the blood flowed down the hill into a ditch and ran along the roadside.

“There must have been 40 to 50 guys captured, Americans and ROKs.

“As we were marched northward, we met guys from The Triple Nickel, the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team and the 5th Regimental Combat Team who had also been rounded up. Now we numbered about 100.

“We came across enemy machine gun nests in the open along the road. The gunners were sitting on the ground, firing into the hills. We were made to walk directly in front of their guns and expected our legs to get blown out from under us. Fortunately, whenever we passed in front, the guns stopped.

“After we were on this road for half a mile, some of our own guys in the hills thought we were friendly troops counter-attacking, and so a couple of them got up and started shouting, ‘Hey, we’re over here!’ The guards opened up on them.

“Our artillery was pounding all around us. I thought: If I’m going to die, let it be from one of our own…. Our guys weren’t hitting anything. Their rounds exploded harmlessly against the mountainside.

“It was fiercely hot and humid, but we were given no water or anything to eat.

“When we crossed a river I assumed to be the Kumsong River, we delighted in drinking as much from it as we could stand. It was muddy and filthy, but when you’re thirsty, you don’t mind. At least it was wet. We also got a taste of what reminded me of seaweed. It was green and not too bad.

“After the second day’s march, the officers were separated from the enlisted ranks, and the ROKs isolated from both. We bedded down at a so-called aid station, although there was no aid to be had, even for the Chinese who needed medical attention.

“When we enlisted men continued the march the next day — there were 50 to 60 of us — we didn’t know what happened to the officers and ROKs. We walked all day, every day for about a week, resting at night.

“Our ragtag outfit underwent one more separation. The wounded were separated from the unwounded. Some of us who were wounded took this to be an ominous sign.

“I was nearing my breaking point.

“My left leg started bothering me and began to swell. I had suffered a knee injury playing high school football. Now it was killing me, and I was limping badly.

“Before we started to march one morning, I told Dick that I couldn’t go on.

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

“‘Let ’em shoot me.’

“But Dick was adamant. There was no way he was going to leave me behind. At sun-up, he helped me to my feet and half dragged, half carried me until I was able to limp along on my own.

“He saved my life….

 “One night we stayed in a man-made cave in a mountain. It had a high ceiling, about 25 feet, with no supports. The dirt floor had 2 to 3 inches of water in the area where we were forced to sleep.

“We grumbled but huddled close to one another and eventually fell into slumber, if only for brief periods.

“In the morning, we were called out of the cave one at a time to be interrogated in a tent. After the first one of us was taken out, roughly 20 minutes passed, and we heard gunfire. He didn’t return. Another was taken by the arm, and 20 minutes later, more gunshots. He didn’t return. This went on.

“When it was my turn, I made the sign of the cross and prepared to die.

“A guard escorted me to the tent, which was square and had a table and two chairs. Another guard was posted at the entrance.

“I sat down across from an English-speaking Chinese officer who claimed he was a graduate of a California college, UCLA or USC. Uh-oh, I thought, no games with this guy.

“He offered me a cigarette, and I took it. He placed a map of the area in front of me and wanted to know what I could tell him about our units.

“‘Pfc. Gene Salay,’ I said, and gave my serial number.

“He laughed and began to identify the units in our area, actually naming officers, most of whom I didn’t know.

“Then another officer burst into the tent and knocked the cigarette out of my hand. I stood up, and he slapped me several times. I controlled my temper.

“He laid a map of the United States on the table and asked, ‘Where do you live?’ I didn’t see any harm in telling him, didn’t think I was endangering any of our guys. I pointed to Pennsylvania.

“‘What do your parents do?’

“I pointed to the Lehigh Valley and said, ‘My mom works at Bethlehem Steel in the blast furnace.’ Then I pointed to Cambria County. ‘My father works on a farm.’

“It was a lie. My father worked at Bethlehem Steel and my mother was a secretary in the English department at Lehigh University.

“A guard grabbed me by the arm and led me out of the tent. I thought my time was up and made the sign of the cross again.

“We went around a corner, away from the others still waiting to be queried, and I was surprised to see the guys who had preceded me standing there. As I neared them, a Chinese soldier fired his burp gun, a short-barreled submachine gun, into a dirt bank.

“The interrogation was all a game.”

 Gene was held at a POW camp north of Pyongyang, North Korea. On Aug. 28, 1953, he was freed at Panmunjom, where he got a welcome-home handshake from Gen. Mark Clark, the commander of U.N. forces. Besides a Combat Infantryman Badge, Gene now had a Purple Heart.

He told me in our interview: “I’ve asked myself a thousand times why God permitted me to live, while so many of my buddies died in that godforsaken place 50 years ago.”

For about two years after he got home from the war, the VA monitored the bullet lodged near his heart. The doctors were satisfied that a layer of fat had formed around it and it had become a part of his body. They were concerned that if they operated, his left arm might be left useless. Even when he was into his 70s, the bullet caused him no discomfort. 

About his story getting in the paper, Gene felt some relief from his anxiety. “It’s as though a weight has been lifted from me, but I’m glad it’s over,” he said.

He returned to Bethlehem Steel in 1954 and later attended Moravian College while working full time. Get this: The company let him and others who wanted to go to school work a steady 4-to-midnight shift and gave them jobs that could take up to six hours to complete. They could use the rest of their shift to study.

After Gene graduated from Moravian in 1960, he got into Bethlehem Steel’s management training program and spent a year at the Lackawanna plant near Buffalo. Then he was transferred back to Bethlehem and worked in the Manufacturing Division, mainly the No. 2 Machine Shop. Ultimately he worked in the accounting department.

In 1984, Gene retired after more than three decades at the company. He volunteered at the Allentown VA Clinic and became veterans affairs director for Lehigh County in 1986. He had that job for 14 years.

By all accounts, by any measure, he was an intrepid veterans advocate. After his death, Paul Pagoda of Lower Saucon wrote in a letter to The Call:

“During the years I served as the administrative officer at the Veterans Affairs clinic in Allentown, I worked closely with Gene on many veteran-related issues – on individual cases as well as on those affecting the veteran community. Gene was a true professional who worked tirelessly on behalf of all veterans. He always made time for a veteran in need. A true hero and more.

“When the VA eliminated funding for dental services at the new VA clinic, Gene was among those who successfully petitioned the VA and Sen. Specter’s office to restore funding for those services. That was just one of the many issues Gene supported and worked on in behalf of area veterans. He left a legacy of achievement and service to veterans. Indeed I consider myself lucky to have served those same veterans along with Gene and to have called him a friend. He will be missed but certainly will not be forgotten.”

Gene was recognized at the state level with a Distinguished Service Medal for his work. He also was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal because he had championed veterans preference in hiring.

One of his fondest moments, he gave 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. We ran a picture of Gene and Hope with Gene’s story. 

With all he had suffered in the war, it hardly seems fair that more tragedy was in store for him, but it was. He and Ellie lost their only child, Lisa, to cancer in 1997.

Over the years, Gene and I stayed in touch. We had a lot of lunches together – that was the big thing for us. My wife, Mary, and I went out to dinner with him and Ellie. He sent me e-mails or called me about the stories I wrote. I have a file at home, 2 inches thick, that has every card, note and e-mail he ever sent me.

Gene introduced me to Gen. Anna Mae Hays, who grew up in Allentown, led the Army Nurse Corps and was the first woman in the U.S. military to become a general. 

He took me to an Honorary First Defenders banquet. He had a great interest in the Civil War, and we talked about touring Gettysburg together, but it didn’t happen. 

I saw Gene in Bob Bryant’s social studies classes at Northampton High. Gene would help Bob arrange for war veterans to speak to his classes. Bob, who is here today, wrote in a letter to The Call that Gene “was a genuine, kind-hearted man.”

“As a teacher of social studies at Northampton Area High School (now retired),” Bob wrote, “I had the privilege to meet and become close friends with Gene years ago as he helped arrange for a variety of World War II and Korean War veterans to come into my classes and enlighten my young adults. He would always briefly address my students with a few patriotic words before introducing that day’s guests, always referring to them as ‘the true heroes,’ which they certainly are. Always modestly deferring to others, deflecting praise from himself – that was Gene.

“To me, my students, my family and so very many others, Mr. Salay was the truest of heroes, a beloved man who’ll be deeply missed. A man who shall never, ever be forgotten.”

I know what Bob is talking about.

Four months after Gene’s death, I can still hear him clearly:

“Hey, buddy.”

One response to “Remembering veterans advocate Gene Salay

  1. I would like to speak with you. I might have his purple heart

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