A home for Gene Salay’s Korean War medals

Army Pfc. 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 Battle of the Kumsong River Salient.

Army Pfc. 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 Battle of the Kumsong River Salient, the fighting that led to Salay’s capture.

Korean War veteran Gene Salay, a wounded POW and longtime Lehigh County director of veterans affairs, died nearly four years ago. But he was remembered Sunday as Korea/Vietnam Memorial Inc. marked the ninth anniversary of its Armed Forces Plaza at Lehigh Carbon Community College.

There is a mystery behind this.

Gene was a charter member of KVM. At the ceremony, his sister Margaret Szabo presented his Purple Heart to the organization for safe-keeping. Marge, who was there with her husband, Joe, and daughter, Diane, gave the medal to KVM board member Ed Beson along with Gene’s POW and good conduct medals and his Combat Infantryman Badge.

Among those in the audience were 91-year-old Roderick Strohl, one of the “Band of Brothers” from World War II, and Lehigh County Judge Doug Reichley.

Since the KVM has no venue to display the medals, they were turned over to Andy Kelhart, curator of the 213th Regiment Museum in Allentown, who will keep them at the museum. Andy called Gene “a soldier’s soldier … very knowledgeable … and 1,000 percent for the veterans.”

Gene was shot and badly wounded in July 1953 when Chinese troops overran his unit’s position on a barren hill in northern South Korea. The 21-year-old Bethlehem native was captured and held in a POW camp in North Korea.

Kelhart said that when he asked Gene if he’d do it over again, he said, “I’d be more careful next time.” The bullet was still embedded near his heart when he died.

I got to know Gene in the mid-1990s while he was county VA director. He helped me get started with the research on my cousin Nicky, an Army helicopter pilot who went to Vietnam in the summer of 1969 and was dead in 11 days.

From time to time, I nudged Gene about telling me his Korean War experiences for my “War Stories: In Their Own Words” series in The Morning Call. He politely but firmly said “no” — until the spring of 2003. We spent many hours together working on the story. It ran July 27, 2003 to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the fighting. You can read it at http://www.mcall.com/news/all-genesalay,0,1701380.story.

It’s also in my 2011 book War Stories in Their Own Words.

What’s the mystery?

Gene’s medals showed up at his sister Marge’s doorstep last November, delivered by the supervisory deputy of the Philadelphia Violent Crimes Fugitive Task Force, U.S. Department of Justice. Marge had received a letter in January 2013 from the U.S. Marshals Service, saying the medals would be turned over to her.

So, how did Gene’s medals end up in the Justice Department’s hands?

I’ll tell you when I nail this down.

6 responses to “A home for Gene Salay’s Korean War medals

  1. Susan Derr Kirk

    Andy Kelhart’s words describing Gene as a “soldier’s soldier” are so accurate and I am glad that Gene’s hard earned medals are now in Andy’s safe keeping. I doubt there has ever been a more unassuming man who gave more respect to every single Veteran because he carried a piece of each of them in his own heart. I have always felt blessed to call Gene a friend, and miss this special guy who left a huge void in my life and the lives of many others.

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  4. David vendetta I may have medals from gene salay. If you could please email me thank you

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