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

3 responses to “On the trail of a Korean War veteran’s medals

  1. Wow when done can you send two copies the first one about gene and the one you just wrote and finished one?


  2. As always we’re hooked in from the start….
    Can’t wait for parts 2-8!


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