‘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

2 responses to “‘So this is what it feels like to die’

  1. Gene was an important part of my life…I miss him so very much. Knowing how much he suffered and how he escaped with his life is incredible. But his legacy was his concern and care and work for every single Veteran he came across. No one can ever fill those shoes or duplicate that smile or gentle touch on a shoulder. David, thank you for all of your Veteran’s stories, especially this one!


  2. Hi Susan, nice to hear from you again, and thanks for the note about Gene. You summed up his wonderful but difficult life in a couple of sentences. I miss him.


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