Third of eight parts
After their capture by the Chinese, Gene Salay and Dick Annunziata were joined by dozens of other Korean War prisoners and marched north in fierce heat. They were given no food or water.
One morning, Gene told Dick he couldn’t go on. His left leg, which he’d injured while playing high school football, was swollen and causing him excruciating pain.
“If you don’t get up and march, they’ll shoot you,” Dick said.
“Let ’em shoot me.”
Dick wasn’t going to let that happen. He half dragged, half carried Gene until he could limp on his own.
The prisoners slept in a cave one night, on dirt covered in several inches of water. The next day, they were taken out one by one. After each was led away, gunfire followed. When it was Gene’s turn, he made the sign of the cross. The Army radio operator, twenty-one years old, expected to die.
A guard escorted him to a tent, where an English-speaking Chinese officer interrogated him. Another officer burst in and slapped Gene several times. He asked Gene where he lived. Gene pointed to Pennsylvania on a map. Asked what his parents do, Gene said his mother worked in a Bethlehem Steel blast furnace and his father on a farm. He was lying. His father worked at the steelmaker, and his mother was a secretary in the English department at Lehigh University.
A guard grabbed Gene by the arm and led him out of the tent. Gene made the sign of the cross again. Turning a corner, he saw the guys who had preceded him out of the cave. They were alive. As Gene neared them, a Chinese soldier fired his burp gun into a dirt bank.
It had all been a game to scare the captives.
Farther on, as they rode in rickety trucks on a dirt road, two American fighter jets strafed them. No one was hit. The next day, they were strafed again.
By the time the prisoners reached Camp 5 north of Pyongyang, the truce that ended the fighting had already been signed. They didn’t know it, but the Chinese did. They kept their captives in crude structures that resembled chicken coops. The men had to crouch inside them and sleep on dirt atop one another. For nourishment, they got a cup of tea in the morning and a cup of rice at night. There were work details, but Gene and the other wounded men were excused from them. He was glad he didn’t have to clean out the foul pit where the prisoners relieved themselves.
A few times, they were marched to a dirt amphitheater to see Chinese propaganda films. North Korean villagers spat on them, punched and clubbed them on the path as they walked single file. When a teen whacked Gene hard, he punched him in the face. There could have been more trouble for Gene, but the guards rescued him.
One day, the POWs were trucked away from camp, not knowing their destination, and brought to Panmunjom. It was where the truce talks had been held and where the Americans from Camp 5 were set free almost a month after the armistice. Gene and the others got a hearty handshake from General Mark Clark, the commander of U.N. forces. They were going home.
My presentation of Gene’s account ran in The Morning Call of Allentown on July 27, 2003, the fiftieth anniversary of the Korean War armistice. The story appeared in his own words under the headline, “So this is what it feels like to die.” Local historian Ed Root called it “moving, frightening and uplifting.”
As an editor at the newspaper, I had occasional, brief phone contact with Gene in the 1990s, when he was Lehigh County’s director of veterans affairs.
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 hung up and thought: What a good guy! Helpful, patient, friendly. We’d never met face to face, but still he called me buddy. “Hey, buddy.”
I would get used to hearing that.
COMING NEXT: A reluctant storyteller