A passion for helping his fellow veterans

Fourth of eight parts

Gene Charles Salay, of Hungarian heritage, grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, one of five children of a steelworker and a secretary. When he was fourteen, he caddied 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 be with the boss.

Ex-POW Gene Salay, an Army infantryman, during halftime at the Bethlehem-Hershey football game October 9, 1953, at Liberty High School, which Gene had attended. With him are (from left) Mr. and Mrs. John Griffith of the Bethlehem Merrymakers, who gave him a plaque; Mayor Earl E. Schaffer; and Edward McCarroll, commander of AmVets Post 4, who gave Gene a life membership in the organization. It was “Gene Salay Day” in his hometown. He was on a thirty-day furlough and would return to Valley Forge General Hospital to continue his rehabilitation.

He quit Bethlehem’s Liberty High School in tenth grade to work at “The Steel,” first in the sintering plant and then with the electrical repair gang. Two years later, in 1952, he joined the Army, trained at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and went to Korea as a radio operator.

A private first class in the 8202nd Army Unit, he was attached to the Korean Military Advisory Group and in turn assigned to the Capitol ROK Division. (ROK stands for Republic of Korea, which is South Korea.) His specialty was the AN/GRC-9 radio, better known as the Angry-9, which could send both Morse code and voice messages.

In the summer of 1953, he was shot in hand-to-hand fighting near the North Korea border, captured by the Chinese and held for weeks in a camp somewhere north of Pyongyang. Then came freedom, months of recovery at Valley Forge General Hospital and getting on with his life. He married his fiancée, Elsa “Ellie” Hafner, a nurse, and studied at Moravian College (now Moravian University) while working full time at the steel plant.

Doctors with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs monitored the bullet lodged near his heart. After two years, they were satisfied that a layer of fat had formed around it, and it had become part of him. They were concerned that if they operated, his left arm might become useless. Besides, the bullet caused him no discomfort.

Gene graduated from Moravian in 1960 and got into Bethlehem’s Loop Course management training program, spending a year at the Lackawanna plant near Buffalo, New York. Then it was back to Bethlehem, where he worked in the Manufacturing Division, mainly the massive No. 2 Machine Shop, the storied forger of battleship guns. He ended up a cashier in the accounting department. In his leisure time out on the links, he was a topnotch golfer.

All the while, he was traumatized from the war and could be difficult to live with. Ellie kept telling him, “You need help.” He finally got some when the VA opened an outpatient clinic in Allentown in 1979.

Five years later, he retired from Bethlehem Steel and volunteered at the VA clinic, helping fellow veterans get the benefits due them. He had a passion for it. When the position of Lehigh County director of veterans affairs became vacant in 1986, he got the job and held it until the millennium. Pennsylvania singled him out for distinguished service and as a champion of veterans’ preference in hiring.

Lisa Salay was a 1974 graduate of Bethlehem Catholic High School.

With all that he’d endured in Korea, a new and crushing grief visited him. His and Ellie’s only child, Lisa, was an art historian educated at Penn State and Columbia University. In 1997, at age forty, she died of cancer.

I knew Gene had been a POW. At the time I was in contact with him, he had only discussed his war experiences with VA mental health practitioners. From time to time, I asked to do a story on him. He always answered with a polite, firm “no.” Instead he steered me to other veterans he felt deserved to have their stories told.

With the Korean War armistice nearing the half-century mark, I nudged Gene yet again. He emailed: “I am unable to go through with your request of me. … Sharing my feelings about certain atrocities I was witness to, breaks my heart. To see my story in print for others to see as well, I am afraid I would be incapable of handling it.”

That seemed to close the door for good. I resolved not to press him again. It turned out I wouldn’t have to.

COMING NEXT: ‘A weight has been lifted from me’

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