‘It’s as if a weight has been lifted from me’

Fifth of eight parts

Gene Salay made clear he wouldn’t talk to me about his Korean War experience. It was too wrenching. But just two days later, he softened. He had spoken with his wife, Ellie, about it. She thought it was a good idea. The fiftieth anniversary of the armistice was the right time to present Gene’s story to the general public.

Gene Salay salutes a crowd gathered to honor him at the Lehigh County Government Center in Allentown. It was the end of 1999. The occasion was his retirement as county director of veterans affairs after fourteen years. “Truly, I’m overwhelmed,” he said.

“Ellie and I did a lot of talking regarding the Korean fiftieth and a story about some of my experiences,” he emailed. “Let’s get together to discuss. Ellie convinced me that you’re right. ‘David wouldn’t print anything that would cause any pain or embarrassment to you,’ she suggested. And I know that better than anyone.

“Please try to put up with my head. I’ll give serious thought to the scenario surrounding my capture, and begin making some notes for your edification.”

We met and the story, presented in his own words, took shape with surprising ease over a few weeks. Ellie read the final draft and cried. Gene was pleased but apprehensive. How would readers react?

My wife and I were vacationing in upstate New York when the article ran on Page 1 of The Morning Call of Allentown. It was July 27, 2003, fifty years to the day after the fighting ended. Over the following days, in a flood of emails and phone calls, friends and strangers alike showered Gene with kindness.

“I just finished reading the article about your stay in Korea and … wanted to tell you how overwhelmed with pride I was at knowing you,” a friend wrote.

Gene’s close buddy the Reverend Edward McElduff, a Catholic priest and Navy veteran of D-Day, mentioned the story while saying Mass at St. Nicholas Church in nearby Berlinsville. He encouraged everyone to read it, saying Gene “deserves our thanks and prayers.”

Historian Ed Root, a member of the Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project Roundtable, wrote to Gene: “Only through first-person accounts such as yours will succeeding generations get even a hint of the horror of combat.”

One poignant email came from a grown nephew of Gene’s looking back on his boyhood. He wrote to me that his uncle was his hero and described him as “a sometimes quiet man, stubborn, pragmatic, and at times hard to get along with. … But my uncle also possessed a humor like none other, and could make a nine-year-old boy laugh until his belly hurt.”

For Gene, publication was cathartic.

“It’s as if a weight has been lifted from me,” he said, “but I’m glad it’s over.”

In telling his story, he had made a contribution to history. It was magnified in 2009, when Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick included part of Gene’s account in her bestselling book about ordinary North Koreans, Nothing to Envy, a National Book Award finalist.

Gene and I stayed friends. My wife, Mary, and I went out to dinner with him and Ellie. He and I met for lunches. I heard him speak to Bob Bryant’s social studies classes at Northampton Area High School. I was his guest at a banquet of the Allentown Chapter of the Honorary First Defenders. We talked about going to Gettysburg together — he was a student of the Civil War — but it never happened.

My home office has things he gave me. They include Bethlehem Steel bookends shaped like I-beams, and a signed, leather-bound first edition of Tom Brokaw’s memoir, A Long Way from Home.

In June 2010, the Korean Church of the Lehigh Valley planned to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the start of the Korean War with a service thanking Americans who fought in it. I wanted to offer Gene a ride there, so I called his home outside Bethlehem.

Ellie answered. “Well, David,” she said. “Gene died yesterday.”

He was at home and complained of trouble breathing, she said, and died soon afterward in the hospital. His passing came on June 24, a day before the anniversary.

Gene was remembered for rising above his physical and emotional pain from the war, helping fellow veterans however and whenever he could.

“He thought they deserved attention for what they did for their country,” Ellie told The Morning Call. “Oh, it was hard for him sometimes. He used to get very depressed when he heard all the stories.”

Gene was seventy-eight. I’d known his health was failing, but still his death came as a shock. At the Korean Church program that weekend, he was with me in spirit. I could hear him saying, “Hey, buddy.”

That fall, I gave the eulogy at a “Gene Salay Tribute” at the Lehigh County Government Center organized by his friend Joe Zeller. Joe was a Navy veteran of World War II and the Korean War, and a former state lawmaker and Emmaus mayor who led a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Allentown. Ellie was at the ceremony. The next month, she too was gone.

By that time, a swindler who coveted the symbols of Gene’s Korean War sacrifice had gotten his comeuppance.

COMING NEXT: A criminal case yields Gene’s medals

7 responses to “‘It’s as if a weight has been lifted from me’

  1. Wonderful article Dave. Very well written.
    You could tell you were very close.
    I knew some of Gene’s story. Look forward to the next chapter.


  2. Love your stories. You continue to tell them, and I’ll continue to read, after all, we owe them so much.

    Best wishes,



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