Found in a shoe box: ‘Gene Salay’ Purple Hearts

Seventh of eight parts

Jess ‘Vern’ Yandell of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department with daughter Sue in 1959
(Courtesy of Sue Yandell)

Jess “Vern” Yandell was a retired Los Angeles County deputy sheriff and avid collector of military memorabilia. Along with a municipal police officer, he ran a museum of collectibles. It was housed in a nondescript building next to the police station in Huntington Park, an L.A. suburb.

Vern got interested in war memorabilia as a boy. When he got older, he bought military tokens at auctions, bidding on them in lots so he’d get a bunch.

He served in the National Guard for eight years and with the county sheriff’s department for twenty-five, retiring in 1982. That’s the year he and his partner opened their museum to display police and military souvenirs.

“They were kind of discreet about it,” said his daughter Sue Yandell, a retired Los Angeles police officer. “It was only for other law enforcement.”

Vern had other interests. He helped lead a gardening group, the Long Beach Cactus Club, and owned a company that sold burglar alarms and monitoring systems.

When the museum closed, he moved many of the keepsakes to a back room of his house in Lakewood, just east of Long Beach.  After his wife died, he moved in with Sue, who also lived in Lakewood.

“We kept the house he and my mom lived in,” she said, “and we’d go back and forth because his house was just three miles away.”

Vern developed brain cancer and went from hospital to hospice. He died in July 2016 at age seventy-nine.

“I’d lost my mom and my sister, too,” Sue said. “I held a memorial service for all three in my home.”

She went about cleaning out her dad’s house. A shoe box in a closet had two Purple Heart medals in display cases, two laminated Purple Heart certificates and two Combat Infantryman Badges. Both medals had Gene Salay’s name on the back. The identical certificates were for the Purple Heart he received in 1954, a year after he was wounded in the Korean War.

Vern Yandell had a shoe box containing these two Purple Heart medals, both with Gene Salay’s name on the back, and two laminated certificates stating Gene was wounded July 13, 1953, in Korea, plus two Combat Infantryman Badges.

Sue, who’d found another veteran’s medal and returned it to his family, searched “Gene Salay” on the internet and saw the stories I’d written about him, and that I had called him my friend. She posted this message on my blog site on November 1, 2017: “I may have medals from Gene Salay. If you could please email me, thank you.” When I wrote back to her, she texted me photos of her find.

But Gene’s medals, recovered from a swindler and authenticated by federal agents, had been returned to his family in 2013. How did a collector 2,700 miles from Gene’s home in eastern Pennsylvania have two Purple Hearts bearing his name and two copies of his Purple Heart certificate?

COMING NEXT: A market for personalized medals

5 responses to “Found in a shoe box: ‘Gene Salay’ Purple Hearts

  1. Power of your pen created a pathway for the medals to be returned. This was outstanding work!


  2. 🙂 very emotional thank you


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