Last of eight parts
My friend Gene Salay of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, earned a Purple Heart on July 13, 1953, in Korea. A bullet fired by a Chinese soldier hit him below his left shoulder, near his heart. It was still there when he died in 2010.
At some point, Gene grew disillusioned and got rid of his Purple Heart, the certificate that came with it, his Good Conduct and POW medals and his Combat Infantryman Badge. I don’t know what he did with them, but they weren’t lost forever. In 2009, they turned up in the Missouri home of a crooked investment adviser. Federal agents seized them, determined they were authentic and returned them to Gene’s family three years after his passing. Today, they’re on display at the National Guard armory in Allentown.
I thought that was the end of the medals mystery, but then I heard from retired Los Angeles police officer Sue Yandell. She sent me two Purple Hearts with Gene’s name on the back, two identical certificates attesting to Gene’s wounding in Korea, and two Combat Infantryman Badges. After her father died, she found the items in a shoe box at his home in Lakewood, California, near L.A. Her dad, Jess “Vern” Yandell, was a collector of military memorabilia as well as a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff.
Sue told me she didn’t know when, where or how her dad got Gene’s decorations, only that “he always liked stuff like that.”
How to account for three Purple Hearts bearing Gene’s name? He earned one. If he had earned more, he might’ve received more medals. By regulations, though, he would’ve gotten an oak leaf cluster for each additional award.
Anyone can buy Purple Hearts, but it wasn’t always legal to sell them. Researcher Kenny Woolley III at the Allentown Public Library, who helped me debunk the myth that Bethlehem Steel made the steel for New York’s Chrysler Building, did some checking. The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 made the sale of Purple Hearts and other medals illegal. After a half-dozen years, though, the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional. The Private Corrado Piccoli Purple Heart Preservation Act was introduced in Congress several times starting in 2016 but hasn’t been made law. It would impose fines and a prison term for selling a veteran’s Purple Heart without permission.
What had me wondering in Gene’s case was, how did his name get on the two Purple Hearts that Vern Yandell had, and how did he have copies of Gene’s certificate?
A veteran can request replacement medals if they’re lost or stolen, and they’d be engraved. Would Gene have asked for replacements, and somehow those, too, got into circulation? I doubt it. More likely, the medals Vern Yandell had are copies of Gene’s genuine Purple Heart. I’m guessing that somewhere along the line, when his medals surfaced, someone copied Gene’s name onto generic Purple Hearts to sell them to collectors, along with copies of the certificate.
For a better handle on this, I turned to History Hub, the public crowdsourcing platform of the National Archives where you can post questions, share information, and get research help. I asked how the same name could be on multiple Purple Hearts, if the veteran had earned just one and hadn’t asked for a replacement set. That got me into a conversation with Donald Hall, an Iraq War veteran with thirty-one years in the Army.
“If the certificates both have the same date on them, and there are two Purple Hearts with [Gene’s] name on them, then I would suspect that they are counterfeit,” Hall wrote. “And by that I mean they are probably authentic medals, but somebody found either a certificate or a set of orders and made a medal to match. It’s a problem in the military memorabilia collecting field, because medals with provenance – that can be traced to an individual, with documentation – are worth more than an unnamed, mint-in-box medal.”
And he had this to say about the paperwork: “If you Google ‘replacement Purple Heart certificate,’ you’ll see that they’re literally a dime a dozen on the internet. And a true memorabilia collector/dealer would not have laminated an award certificate. It would destroy any value it had.”
In this case, the authentic certificate was laminated, like the two copies Vern Yandell had. Gene or someone close to him might have done that.
Recently, I visited the 213th Regiment Museum in the Charles C. Curtis Armory, where Gene’s Good Conduct and POW medals, his Combat Infantryman Badge and his Purple Heart with the certificate are on display, donated by his family after a U.S. marshal delivered them. They were all together, neatly arrayed under glass in a case. Museum volunteers opened the case for me. All three medals have Gene’s name on the back.
For him, they were a reminder of a bloody hill and cruel captivity in Korea, experiences that troubled him for the rest of his life.
“I’ve asked myself a thousand times why God permitted me to live,” he told me once, “while so many of my buddies died in that godforsaken place.”
How sad that there are people who trade on the courage and sacrifice of veterans like Gene Salay.
Enjoyed the story, and can’t wait until your next one.
Hi Rick, thanks for being a faithful reader. Hope I can keep you on board!
Love reading you Blog David. I learn so much. Keep on writing.
Thank you, Lisa. I’m glad you like my stories, because I like writing them. I’ll try to keep you interested.
Enjoyed your series on Gene Salay. I had no idea there was so much interest in military medals by people that did not win them!!
Thanks, Jack. When it comes to military memorabilia, it’s a jungle out there.