They were soldiers. One was in Vietnam, the other in the Pacific during World War II. Here’s my tribute to them on this Memorial Day:
NICHOLAS LOUIS VENDITTI
Hometown: Malvern, Pennsylvania Branch of service: Army Rank: Warrant Officer 1 Unit: Americal Division Support Command Date of death: July 15, 1969 Place: 312th Evacuation Hospital, Chu Lai, South Vietnam Cause: Wounds suffered July 10, his sixth day in Vietnam, during a training accident involving a grenade Age: 20 Burial: Philadelphia Memorial Park, Frazer
Hometown: Malvern, Pennsylvania Branch of service: Army Rank: Technician Fifth Grade Unit: Battery F, 198th Coast Artillery Date of death: May 10, 1950 Place: At home Cause: Non-combat brain injury suffered in 1942 on Bora Bora in the Pacific Age: 33 Burial: East Brandywine Baptist Church Cemetery, Guthriesville, Pennsylvania
The museum at the National Guard armory in Allentown has a plaque with a photo showing two Army officers resting in a woods. They are Lawrence D. Howell and Howard L. Strohl, both lieutenants in Company D, 109th Machine Gun Battalion. A Lieutenant Fenstermacher caught them in a light moment, snapping the picture in July 1918 near Chateau-Thierry, France. The plaque reads: “Last picture of Lt. Strohl who made the Supreme Sacrifice Aug. 8, 1918 in an attempt to take his platoon across the Vesle at Fismes, France. Presented to Lt. Strohl’s Comrades by His Father – W.L. Strohl, Bethlehem, Pa.”
Howell, of Hawleyville, Connecticut, was kicked by a horse July 22 and severely wounded by shrapnel on August 7. Fismes is a village sixty-eight miles northeast of Paris, in the department of Marne. The Vesle River passes through the city of Reims, where French kings were crowned and German bombs fell. Strohl’s dad, William Levinus Strohl, toiled in a Bethlehem Steel rolling mill before becoming a grocer. One day in 1944, his heart failed while he sat in his kitchen. He’d lost his wife, Abbie, ten years earlier.
“August 8” is also on Howard Strohl’s gravestone in Towamensing Cemetery and turns up elsewhere, but appears to be an error. Army records, including the Company D casualty list, show he was killed August 9. So does a story in The Morning Call of Allentown, which quotes from a War Department telegram sent to Strohl’s widow. And the August 9 entry in a Company D diary says: “Lieut. Strohl was killed by shell.”
The Company D diary is part of a short history of the unit put together by a captain with a prodigious name, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg Richards. His booklet was read on October 19, 1923, before the Lebanon County Historical Society, which had an interest in it because Company D was from Lebanon. Richards painted a picture of what was happening when Strohl was hit.
“The Germans retiring, a new line of battle was formed along the River Vesle, with Fismes, almost midway between Rheims and Soissons, the main point of attack. At this place and Fismettes, across the river, the carnage was awful, the best shock troops, including the famous Prussian Guards, being hurled, time after time, against it, and it was our 28th Division which successfully withstood the attack, at a fearful loss.”
Company D went into action at Fismes and Fismette on August 8. For six days, the Germans shelled and gassed them. “We also suffered from machine gun and sniper fire,” the unit history says, and flamethrowers.
Strohl was the only Company D officer killed.
Ada Strohl learned of her husband’s fate three weeks after the fact. When the telegram arrived at her parents’ home in Hellertown, she was holding the two-month-old son he’d never seen, baby Howard Ruch Strohl. “We regret to inform you that Lieut. Howard L. Strohl was killed in action on August 9th,” read the message from the adjutant general in Washington.
The Allentown newspaper called Strohl a “Martyr to Duty in Service of His Country.” The subhead said a “Boche bullet” got him, a detail that sprang from the writer’s imagination. It was shrapnel that felled the lieutenant, “the first native-born Bethlehem officer to give the last full measure of devotion to the cause of Liberty.”
If Strohl had survived one more day, he might have been headed home. The Lebanon Daily News reported on an order Strohl was about to receive. Major Harry D. Case of the 109th Machine Gun Battalion said Strohl “was killed the day previous to receipt of an order directing him to return to the United States to undertake instruction at one of the military camps.”
The letter Strohl sent from the Western Front to his aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Bert S. Miller, was delivered to their home in Allentown on September 7, almost a month after his death.
There’s some confusion about the final rank Strohl attained. It’s given as first lieutenant in some contemporary sources, including The Morning Call, which reported he got the promotion in France. The Company D history and casualty list identify him as a second lieutenant. So does postwar paperwork filed with the adjutant general of Pennsylvania. I’ve asked the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis for Strohl’s file, which might settle the matter, if the file exists.
The photo plaque from Strohl’s dad was given to the 213th Regiment Museum at the Charles C. Curtis Armory in April 2008, according to John Yanno, the museum volunteer who keeps track of artifacts. The donor isn’t listed in the records, but Yanno said other items donated about the same time came from retired Army Major Norvin L. Vogel Sr. of Allentown. A World War II veteran, Vogel fought in the Battle of the Bulge and received a Bronze Star. He died in 2021.
A seemingly out-of-place home for a photo of Strohl is the State Archives of North Carolina, but it’s there. The archives have materials “collected by the North Carolina Historical Commission largely between 1918 and 1926, to document the service of North Carolinians in World War I.” The record identifies Strohl as being from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and adds this note: “It is unknown why this portrait was collected by Robert B. House for the N.C. Historical Commission.”
Strohl had no connection to North Carolina that I could find.
But did he and House know each other? Both served in machine gun companies in France during the war, and both had been Army instructors in Georgia. The similarities end there. House was in the 26th Infantry Division and Strohl in the 28th. House was back in the States before Strohl arrived in France. And House became an instructor at Camp Gordon, northeast of Atlanta, about the time Strohl was leaving Camp Hancock, which was 145 miles away. It seems unlikely their paths had crossed.
House went on to edit the North Carolina Historical Review in the mid-1920s and became chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Strohl’s widow, Ada, remarried in 1920 and had seven more children. The Gold Star Mothers of Bethlehem welcomed her into their midst, even though she wasn’t by-the-book eligible for membership. She outlived her soldier husband by almost half a century, passing in 1966 at the age of sixty-seven.
Her second husband, William D. Potts, was in the Students’ Army Training Corps at Moravian College. Over the years, he was a printer and linotype operator at the Bethlehem Globe-Times and Lehigh Litho, an insurance agent, owner and operator of a Hellertown gas station, a Republican committeeman, and president of the borough’s Chamber of Commerce and Northampton County’s industrial development agency. He died in 1973.
Howard Ruch Strohl, an infant when his father was killed, had a risk-filled job in the Navy during World War II. He was on the crew of the Pearl Harbor-based gasoline tanker USS Halawa, which supplied fuel oil and diesel fuel to warships and out-of-the-way Navy posts. Later, he worked for Airco Industrial Gases in Bethlehem and was mayor of Hellertown. He was seventy-four when he died in 1993.
U.S. Army officer Howard Lee Strohl wrote from France in the summer of 1918 in high spirits. The Germans, he said, were on the run.
“I suppose you have read in the papers about the present American drive which started on the 15th of July, and that we are driving them before us like a bunch of cattle. The Hun is a very poor fighter when he has good opposition and only is good when he can see you and you can’t see him, or get a glimpse of him. He is in full retreat, by all appearances. He is going so fast that he is tiring us, chasing him.”
Lieutenant Strohl, twenty-three years old, was sitting in front of a captured German dugout in the wilderness some sixty miles northeast of Paris. He’d been so busy advancing with his machine gun company, he had to skip a few soldierly duties to scribble letters like this one.
The enemy, he told an aunt and uncle back home in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, “lived in grand style in these dugouts. They had chairs, tables, feather ticks and cushions, etc. Of course this stuff they took from the poor French people, whose homes they pillaged. The villages and towns are laid in waste. I was in one very large town where I’ll venture to say everything as large as a chicken coop was hit by artillery shell.
“Houses are leveled to the foundations. In this town the people are again moving back, even though their homes are smashed. They have set to work and started to clean, and fix things up as best they can, and make their demolished homes once more habitable.”
Strohl had a knack for the military life, proved to be a leader and rose steadily in rank during his five years of service.
He was born in 1895 in what was then the borough of South Bethlehem, now part of Bethlehem city. He lived there with his parents, William and Abbie, and brothers Morgan and Mitchell on East Third Street, right alongside a noisy, smoky plant that was transforming the nation’s skyline. Charles Schwab’s Bethlehem Steel Corporation would benefit mightily from the impending First World War to become America’s No. 2 steelmaker.
He joined the National Guard out of a “spirit of adventure and desire to serve his country,” a newshound wrote, and was a private in Company M, 4th Infantry Regiment.
In June 1916, Pennsylvania’s National Guard was among state units called up after Mexican rebels, starting with Pancho Villa, attacked U.S. border towns. Company M and the other Pennsylvanians deployed to Texas and camped near El Paso. They marched, practiced on weapons and patrolled the border. Strohl was promoted to corporal there. In the fall, he made sergeant. By year’s end, Company M had gone home, and Strohl was commissioned a second lieutenant.
With the U.S. entry into the Great War in 1917, he was assigned to Company H in Lebanon, near Harrisburg, and called into federal service in August. The men sped to Georgia the next month for training with the 28th Infantry Division, newly formed from units of the Pennsylvania National Guard. At Camp Hancock in Augusta, they were picked for a machine gun detachment. British instructors drilled them, often on wooden guns because few actual guns were available. In October, they were transferred to Company D of the 107th Machine Gun Battalion.
That month in Augusta, he married a girl from back home, eighteen-year-old Ada Ruch.
The men of the 107th were transferred a final time in March 1918, becoming Company D, 109th Machine Gun Battalion. Strohl was made one of their instructors. A hard task awaited them when they steamed for France in early May aboard the British liner Aquitania. The Germans had launched their big spring offensive, a series of attacks along the Western Front.
Lieutenant Strohl arrived in Europe to do his part with the American Expeditionary Forces. At home, Ada was pregnant and staying with her parents, Titus and Mary Ruch, in Hellertown.
Strohl penned the letter to his aunt and uncle just before the opening phase of the Allied offensive that would end the war. Near the close of his message, he turned somber.
“Since on the line, I have seen all the grim horrors of warfare, and all this is but a common sight. You people back there cannot realize one bit what this war is like. You haven’t the slightest idea. Once you see it, then is the time one’s hatred for the Germans beams forth, and makes us more determined to crush him once and for all.”
He was proud of the job the 28th Division, then part of a French corps, and the other American units were doing.
“Our artillery is sure giving them h— and beating them down at their own game. He realizes now that he is up against a formidable army, and not a bunch of bluffers. His best troopers have been beaten down to defeat at the point of bayonets and rifle butts the last few days. … We are having considerable rainy weather, and many of our marches are made through downpours and mud ankle deep. But everyone rejoices just the same. None are downhearted, and all eager to do their bit. I am in good health, and living good; sleeping anywhere at all, and none the worse for such.”
Strohl dated his letter August 3, 1918. Six days later, German artillery cut him down.
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.
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.
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?
Don C. Weir Jr. was an investment adviser in a St. Louis suburb and, at times, a principal in several financial services firms. In 1999, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in eastern Missouri, he told clients they should invest in paper currency, gold coins and other precious metals. Dozens took his advice and authorized him to make such purchases for their accounts. But instead of holding onto them, he sold them behind their backs “to fund his lifestyle.”
Weir used the money to send his five children to college, fix up his home and add a pool, and make “significant contributions” to charities, among other things. He also bought baseball cards and military collectibles, in particular from the Korean War. To cover his tracks, he mailed his clients false statements saying their investments were growing in value.
It all came crashing down when the FBI nailed Weir for cheating his investors out of more than $10 million. In February 2009, he pleaded guilty to mail fraud. He suggested his collectibles be sold to compensate victims.
The next month, federal agents went to his home to get his baseball cards and war memorabilia, part of the treasure of his criminal enterprise. The goods included an autographed picture of Adolf Hitler from the 1920s and a cast-iron bust of Joseph Stalin. Agents also found a Cold War-era, Soviet-style landmine and some shells, all of which were inert.
Among the souvenirs seized were a Purple Heart and certificate, and Good Conduct and POW medals, all bearing the name of a Korean War veteran whose home was 870 miles away — Gene Salay.
That September, Weir was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison and ordered to pay $12.1 million in restitution. He was fifty-five at the time, the son of a World War II Army colonel.
How did Weir get Gene’s medals? In 2014, I asked a key investigator in the case, St. Louis Postal Inspector Doug Boland. Weir said he bought Gene’s medals on eBay, Boland said, but investigators found no record of the transaction.
Why didn’t Gene keep his medals? His close pal Joe Zeller told me that Gene had become disenchanted and planned to get rid of them. What was bothering him? Joe didn’t know. He thought Gene meant to throw his medals in the trash. If that’s what he did, could someone have picked them out, knowing collectors would want them?
In 2011, the U.S. Marshals Service held an online auction of Weir’s military collectibles, but Gene’s medals weren’t for sale. Federal agents held onto them because they were personalized, with “Gene Salay” engraved on the back. A check of Army records followed.
Agents determined the medals were authentic, that Gene had in fact earned them. With that, an effort to return the awards to him or a living relative got underway. Marshals learned that both Gene and his wife, Ellie, were already gone. Gene died in June 2010 at age seventy-eight. Ellie followed him six months later. She was seventy-seven. They had no living children. Their only child, a daughter named Lisa, died of cancer in 1997.
A marshal in the service’s Asset Forfeiture Division sought help from a veterans advocate in Ohio, who in turn contacted a well-connected, prominent Pennsylvania veteran. That was Joe Zeller. Joe was a politician and leader in the Allentown veterans community. He knew Gene’s three sisters, all of whom lived in the Lehigh Valley.
In January 2013, Marge Szabo got a letter from the Marshals Service, saying her brother’s medals would be returned to her. She got them later that year from the chief U.S. marshal in Philadelphia, John Patrignani. After reading about Gene, he brought the medals to her in Bethlehem. “I wanted to handle this myself,” Patrignani told me in 2014, “because I thought he deserved it. He lived his life the right way.”
Marge presented Gene’s Purple Heart and certificate, Combat Infantryman Badge and Good Conduct and POW Medals to the Korea Vietnam Memorial Inc., which Gene had helped to found. The ceremony was held in the spring of 2014 at Lehigh Carbon Community College, site of the memorial group’s Armed Forces Plaza. The KVM had no venue to display the medals, so it turned them over to the 213th Regiment Museum at the Curtis Armory in Allentown.
Six months later, Don Weir was released from a federal prison.
My 2003 “in their own words” war story on Gene is on the internet. So are two blogs I wrote about Gene’s medals in 2014, one about the KVM ceremony and a follow-up about how the medals were recovered. That was the end of it until the fall of 2017, when a message appeared on my blog site from someone I didn’t know. It read:
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
The attack on July 13, 1953, followed more than three hours of incessant shelling. Bugles blared in the night. Flares lit up South Korea’s Kumhwa Valley, just below the North Korean border. Thousands of Chinese troops surged forward.
From the barren hillside where he was posted with about fifty other American and South Korean troops, Private First Class Gene Salay thought the enemy looked like a multitude of ants feverishly at work.
Gene and the men with him could hardly believe what was happening. They hollered and fired their M-1 rifles from the hip. In no time at all, the Chinese were upon them. The fighting turned hand to hand. An enemy soldier grabbed Gene’s rifle at the muzzle end. Gene, who was six feet tall and played football in high school, shook the M-1 free and clubbed him with it, sending him to the ground.
Something, probably a gun butt, hit Gene in the head, and he went down. He couldn’t move his left side and didn’t realize he’d been shot below the shoulder.
He lay dazed. So this is what it feels like to die, he thought.
Hundreds of Chinese were all around. Many ran over him. The first wave passed, and a mop-up crew was approaching. Gene, a devout Catholic, felt God’s presence and prayed.
Somehow he was spared. He and two other wounded buddies huddled among the dead in a crater, unarmed and bloody, through the night.
At dawn, several Chinese soldiers appeared on the rim of the crater. Gene saw them and heard them talking. There was a South Korean soldier in the pit with the Americans. He must have been afraid of being captured. Armed with a “grease” submachine gun, he got on his knees, bent over forward, put the barrel to his belly and pulled the trigger. Gene saw the bullets coming out of his back. He was dead.
The Chinese hadn’t seen the South Korean and might have thought someone was shooting at them. They fired their “burp” submachine guns into the pit, missing Gene but hitting his already grievously hurt friend Kenny Clough in the gut. Kenny moved when struck, so the Chinese descended into the crater to investigate. They went around kicking the fallen and pulled out Dick Annunziata and Gene, who in turn pulled out Kenny.
“We’re not gonna leave him,” Gene said when the Chinese wanted them to move out. Kenny was turning gray. “Gene, don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’ll be all right.” With that, he died.
Moving on, Dick and Gene saw body parts and corpses everywhere they turned. Blood flowed down the hill into a ditch and ran along a road.
Gene had barely survived the start of the week-long Battle of the Kumsong River Salient, the last communist offensive of the war. On his march to a prison camp, he would come close to death again.