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There were about 50 of us POWs, and we had been on the move for over a week. One night we stayed in a man-made cave in a mountain. It had a high ceiling, about 25 feet, with no supports. The dirt floor had 2 to 3 inches of water in the area where we were forced to sleep.
We grumbled but huddled close to one another and eventually fell into slumber, if only for brief periods.
In the morning, we were called out of the cave one at a time to be interrogated in a tent. After the first one of us was taken out, roughly 20 minutes passed, and we heard gunfire. He didn't return. Another was taken by the arm, and 20 minutes later, more gunshots. He didn't return. This went on.
When it was my turn, I made the sign of the cross and prepared to die.
A guard escorted me to the tent, which was square and had a table and two chairs. Another guard was posted at the entrance.
I sat down across from an English-speaking Chinese officer who claimed he was a graduate of a California college,
. Uh-oh, I thought, no games with this guy.
He offered me a cigarette, and I took it. He placed a map of the area in front of me and wanted to know what I could tell him about our units.
"Pfc. Gene Salay," I said, and gave my serial number.
He laughed and began to identify the units in our area, actually naming officers, most of whom I didn't know.
Then another officer burst into the tent and knocked the cigarette out of my hand. I stood up, and he slapped me several times. I controlled my temper.
He laid a map of the United States on the table and asked, "Where do you live?" I didn't see any harm in telling him, didn't think I was endangering any of our guys. I pointed to Pennsylvania.
"What do your parents do?"
I pointed to the Lehigh Valley and said, "My mom works at
in the blast furnace." Then I pointed to Cambria County. "My father works on a farm."
It was a lie. My father worked at Bethlehem Steel and my mother was a secretary in the English department at
A guard grabbed me by the arm and led me out of the tent. I thought my time was up and made the sign of the cross again.
We went around a corner, away from the others still waiting to be queried, and I was surprised to see the guys who had preceded me standing there. As I neared them, a Chinese soldier fired his burp gun, a short-barreled submachine gun, into a dirt bank.
The interrogation was all a game.
I was relieved, but ashamed that I had told the Chinese anything.
On a hill at Kumhwa
When I arrived in South Korea in the fall of 1952, I was an infantryman trained in the use of the ANGRC-9, a radio better known as the Angry-9, which could be used to send Morse code and voice messages. One of my responsibilities was communicating with line units, up through the ranks, including division headquarters.
I landed at Pusan and went on to Taegu, the headquarters for my outfit, the Korean Military Advisory Group. KMAG, under the command of the 8202nd Army Unit, assigned me to the Capital ROK Division, which had American advisers. ROK stands for Republic of Korea, the formal name for South Korea.
We went through Seoul and then farther north. We were posted on a hillside at Kumhwa, near the border with North Korea. Division headquarters was three or four miles behind us.
For the most part, it was a static war.
July 13, 1953, was the same as any other day. Periodically, we could hear the sounds of outgoing rounds from The Triple Nickel, the 555th Field Artillery Battalion, about a mile to our rear. They fired 105 mm and 155 mm cannons. This was our way of staying in touch with the enemy. Of course, it's how they communicated with us, as well. But for the most part, their incoming rounds fell harmlessly onto the mountainside. We hoped ours were more effective.
It had been raining off and on for over a week. Perfect weather for an attack, I thought.
An enemy moving like ants
Around 7:30 p.m., the Chinese started an incessant bombardment of our hillside position that lasted more than two hours. Around 10 p.m., they fired flares that lit up the Kumhwa Valley.
We saw the hills and valleys come alive with thousands of enemy soldiers, reminding me of millions of ants feverishly at work. First one, then another bugle was heard, then another, and still another, from tops of mountains and ridges around us.
I was in radio contact with Sgt. Mel Shannon, who was at division headquarters.
"Gene," he said, "you're completely surrounded."
Including ROKs, there were about 50 of us on the bare hillside. Below, three Chinese divisions were coming toward us.
They were running up the slight slope, so close we fired our M-1 rifles from the hip. We were incredulous. It was like a scene unfolding in a motion picture. We hollered and looked around for more cartridges, but there weren't any.
In seconds the fighting was hand-to-hand. One Chinese soldier grabbed my M-1 at the muzzle end and was trying to pull it away from me. I yanked it out of his hands and swung it at him and hit him, and he went down. I was using my rifle like a baseball bat.
Then I felt something like a mule kicking me in the head -- it was probably a gun butt -- and I went down.
I couldn't move my left side.
I didn't know that I was shot near the heart.
So this is what it feels like to die, I thought.
Nestling among the dead
I was on my back, in a daze. Hundreds of Chinese were all around, running over bodies. Many ran over me, jarring me awake.
In 20 minutes, the first wave had passed, decimating our position. I heard firing in the rear. Up ahead, the mop-up crew was coming. I prayed. I thought this was the end. I could feel the presence of God.
There was a lull in the fighting, and I could hear the moans of others in the distance.
As loudly as I dared, I whispered for some of my buddies. "Hey Dick, Kenny, Duke." Only Dick Annunziata responded. We crawled to one another, between and over the bodies of friend and foe. He, too, was wounded. A bullet had creased his left shoulder.
In the darkness we tried to assess our situation. We thought we could hold out for maybe 24 hours. In the meantime, we'd hope and pray for a counterattack.
We heard Kenny Clough's call among the moans and crawled to him. He was seriously wounded.
Charles Duke was nowhere to be found.
Unarmed, we nestled in among the dead in a crater and fell silent. We waited and waited through the night. I prayed to the Blessed Mother and asked her to please tell Mom and Pop I'm OK.
Suicide in the crater
No counterattack came by the time day broke in the Land of the Morning Calm. Our ammo supply trucks had been cut off, we found out later. The Triple Nickel was completely overrun, and each gun emplacement destroyed. The enemy had us totally zeroed in.
From our crater, where we lay intermingled with more than 20 dead, we could hear enemy patrols firing short bursts from their burp guns. They were the mop-up crew. Their guns chattered brrrrrrt, brrrrrrt, and they were getting closer.
The crater was about 15 feet wide and 3 feet deep, with a ridge about 8 feet high at one end. It might have been caused by incoming artillery early in the fighting. Kenny, Dick and I were 3 or 4 feet apart from each other.
. My left arm and side were useless.
Until dawn, we didn't know there was anyone alive around us. Then we saw a lone ROK soldier who had a grease gun, a .45-caliber machine gun. We tried to talk him out of it, so that we would have a weapon, but he couldn't understand English.
Four or five Chinese showed up on the ridge along our crater. I was lying partly on my side, looking up with my left eye, and saw them. They were talking. We assumed one of them said, "What do you think about those guys? You think they're all dead?"
The ROK must have heard them and got scared. Maybe he understood what they were saying. He didn't want to be taken prisoner. He got on his knees, bent over forward, put the barrel to his belly and pulled the trigger.
I saw the bullets coming out of his back.
He died instantly.
From where they were standing, the Chinese couldn't see him. They probably thought they were being fired at, so two or more of them started firing their burp guns into the pit, spitting out bullets.
They missed Dick and me, but one shot got Kenny in the stomach. He was already horribly wounded. He moved when he was struck, so the Chinese realized there must be somebody alive where we were, and they came down from the ridge and encircled us.
"I'll be all right'
If they had been North Koreans, none of us would have survived. They were known to take no prisoners.
Instead, the Chinese came around and kicked people, and grabbed us and pulled us out of the pit. We were all bloody from ourselves and from the others.
Dick and I thought we were going to die.
We pulled Kenny out -- he was completely paralyzed -- and moved into a clearing where there were no bodies. Kenny was turning gray but was conscious. I felt horrible for him. He came from a very rich family in Alief, Texas, and had everything in the world to live for. He was handsome like a movie star. In addition to his Combat Infantryman Badge, he was a paratrooper.
We stayed with him.
The Chinese searched us, but Dick and I had buried our wallets during the night, because we were afraid they would get into enemy hands. So the only things we had were our dog tags.
About 11 a.m., when they wanted us to go, I said, "We're not gonna leave him."
But Kenny said, "Gene, don't worry about me. I'll be all right."
And he died.
In front of the guns
We moved on and saw headless torsos, arms, legs, pools of blood everywhere. There were thousands and thousands of dead, and the blood flowed down the hill into a ditch and ran along the roadside.
There must have been 40 to 50 guys captured, Americans and ROKs. The Chinese made us pick up weapons to take back. Each of us carried something. I had a part of a mortar. But as we made a turn on the dirt road, at a point where the guard in front and the one in back couldn't see, we dumped the weapons into the shrubs.
As we were marched northward, we met guys from The Triple Nickel, the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team and the 5th Regimental Combat Team who had also been rounded up. Now we numbered about 100.
We came across enemy machine gun nests in the open along the road. The gunners were sitting on the ground, firing into the hills. We were made to walk directly in front of their guns and expected our legs to get blown out from under us. Fortunately, whenever we passed in front, the guns stopped.
After we were on this road for half a mile, some of our own guys in the hills thought we were friendly troops counter-attacking, and so a couple of them got up and started shouting, "Hey, we're over
" The guards opened up on them.
Our artillery was pounding all around us. I thought: If I'm going to die, let it be from one of our own.
Near dusk, we entered a trench that was nearly 15 feet deep and wide enough for two tanks. The Chinese had trucks in there, going south. Unless an incoming round struck the trench directly, shelling was an exercise in futility.
Our guys weren't hitting anything. Their rounds exploded harmlessly against the mountainside.
No food, water or aid
It was fiercely hot and humid, but we were given no water or anything to eat. The Chinese heading the other way into battle had nothing to eat either.
When we crossed a river I assumed to be the Kumsong River, we delighted in drinking as much from it as we could stand. It was muddy and filthy, but when you're thirsty, you don't mind. At least it was wet. We also got a taste of what reminded me of seaweed. It was green and not too bad.
After the second day's march, the officers were separated from the enlisted ranks, and the ROKs isolated from both. We bedded down at a so-called aid station, although there was no aid to be had, even for the Chinese who needed medical attention.
When we enlisted men continued the march the next day -- there were 50 to 60 of us -- we didn't know what happened to the officers and ROKs. We walked all day, every day for about a week, resting at night.
Our ragtag outfit underwent one more separation. The wounded were separated from the unwounded. Some of us who were wounded took this to be an ominous sign.
I was nearing my breaking point.
My left leg started bothering me and began to swell. I had suffered a knee injury playing high school football. Now it was killing me, and I was limping badly.
Before we started to march one morning, I told Dick that I couldn't go on.
"If you don't get up and march, they'll shoot you," he said.
"Let 'em shoot me."
But Dick was adamant. There was no way he was going to leave me behind. At sun-up, he helped me to my feet and half dragged, half carried me until I was able to limp along on my own.
He saved my life.
After that, we spent a night in the cave and went through the interrogation game.
Facing up to a guard
At the next aid station, I met Don Wakehouse from Colorado, Joe Esposito from New Jersey, Al Rushton from Philly, and Don Stroud and Chuck Howard from Ohio, and others whose names escape me but whose faces are etched in my mind's eye.
Don manned the No. 5 gun with The Triple Nickel. He was so terribly wounded that he would lose a leg following repatriation. We became close friends.
Briefly, we shared one another's company in a room in the cellar of a shack. Don groaned in pain and asked for water. The guard refused. I cursed and pushed him aside, got to the bucket and gave Don a sip of water out of a can. I expected a rifle butt to the head. The guard said something I couldn't understand but permitted me to nourish Don.
The Chinese took away our khakis and made us wear burlap shorts.
We were boarded on rickety trucks to continue our journey north. There were three open-bed trucks loaded with wounded. We were practically piled one on top of another. One guy, whose face was partly blown away, exposing his tongue and part of his mouth, moaned pitifully. I felt so bad for him, but there was nothing anyone could do except pray for him.
While making our way down a dirt road through a beautiful valley, with trees 60 to 70 feet high on each side and green grass, we were strafed by two of our jets. The bullets kicked up the dirt on both sides of us. Nobody was hurt or killed.
The truck drivers stopped, and they and the guards fled into the woods. We were forced to stay on board.
At the second pass, the pilots realized we were POWs and didn't fire, and on the third pass, they swooped down and dipped their wings at us. We cheered.
The next day, we were strafed again.
Nights in a "chicken coop'
We finally reached Camp 5, in a valley somewhere north of Pyongyang. We were told these quarters were to be temporary and that we would be moved again.
Our journey had taken several weeks. The truce had already been signed, and though the Chinese knew it, we did not.
The camp had several hundred prisoners and guards all over the place. A creek ran through it, and overhead, a cable car shuttled between two mountains. Our hosts told us this was a mining camp. There was a village nearby.
We could see the officers, kept in a separate compound behind barbed wire.
Our quarters resembled chicken coops. Each compartment measured about 10 feet by 10 feet and was only 3 to 4 feet high, so we had to crouch to get in. The front was open, the floor was dirt, and the walls were some kind of plaster. They packed us into these coops like sardines. We couldn't move freely. At night, we slept on top of each other.
Once, in the pitch dark, a guy sexually attacked another guy in my coop. There was a big ruckus, fighting and hollering. The guards flashed their lights and fired their guns into the air. I didn't know what was going on. I thought we were going to get killed. But nothing ever happened as a result, though we ostracized the guy who did it. I guess the Chinese thought it was a joke.
A movie about Mao
We were drinking and eating regularly now. One tin cup of tea daily, at 6 a.m., and a cup filled with rice at 7 p.m.
For the most part, those of us who were wounded didn't have to do anything. But during the day, the guards wanted us out of the coops. We could exercise, and by that I mean walk around. I saw some officers doing calisthenics, but we could never get close enough to talk to them.
To relieve ourselves, we used a pit, which had to be cleaned out. If it weren't for my wound, I would have been picked for that detail. Guys had to be in crap up to their chest and haul it up by buckets. When they came back, they stunk like hell. They washed in the creek.
We lost track of time. After trying to remember days and dates, nothing was registering. We tried to dig marks into the wall of our coop, but that was futile.
On three occasions we were treated to propaganda movies, which were shown on a screen in an amphitheater carved out of dirt. One was about Mao Tse-tung and his rise as leader of the Chinese communists.
To get to the area, we had to march single file on a path about 4 feet wide. Villagers spat on us, punched us and hit us with whatever they could get their hands on. One teen whacked me good, and I punched him in the face. I was as surprised as he was that I struck him. Luckily for me, guards came to my rescue.
The road to freedom
One day we were told to board the trucks again. We guessed our destination was the Yalu River and China.
But after what seemed like an eternity getting bounced around in the trucks like rag dolls, we arrived at Panmunjom, where the truce talks had been held. We saw happy GIs, shouting out states, cities and towns of the good old USA.
We were going to be freed.
I made my way to the Pennsylvanians and met Ron Sweeney from
, Bernie Pavlik from Lansford, Fred Searles from Wilkes- Barre and Ralph
from Camp Hill.
What a grand occasion!
On Aug. 28, we were driven to Panmunjom's Freedom Village, a tent city reception station for POWs being repatriated. I arrived to the hearty handshake of Gen. Mark Clark, the commander of U.N. forces. He greeted and welcomed each one of us "home."
It was the happiest day of my life.
When Army investigators debriefed us on the ship taking us back to the States, I admitted what I told the Chinese interrogators in the tent outside the cave. They dismissed it with a laugh and noted, "Provided no information of value to the enemy."
At home and 28 pounds thinner, I learned that Maj. John Lagorous of Allentown's 213th Area Support Group had been able to discern that I was taken prisoner. He was a neighbor of ours on Fiot Avenue in south Bethlehem, and called my parents from Korea. They had already been notified that I was missing in action.
I am forever indebted to him.
I've asked myself a thousand times why God permitted me to live, while so many of my buddies died in that godforsaken place 50 years ago.