Corporal Eugene Leon Piela
- Unit: 5th Infantry Regimental Combat Team, 1st Battalion, Company B
- Service Number: 51042295
- Date of Birth: November 20, 1929
- Entered the Military: August 22, 1951
- Date of Death: July 17, 1952
- Hometown: Franklin, New Hampshire
- Place of Death: eastern Korea
- Award(s): Purple Heart
- Cemetery: Section Q, Site 1509. National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii
Bruce M. Whittier Middle School
On November 20, 1929, Eugene “Gene” Leon Piela was born in Franklin, New Hampshire. His parents, Thomas and Mary Piela, immigrated from Poland in the early 1900s. Eugene, or as his family called him, “Genek,” grew up speaking both English and Polish with his parents and four older siblings: Wilhelmina (“Willy”), Albin, Yanina (“Yunkey”), and Joanna (“Joan.”) In later years, the family home expanded to include Albin’s wife, Annella, and their daughter, Brenda. Genek’s niece, Brenda, described family life as “not easy, but good.”
Thomas and Mary Piela both valued hard work. Thomas worked as a spinner in a local mill from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. each day and, in the late afternoon and evenings, he earned money as a master carpenter. Mary maintained the family’s small farm and kept watch over the children. She always made sure that everyone in the family and any friends brought home were well-fed. She maintained a garden that produced enough food to sustain the family throughout the long New Hampshire winters. She baked yeast bread and rolls twice a week and she kept two big barrels of food at all time: one of pickled herring and the other of sauerkraut. Even during the lean years of the Great Depression, anytime a member of the family had a birthday, Mary would bake a cake.
Genek was a gregarious, good-humored young man. He took an active role in the life of his high school. He played football and basketball, and he managed the ski club. He sang with the glee club, helped plan the Junior-Senior Prom, organized the Senior Banquet, wrote the class of 1947’s history for the yearbook, and acted as president of the school’s swing club. During his senior year, Genek’s class put on the play, Date with Judy. Genek was “the Date” and he made everyone laugh. According to Piela’s niece, Brenda, he was a big brother type who was “playful and always in a good mood.”
In his high school yearbook, Piela wrote that he planned to enter the U.S. Navy sometime after graduation, yet he continued to live with his family after completing high school in 1947. He found employment with the State Department of Public Works as a construction worker, helping to maintain local bridges.
In summer 1951 the U.S. government drafted Piela into the U.S. military. At this point, neither Piela nor his family wanted him to be involved in the Korean conflict. Nevertheless, Piela entered the U.S. Army on August 22, 1951. He became a member of the 5th Regimental Combat Team whose motto was, appropriately, “Sir, I’ll try.” The 5th Regimental Combat Team functioned as a provisional infantry unit for the U.S. Marine Corps. Piela spent over seven months stateside training. During this this time, he must have shown potential and was enrolled in an eight-week leadership course and promoted to corporal before he shipped out to Korea in April 1952.
By June 19, 1952, Corporal Piela and the rest of the 5th Regimental Combat Team entered into combat on the northern part of the Punch Bowl on the Minnesota line in eastern Korea. Here he and the others took part in a kind of trench-warfare which involved nightly “aggressive patrols” in order to gather information about the enemy and to capture prisoners. Night patrols were dangerous for any soldier, but they were particularly difficult for a new soldier with no combat experience.
By mid-July, the 5th Regimental Combat Team had seen an increase in action. Each night involved harrowing patrol. In a letter home, Piela wrote:
Not much new. Things are about the same. There are rumors galore, but nothing’s definite outside of that we start running patrols tonight. I don’t know yet if I’m elected to go yet or not. I have given up worrying about them — they can’t last forever.
In fact, these patrols did last forever for Piela. He was reported as killed in action on July 17, 1952. However, there is still confusion regarding his death.
Piela was identified as killed in action, and yet several pieces of evidence conflict with this account. Two different unit reports describe July 17 as a day with no shelling from the enemy during the day and no contact with the enemy during that night’s patrol. A list of soldiers killed in action for this regiment shows that, with the exception of Corporal Piela, there is a ten-day interval during which no one from his unit was reported as killed in action. And a final document lists a single, nameless non-battle casualty of an enlisted member for July 17, but there is no mention of someone killed in action. Family lore is that Genek Piela may have been killed by a sniper.
Genek’s family learned about his death by telegram on July 21, four days after he was reported killed in action. A taxi pulled up into the family’s driveway. This was an unusual event as the Pielas lived a few miles outside of town. A driver stepped out of his car holding a notice. Mrs. Piela paid the man, took the document, and sat down at the kitchen table with her husband to read its message. Brenda Moore, Genek’s niece, was 11 years old at the time and visiting her grandparents for the summer. In a short story that she later wrote about the memory, she described how:
…A telegram was not an ordinary experience for them. The old woman opened the yellow envelope and held the single sheet of paper in her work-worn hands. The message was long, and it took a few minutes for the two to comprehend its meaning. Soon, only three words stood out in front of the tear-filled blue eyes — killed in action.
A few days later, the Piela family attended a memorial service for Genek at the local Catholic church. Everyone was dressed in black and Brenda recalled having said: “Genek wouldn’t like this.”
Genek’s niece described how, even though Piela’s parents were devastated by the the death of this beloved, youngest son, they believed that the best way to honor him was to not dwell in grief but to continue to be the hard-working people that they had always been.
Eugene Piela was buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii, on October 1, 1952.
Brenda Moore’s Short Story. Personal Collection.
Franklin High School Yearbook, 1947. U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1990. Digital Images. ancestry.com.
“Gene L. Piela.” National Cemetery Administration. Accessed March 15, 2018. m.va.gov/gravelocator/#N899.
Kier, Sam. “History of the 5th Infantry Regiment.” 5th Infantry Regiment Association. Last Modified 2010. Accessed March 15, 2018. bobcat.ws/5th-regiment-history.html.
Korean War Stories. Directed by Robert Uth. 2002. Washington D.C.: New Voyage Communications, 2003. DVD.
Members of the 5th Infantry Regimental Combat Team. Photograph. 1900-1981. National Archives and Records Administration (111-SC-405905 Box 866_001). Image.
Moore, Debra. Telephone interview by the author. June 8, 2018.
New Hampshire. Merrimack County. 1930 U.S. Census. Digital Images. ancestry.com.
New Hampshire. Merrimack County. 1940 U.S. Census. Digital Images. ancestry.com.
Piela Family Photographs. 1941-1951. Courtesy of Piela Family.
Records for Gene L. Piela; Korean War Extract Data File, 1950-1953 [Electronic File], Record Group 330; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD [retrieved from the Access to Archival Databases at aad.archives.gov/aad/, March 19, 2018].
Records of the U.S. Army Operational, Tactical, and Support Organizations (World War II and Thereafter). Unit Histories, 1940-1967, Infantry Regiment Section 1946-67, 5th Infantry Regiment (CMD RRT-July 1952) Thru 5th Infantry Regiment (CMD RPT – Aug 1952). Entry 37042 (Box 4255).
Trenches near the Punchbowl in Eastern Korea. Photograph. 1900-1981. National Archives and Records Administration (111-SC-412237 Box 880_001). Image.
“The Overview of the U.S. Army in the Korean War.” The State of New Jersey. 1996-2018. Accessed June 1, 2018. www.nj.gov/military/korea/factsheets/army.html.