Dozens of people who knew and loved a 20-year-young man who died in Vietnam 44 years ago protecting his fellow Marines stood together in solemn ceremony on the 31st Street Bridge Saturday, trying to find some closure.
Perhaps they did, now that the bridge has been renamed in honor of that young warrior, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. William Raymond Prom, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for military valor, in 1970.
"I am so happy today," said his sister, Clara Prom Burns, 81, of Mount Troy in Reserve, where she and her brother grew up. "I will never get complete closure, but I have wanted this for so long."
Mrs. Burns joined a host of state and local officials on the dais for the hour-long dedication of the bridge, the first in Pittsburgh to be named for a Vietnam War veteran and which connects the Strip District with Troy Hill, which borders Mount Troy.
Participants included Major Gen. Paul W. Brier, vice commander of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command; Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald; plus the Senate and House co-sponsors of legislation approving the bridge's renaming: state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler; state Reps. Dom Costa, D-Stanton Heights, Adam Ravenstahl, D-Summer Hill, and Hal English, R-Hampton.
"A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers," Major Gen. Brier told the crowd, quoting from a speech by President John F. Kennedy at Amherst College, less than a month before his assassination in 1963.
While words "always seem feeble as we remember those who were loved and loved," he added, liberty is always achieved out of courage and honor. Soldiers like Lance Cpl. Prom "gave up two lives," the general went on, quoting President Ronald Reagan, "the one they were living and the one they would have lived. They gave up the chance to be husbands, fathers, grandfathers. All we can do is remember them."
Then, to a rapt crowd, Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Cosola recounted the last moments of Lance Cpl. Prom's life, on Feb. 9, 1969 -- a story some in the crowd may have known by heart while others had never really heard before.
After a two-day search-and-destroy mission near An Hoa, in the thickly forested mountains of Vietnam, his platoon was ambushed by the North Vietnamese with automatic weapons and grenades. Those at the front of the platoon were isolated and several Marines were wounded. Lance Cpl. Prom "took control of one of his machine guns and began to deliver return fire," said Sgt. Cosola. "Disregarding his safety, he advanced to a position from which he could more effectively deliver covering while first aid was being administered to the wounded men."
At that point, Lance Cpl. Prom realized "the enemy would have to be destroyed before the injured Marines could be evacuated ... and moved forward and delivered a heavy volume of fire with such accuracy that he was instrumental in overpowering the enemy."
The soldiers resumed their march, but came under fire again. A Marine was critically wounded, so Lance Cpl. Prom moved forward to protect his comrades despite his own severe injuries, which prevented him from returning fire.
Standing in full view of the enemy, however, he was able to direct support elements until he was killed, allowing the Marines to launch an assault that destroyed the enemy.
As the sergeant finished telling Lance Cpl. Prom's story, there was silence, broken by the crack of gunfire as four members of a rifle squad fired a three-round volley in salute.
Then, a soldier played Taps, and the sound of weeping could be heard, by men and women, for a young man they remembered as "Billy," who wrote 70 letters to his family on West Beckert Street, who missed his beagle Lola, who missed deer hunting and trout fishing with his father, Fred Prom, and who today is buried in Allegheny County Memorial Park. His picture and military medals are on display at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.
Douglas Neperemy, a Vietnam War veteran himself, remembered the little boy he played with who he called "Butch." While the 64-year-old Mount Troy resident is glad the bridge is being renamed for his childhood friend, he fought back tears when he was asked to describe how he was feeling.
"Emotional. Sad. I go down to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial every year to pay tribute to him and my other buddies."
Charlotte Prom Markle, 65, of Robinson, also remembered the lively, fun-loving cousin she played with, the one whose older brother Fred told him as he went off to boot camp, "Don't be a hero."
"What Billy did was so above and beyond what a normal human being would do," added John Trott, 72, of Lafayette, Ind., a former Marine who first recommended that Lance Cpl. Prom get the Medal of Honor, which was given to his parents in a Washington, D.C., ceremony. "He was fighting for his buddies. He didn't know he was going to give up his life for this."
That's probably true of most heroes, said the Rev. Ann Miller Smith, of Grace Lutheran Church in Mount Troy. "They're not thinking about that. They don't know that they're going to be heroes -- they're just worried about protecting the people who matter to them -- whether they have enough guys in position, or can someone get this fellow medical care? I think that's what happened with Billy Prom. He just did what he felt he needed to do at that moment."
Mackenzie Carpenter: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1949, or on Twitter @ MackenziePG. First Published July 21, 2013 4:00 AM