Honoring Billy Prom, Marine from Reserve Township who died with valor

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Rich Charnock and Billy Prom were inseparable from the time they could toddle around in diapers on their hilltop neighborhood in Reserve in the 1950s.

The two boys played baseball, fished in the Allegheny River, listened to Pirates games on the radio and played Army in the nearby woods. One attended North Catholic High School and the other Millvale High School, where Billy played football. Then Mr. Charnock enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh and his friend enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps two days after Christmas 1967.

Arriving home from classes one winter day in February 1969, Mr. Charnock learned from his mother that his friend Billy, a 20-year-old machine gun squad leader, had died trying to protect his comrades in Vietnam.

"I was young and I lost my best friend. I haven't had a friend like that ever since," Mr. Charnock said. "It's been hard for me to get close to anybody."

For his sacrifice, Lance Cpl. William Raymond Prom earned the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for military valor. His medal-decorated uniform will be displayed in a new exhibit that honors four other Medal of Honor recipients and opens at noon today at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland. At 2 p.m., an additional 14 Pennsylvania veterans will be inducted into the Hall of Valor.

PG graphic: Bridge to be renamed
(Click image for larger version)

If the state Legislature passes House Bill 349, the 31st Street Bridge will become the William Raymond Prom Bridge.

Forty years after the U.S. withdrew from Southeast Asia, the city of Pittsburgh may, for the first time, have a bridge named for a Vietnam War veteran. The bridge links the Strip District with Troy Hill, which abuts Reserve's Mount Troy neighborhood. That's where Cpl. Prom dreamed of becoming a major league baseball player or a police officer.

Clara Prom Burns was 15 when her younger brother was born and often looked after him. "They still say what a great baseball player he was. He always loved sports," she said.

Now 81, Mrs. Burns still lives on Mount Troy, where a red flannel blanket on a living room chair is embroidered in white block letters that read: "Freedom Is Not Free." The naming of the bridge "means so much to me," she said.

"I wanted something for Billy. I didn't want to die and Billy not be recognized."

The Prom family's matriarch, Finvola Ewing Prom, wept when her youngest son said he would join the Marines. Her daughter, Clara, told her not to worry, believing that the military would not take him because he had a bad knee.

But the Marines were delighted to have him, and trained him at Parris Island, S.C., where he finished first in shooting in his outfit. Then he was sent to Da Nang in South Vietnam. Between Dec. 31, 1967, and Jan. 23, 1969, Cpl. Prom wrote 70 letters to his family on West Beckert Street. He missed his faithful beagle, Lola, and the Tionesta cottage where he stayed while deer hunting or trout fishing with his father Fred, and his older brother, Fred Prom Jr. In letters from basic training, the young Marine asked his family to send clippings from the Post-Gazette sports pages and to include the fishing columns.

On Jan. 22, 1968, he wrote: "Don't worry about anything. It's a whole lot of fun down here.Just like Boy Scout camp."

By June 1968, he was shipping out to Southeast Asia, and already planning how he would spend five days of rest and relaxation.

"Well, I guess I'll take about $200 and spend half of it on milk and ice cream and salads," he mused in a July 12, 1968, letter.

By Oct. 3 of that year, he was a battle-tested veteran:

"I'm now a full-time gunner. I carry a M-60 [machine gun] and a .45 [handgun]. I carry the 231/2 [-pound] guns with 100 [rounds] of ammo but it's easy compared to what I used to carry. I haven't been anywhere near civilization since I got here."

After a two-day search and destroy mission near An Hoa, a town in the mountains where the jungle canopy was 80 feet high, Lance Cpl. Prom's platoon was one of two ambushed while returning to base. The North Vietnamese, hidden in mountains and heavy brush, fired at the Marines with automatic weapons and grenades.

Returning fire, Lance Cpl. Prom moved his gun to protect medics and Lt. Joe Thompson, a platoon commander who was severely wounded in the head and chest and now lives in Michigan. He kept moving forward, even after he was wounded in the arms and upper body. As he pointed out the Viet Cong position, Lance Cpl. Prom was fatally wounded on Feb. 9, 1969.

"He gave his life up for four or five guys that he knew," said Civilian Air Corps Capt. Tom Marak, who grew up in Reserve and now lives in Prospect, Butler County.

Two weeks later, Billy Prom arrived home in a casket and was buried in Allegheny County Memorial Park, McCandless. In April 1970, his parents and sister traveled to Washington, D.C., where Vice President Spiro Agnew presented the Medal of Honor to them.

The Proms returned home where their older son, Fred Prom Jr., a Korean War veteran, had prepared a feast for them. Billy Prom's picture and his Medal of Honor remained the centerpiece of a shrine in the living room of the family home.

It was the only monument to him for many years until Reserve Township erected one in 1995. Mrs. Prom had told her husband that she wanted nothing done to honor her son until after her death, a wish he respected. She died in 1986 and her husband passed away in 1993.

Not long after his death, their daughter called Billy's commanding officer, John Trott, late one night at his home in Lafayette, Ind.

"It was Clara. Her folks died. The only thing she had was the Medal of Honor and the citation," Mr. Trott said, adding that she wanted to know all the details of the day her brother died. A few weeks later, Mr. Trott met her in Washington, D.C., where he was attending a Marine battalion reunion.

"I took all my notes and maps and we sat down in a hotel room. She deserved to know," Mr. Trott said.

Rich Charnock still misses the quiet, polite boy who was his best pal. Every Memorial Day, he prays at his friend's grave and thinks about what he, the Prom family, their neighborhood and a nation lost.

"He would have been a good family man," he said. "Sometimes, I dream about Billy and when I wake up, I'm happy. It's like having a visit."

mobilehome - lifestyle

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published March 24, 2013 4:00 AM


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