Two Indiana County veterans to be inducted into Hall of Valor
Bravery, honor, sacrifice and duty are familiar words, but few understand them like someone who has lived them in a war zone.
Joe Prola, 95, a World War II veteran from Blairsville, and James H. Bronson, an Indiana County native who served with the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, are two such men. In recognition of their extraordinary service to their country, both will be inducted into the Joseph A. Dugan, Jr. Hall of Valor on March 23 at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh.
President and CEO John McCabe called the induction program one of the most important at Soldiers and Sailors. “It's important that we recognize these ordinary men who did extraordinary things during extraordinary times. The Hall of Valor stands as a tribute to all of them,” he said.
Nearly 700 veterans have been honored since the Hall of Valor program was created in 1963. During this month's annual induction ceremony, 15 additional veterans will join those ranks.
McCabe explained one of the requirements for induction into the Hall of Valor is that a veteran has ties to the Keystone State — having been born in Pennsylvania or having lived in the state at the time of joining the armed forces or for the majority of years after completing military service. Inductees also must have received one or more of the following distinguished medals of valor during combat: Congressional Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, Silver Star Medal or Distinguished Flying Cross.
McCabe said veterans also may be eligible for induction through receipt of a Soldiers Medal, an Airmen Medal, a Coast Guard Medal or a Navy/Marine Corps Medal.
In all cases, service members must have been honorably discharged.
Prola — also known by the first name Guerrino, or Gued — was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action as an Army medic.
Drafted at age 22, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Prola had experience as a medical attendant at Torrance State Hospital that marked him for an assignment as a combat medic.
“This was the wrong job for me. I'm a very emotional person and I did a lot of crying as a medic,” said Prola. “But, I did what I was trained to do. I feel honored and privileged to have helped a lot of people. Even 70 some years later, I still think about it every night.”
Each platoon had one medic for 40 men, he said: “Those guys were like my babies.”
Prola served with the 394th Infantry, 99th Division of the U.S. Army in the war's European Theater. He said he was present for such major operations as the Normandy Invasion, the Battle of the Bulge and the “Race for the Rhine” during the Allied forces' capture of the strategic bridge at Remagen, Germany.
He added that many of his experiences were so horrific he has trouble talking about them: “I was still wet behind the ears, just a kid, and I saw body parts flying every which way — soldiers with arms, legs, even heads gone. I've often wondered how I ever did it. And how am I still here?”
Prola said he was especially troubled by having lost nearly 100 dog tags as he was running from the Germans one day. As a medic, it was his job to collect a set of dog tags from deceased soldiers as a way of tracking those killed on the battlefield. “I still feel really bad about losing those,” he said, choking back tears.
Prola's Silver Star is the third highest U.S. military decoration for valor, awarded for gallantry in action against the enemy. Prola said he feels honored to be inducted into the Hall of Valor at Soldiers and Sailors. He said a plaque recognizing him “will not really belong to me. It'll belong to the ones who were left behind.”
As noted in an accompanying citation, Prola was awarded the Silver Star for his selfless action on Jan. 15, 1945 in Belgium. While under enemy fire, he “made his way 100 yards to a seriously wounded soldier, and after administering aid, evacuated him.” Then, returning with a combat patrol, he spotted another wounded soldier lying in a minefield and, without hesitating, “went into the minefield, treated and carried the wounded soldier out of danger.”
Prola acknowledged being fearful when he entered the minefield. “I didn't know if I was going to ‘get it' or not,” he said. “But, I just did what I had to do.”
Prola was nominated for the Hall of Valor by his great-nephew Jeffrey Horneman, a Boy Scout leader who lives in Natrona Heights. In November, Horneman's troop was taking a class at Soldiers and Sailors for a citizenship merit badge that also required talking with a veteran.
He said it occurred to him that he should invite his “Uncle Gued” to come and speak after the class.
Horneman said the Scouts “learned a lot from listening to him” — as did Horneman, who “heard stories that no one in the family had heard before.”
As a result, Horneman realized his great-uncle was eligible for inclusion in the Hall of Valor. Proud of Prola's service record, he started the process of nominating him for the distinction.
Prola noted he also was awarded a Bronze Star for providing aid to soldiers in a company other than his own.
After completing his military service, Prola returned to his hometown, married and had three daughters. He is a retired coffee salesman. Though he still enjoys ballroom dancing, Prola said he is plagued by pain in his feet from the severe cold he endured during long wartime marches through deep snow.
One of Prola's daughters, Dana Thompson of Indiana, said family members are “so proud that he is being recognized for his service and dedication during World War II. It is well deserved and an honor for him and our family.”
Michael Kraus, a curator at Soldiers and Sailors, nominated James Bronson for induction into the Hall of Valor. Kraus said he first became aware of Bronson's service through a project to restore Civil War veterans' gravestones — including Bronson's at Chartiers Cemetery in Carnegie. Kraus also learned that Bronson had received the Congressional Medal of Honor, which qualified him for inclusion in the Hall of Valor.
Created during the Civil War, the Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration presented by the United States government. Recipients must have shown gallantry and bravery above and beyond the call of duty and at great risk to their own lives in action against an enemy.
According to his medal citation, Bronson was awarded the honor for his actions on Sept. 9, 1864 while serving with Company D, 5th U.S. Colored Troops, at Chapin's Farm, Va. Bronson, then a sergeant, “took command of his company, all officers having been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it.”
“When the officers were all gone, Bronson and others took command of the men and fought on. They sustained heavy casualties. It was a real test for the black troops and proved they could fight,” Kraus said.
He noted that USCT regiments were aways led by white officers. So, when they were all out of action, it was significant that the black soldiers stepped forward to lead.
Bronson was born in Indiana County in 1838. In July 1863, he joined the ranks of the United States Colored Infantry at Camp Delaware, Ohio. Records indicate on Nov. 30, 1864 he received a demotion, at his own request, from his promoted rank of first sergeant so he could serve as a musician in a military brass band.
Bronson was mustered out in Columbus, Ohio, when the war ended in 1865. After the war, Kraus said, Bronson also lived in Mansfield Valley, Pa. He added that records have listed his occupations as barber and minister.
Kraus said he has uncovered information that indicates Bronson may have suffered from discrimination when he applied for his veteran's pension.
He said it seems Bronson was trying to obtain his pension but was having trouble securing a signed affidavit by a local physician. Bronson complained to the pension board that the physician would not sign the affidavit because he would not agree to vote for the political candidate the doctor wanted him to vote for.
Bronson died in March 1884, two years after penning his complaint, said Kraus. Kraus said he believes Bronson, despite receiving a serious leg wound in the war, died without ever resolving his pension difficulties.
In addition to the Congressional Medal of Honor, Bronson was awarded the Butler Medal.
Kraus explained the prestigious Butler Medal was awarded by General Benjamin Butler, who commissioned and paid for the medals to recognize heroic acts performed by African American soldiers at the Battle of Chapin's Farm and nearby New Market Heights.
A personalized plaque will be made for each Hall of Valor inductee. Since he is a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Bronson's plaque will be hung on permanent display there. Prola's plaque will be hung on display for one year. After that, his will retain a permanent spot in the Hall of Valor via a searchable kiosk.
The induction ceremony will begin at 2 p.m. March 23 in Soldiers and Sailors' auditorium and is expected to last about an hour. McCabe said the general public is invited to attend at no charge and without reservation.
For more information about nominating a veteran for next year's Hall of Valor induction, contact Casey Patterson at 412-621-4253, ext. 206 or visit www.soldiersandsailorshall.org/veteran-hall-of-valor.html.
Pamela Sagely is a freelance writer.