For 52 years, Paul Schultz never revealed details about his Vietnam War service.
The closest he got was telling his sons that they owed their lives to his best friend in Vietnam.
“I had told my boys if it hadn’t been for James Prommersberger going out on a mission for me while I was so very, very sick, they wouldn’t be here,” said Schultz.
Schultz’s sons, Andrew and Aaron, did not push their father for more information. They only knew that Prommersberger had died and left behind a family in Youngstown, Ohio.
But recently, one of his sons put him in touch with Prommersberger’s oldest child.
And now Schultz is able to share the story of his friend’s selflessness and pay tribute to the man to whom he says he owes his life.
It happened in 1966 when Schultz came down with a case of severe dysentery in Vietnam that plagued him for more than three weeks.
“I couldn’t function. I was too sick. I lost around 35 pounds and had gone down to about 120 pounds,” Schultz said.
He was unable to go out on patrols and disarm land mines and booby traps in his job as a combat engineer. Other Marines from his unit filled in for him.
Sgt. Prommersberger volunteered to take Schultz’s place on an overnight mission that started April 15, 1966.
“Jim knew how sick I was. Our racks were next to one another,” Schultz said. “I respected him. He was a young man who was married with responsibilities. He’d always show me pictures of his wife, Dana, and their daughter and son. He was so proud of his family.”
Schultz said he also admired the patriotism that ran deep in the Prommersberger family and what it had cost them.
“His grandfather had been killed in World World I and his father had died from injuries in World War II,” Schultz said.
But Schultz never could have imagined that when his buddy filled in for him, a third generation of Prommersbergers would make the ultimate sacrifice.
At about 4 a.m. April 16, 1966, the patrol encountered approximately 200 enemy soldiers outside of Da Nang.
“They came under mortar fire and Jim rescued 11 Marines who had been wounded. Guys were out in this open area injured, and Jim went out and got them back to safety. Against his lieutenant’s orders, he went out for a 12th man and he was fatally wounded by mortar fire,” Schultz said. “Jim had been only 10 days away from going home.”
When news of the death reached the camp, Schultz said everyone was devastated.
“All the guys respected Jim and most of us wrote letters back to his widow telling how great a guy he was.”
Schultz packed up Prommersberger’s personal belongings in a footlocker to be sent to his widow in Ohio. The Marines would also send her the Silver Star and Purple Heart posthumously awarded to her husband.
But none of this was enough to assuage Schultz. Months after he was honorably discharged, Schultz traveled to Youngstown to visit his friend’s widow.
“I met her in the living room of her grandmother’s house. The kids were not there. I tried to explain the circumstances around his death. I tried to answer any questions she had and I expressed my condolences. I asked if she would show me where he was buried, but she declined.”
Respecting her wishes, he left and returned home.
Schultz said he never stopped thinking about his friend, but he simply could not bring himself to tell others the details of what happened.
Schultz and the former Joyce Haseley, a pen pal from Wheatfield with whom he had started a correspondence during his year in Vietnam, married in June 1968.
In 1971, Schultz joined the North Tonawanda Police Department. He was later promoted to detective, serving about 14 years in the juvenile aid bureau before retiring in 1998. He then worked several years as an investigator for Niagara County District Attorney’s Office.
Last summer, his son Aaron, a captain with the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office, decided to try and find out details about Prommersberger’s family.
“Through social media, he contacted this Air Force veteran Jack Kidd from Youngstown, Ohio. Aaron asked Jack if he knew anything about the Prommersberger family and Jack said he was Jim’s best friend in high school and knew his daughter very well,” Schultz said. “Aaron asked if the daughter would want to talk with his dad and Jack said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”
Schultz and Kristen O’Neill were soon talking on the phone.
In August, Schultz and his wife traveled to Youngstown to meet O’Neill and her family.
“We went through his footlocker and I held the two snapshots of Krissy and her younger brother Jim. I told Krissy, ‘The last time I had held these photos was 52 years ago before I packed them into the footlocker.’ ”
Schultz asked if he could visit her father’s grave and the daughter obliged.
On the way to the cemetery, O’Neill took the Schultzs to Austintown Fitch High School, where she works as a special education teacher and serves as chairwoman of the school’s veterans council.
“She gave us a tour of the campus showing us all kinds of tributes to veterans and active duty service members,” he said. “Her goal is that her dad never be forgotten.”
Schultz said he was impressed. But the moment he had truly longed for happened when he arrived at Prommersberger’s grave. Looking down at the brass grave marker, he was, in a sense, reunited with his best friend.
“I got to say goodbye to my buddy Jim Prommersberger. I gave him a final salute.”
That evening the Schultzes were the dinner guests of 15 members and friends of the Prommersberger family.
Prommersberger's widow, Dana, was not there. She had died 10 years earlier.
“I hadn’t known at the time when I visited Dana that her mother had just died three months prior to her husband’s death,” Schultz said. “The poor girl had been through so much.”
After the meal, Joyce Schultz stood up and read a letter that Paul Schultz, her long ago pen pal, had written her on the day Prommersberger died.
“I had started the letter telling Joyce that my best friend Jim had died at 4:10 a.m. and that it was a tremendous loss to me personally.”
When his wife finished reading the letter, there was not a dry eye at the table.
Schultz says he has remained in close contact with O’Neill and Jack Kidd.
“I feel like I have a new extended family in Ohio.”
And now he welcomes the chance to share with others the story of Marine Sgt. James Prommersberger.
Paul Schultz, 74
Hometown: Niagara Falls
Residence: North Tonawanda
Branch: Marine Corps
War zone: Vietnam
Years of service: Enlisted, Sept. 4, 1963 – Oct. 17, 1966
Most prominent honors: Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, National Defense Medal and Good Conduct Medal
Specialty: Combat engineer