Recently, the Barton County Historical Society Museum received an exceptional gift from the Prosser family of Barton County. The surviving brothers of Maj. Bernard “Barney” J. Prosser, USMC (Ret.) gifted his military dress uniform jacket, complete with his many medals of commendation earned over a career spanning 31 years, hat and dress gloves.
“This is rare to receive both the uniform and the medals together,” said Beverly Komarek, BCHSM director.
The museum learned the Prossers chose to bestow the gift to them because it not only had a hometown connection to the family, it also had the climate control necessary to preserve the uniform and medals properly.
The Prosser family hopes the story of their brother and the honors he received may inspire others from Barton County to reach for the highest heights, said younger brother Alvin Prosser, Great Bend.
Born in 1924, Prosser’s formative years were spent working on the family farm through the Great Depression. He learned the value of hard work and perseverance there, and it served him well as he served his country, proving that he was a rare breed of man, a “mustang.”
“A ‘mustang’ is a Marine that who started out as a private and ended up as a Major without any formal education,” Alvin said. “Barney never went to high school, college or a military academy. He made his way up to the top through personal accomplishments, all on his own.”
Then, as today, only about 10 percent of enlisted men are given the opportunity to go on to become commissioned officers.
At the age of 14, Prosser graduated from grade school. Alvin still has the program from the 1938 Graduating Class of Barton County Rural Schools, a tiny mark next to “Bernard Prosser, St. J.” At that time, all rural students in the county from both public and religious schools graduated from eighth grade together, at the city auditorium in Great Bend. Prosser attended the tiny St. Joseph Catholic School in Beaver. It consisted of two rooms in the church basement, a small room and a large room, his brother Alvin remembers.
“The nuns were tough,” he said. “They had to be. They lived across the street in a sort of bunker, and those walls had to have had no insulation, and they heated the place with a small wood stove.”
Prosser didn’t go on to high school. Instead, he went to work, contributing to the family income as so many others did in those years. Alvin was a toddler at that time. He remembers his brother working on the family farm, and playing in local dance bands. He doesn’t recall what prompted his brother to enter military service as a Marine on Nov. 11, 1948 at the age of 24. Perhaps it was simply to have a say.
Farm deferments were available during World War II. The family with four boys had one brother serving in Europe at that time. In fact, the oldest Prosser boy was a captured and held prisoner for several months by German troops before the war ended. After the war, the draft was still in effect, but men who volunteered could choose what branch of the service they joined, and had some say in what specialty they would pursue. For Barney Prosser, communications, radio and code breaking would be his future.
He entered the Marines during peacetime, but that period was short lived. About a year and a half later, in July 1950, the United States went to war with North Korea, and Prosser was one of the first Marines on the ground at the Inchon Invasion and at the Battle of Soel on the West Coast of Korea. A few months later, he was there for the Wonson Invasion on the East Coast of Korea, and from there, attached to the 5th and 7th Marines, he and 10,000 U.S. soldiers, both Army and Marines, moved 50 miles up the Chosin Reservoir, where they were surprised by some counts as many as 120,000 Chinese soldiers and had to fight their way out again through brutally cold, 38-below-zero degree conditions. The battle today is referred to as the “Frozen Chosin,” and is eerily portrayed in the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. with 19 stainless steel statues of soldiers moving across a field. Prosser was shot more than once and suffered frost bite, but kept his life. He was also awarded the Purple Heart.
After over a month in recovery, he was sent back to the states in April 1951, and later that year married Gladys Utne. He was then assigned to the U.S.S. Pocono, a command ship, for three years. The decision to make the military his career meant Prosser would go on to serve three tours of duty in Vietnam as an intelligence officer. His work required his close presence and cooperation with the South Vietnamese army and at locations closest to the action. He earned 11 personal commendations, and two from the South Vietnamese, and many meritorious unit and joint service medals.
He was one of the first Marine Advisors in South Vietnam. He worked with South Vietnamese intelligence for a year starting in May, 1967. Then, for another year from May, 1972 to May 1973, he served at many outposts in Viet Nam and was attached to the National Security Agency at Saigon. He was also one of the founders of the Marine Corps Cryptologic Association. Little more is known about the actual work he did there due to the confidential nature of his specialty, brother Alvin said.
After the war, he was stationed at Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington D.C. until he took a military retirement in 1979. He went on to work in the private intelligence sector for a few years, living in Austin, Texas with Gladys until she died. He returned home to Barton County in 1995, bought an acreage and brought his life full-circle, farming and ranching, Alvin said.
“I looked up to Barney. He inspired me,” he said.
Maj. Prosser’s uniform will be part of a larger display of militaria at the Barton County Historical Museum in development for the future.