As the Allies prepared to invade Sicily during World War II, Navy Ensign John Joseph Parle was tasked with managing the small boats on his landing ship. When an accident on one of those boats threatened to give the whole operation away, Parle saved the day. The incident cost him his life, but his bravery and devotion earned him the Medal of Honor.
Parle was born on May 26, 1920, in Omaha, Neb. His parents, Harry and Mary Parle, went on to have eight more children, one of whom died in infancy.
As a boy, Parle was seen by those who didn’t know him well as solemn and shy, but at home, his parents said he was full of wisecracks, according to a 1943 Omaha Evening World Herald article. The newspaper said that in the eighth grade, Parle decided he wanted to be a Catholic priest and even attended a seminary to prepare. However, it wasn’t the right fit for him, so he came home after a few months.
Parle continued to want to be a priest through most of high school, but by the time he graduated, he’d given up on the idea, the Evening World Herald said. Instead, he went to Creighton University in Omaha, where he studied to be a certified public accountant.
In 1941, during his junior year of college, Parle joined Creighton’s ROTC program. By January of 1942, the U.S. had entered World War II, so he enlisted in the Naval Reserve. After graduation, Parle began training at the University of Notre Dame, which had one of four midshipmen training centers that were set up during the war. He commissioned into the active-duty Navy on Jan. 28, 1943.
After an initial assignment in Norfolk, Va., Parle was assigned to the Northwest African Amphibious Force and attached to LST-375, a landing ship that delivered troops and equipment to beachheads. Parle was the ship’s officer in charge of small landing boats during the invasion of Sicily.
On July 9, 1943, the night before the invasion, Parle’s ship was among tens of thousands of Allied forces preparing for the surprise landing. Around 1:30 a.m. on July 10, his LST had started to swing its smaller landing craft onto the ship’s small cranes to prepare to lower them into the water.
One boat was loaded with ammunition, explosives, detonating fuses and smoke pots, which were used to create large smokescreens that troop ships could hide behind. One of those smoke pots accidentally ignited.
No one was on the boat, but Parle just happened to be walking past when the smoke pot caught fire. He knew that if it ignited any of the rest of the material on the boat, it would explode, causing a massive fireworks display that would give away the force’s position to the enemy onshore.
Without hesitating, Parle jumped onto the small boat. Despite the fire and blinding smoke, he quickly managed to snuff out the burning fuse; however, he couldn’t seem to put the actual pot out. He eventually grabbed it with both hands, ran to the side of the boat and threw it into the water.
Smoke pots were generally made of fog oil, diesel fuel and other noxious materials, of which Parle inhaled an extensive amount. Sadly, he died a week later, on July 17, due to the damage the smoke pot inflicted on his lungs.
However, Parle’s actions kept the small boat from exploding, and more importantly, it ensured that the mission stayed secret. The invasion of Sicily went on to be a success for the Allies and gave U.S. troops a route onto mainland Italy. The victory delivered a devastating blow to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s fascist government and eventually toppled his regime.
Parle was quickly nominated for this country’s highest military honor. On Jan. 26, 1944, Parle’s parents received the Medal of Honor on his behalf from Capt. Dixie Kiefer during a high mass at St. John’s Catholic Church on the Creighton University campus.
Parle’s body was eventually returned to the U.S. and buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Omaha.
Parle’s sacrifice wasn’t forgotten. In July 1944, the Navy commissioned the destroyer escort USS Parle in his honor. The ship remained in service until 1970.
Creighton University renamed a section of roadway bordering the southern part of the campus as John Parle Drive. In 1993, the school also dedicated its military science building, which houses its ROTC program, to the fallen ensign. Inside that building hangs Parle’s Medal of Honor, which was donated to the school by his family.
Editor’s note: Medal of Honor Monday highlights Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.