“Meekness is a great latent strength which does not waste itself in trivialities or in serving self, but spends itself serving God and fellow man. In this sense was John Parle truly meek and gifted with a quiet power so strong and deep that it became heroic when danger brought out to the full its latent qualities.”
Father Hunkeler’s remarks on fallen Navy Ensign John Joseph Parle during a mass to honor the young man’s posthumous receipt of the Medal of Honor on January 26, 1944, touched all in attendance. Parle was well-known for his kindness and selflessness among those in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, and these same qualities earned him the highest honor bestowed on a servicemember. According to friends and family, Parle’s untimely death at 24 while risking his own life to save a landing ship from exploding during Operation Husky in 1943 spoke to his resolve to put higher causes above himself.
Born on May 26, 1920, Parle was one of seven children in his family. Growing up with many siblings, Parle became a respectful but witty young man who never turned down an opportunity to help, whether it was assisting elderly neighbors with household tasks or making his friends laugh with a joke or harmless prank. Parle shared his family’s devout Catholicism and considered entering the priesthood before ultimately attending Creighton University in Omaha where he majored in accounting. He joined the university’s ROTC program in 1941 prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In January 1942, Parle enlisted in the Naval Reserve and was commissioned into the Navy as an Ensign on January 28, 1943.
Parle’s enlistment took him to the Mediterranean, where he became an officer aboard USS LST-375, one of 2,500 ships that were part of the Allied Northwest African Amphibious Force preparing for the invasion of Sicily. As part of his duties, Parle was tasked with coordinating the ship’s landing boats, which carried war materiel including highly flammable smoke pots used to create smokescreen cover for troops during missions.
On July 10, 1943, at around 1:30 a.m., Parle noticed that a smoke pot had ignited on one of the unmanned smaller boats being lowered in preparation for the invasion. Always known for his ability to respond quickly under pressure, Parle unflinchingly jumped into the boat and grabbed for the flaming pot. He knew that if he didn’t extinguish the device, there was the chance that other explosives aboard the ship could catch on fire, draw attention to the vessel, and thwart all efforts for a secret landing at Sicily. Carrying forth with his mission to ensure a successful amphibious assault, Parle grabbed the pot and threw it over the side of the ship, the fire and thick smoke burning his eyes and lungs. Parle saved the craft, its crucial supplies, and—ultimately—the Allies’ advance into mainland Italy.
Sadly, Parle’s selfless actions cost him his life. On July 17, Parle died of lung damage after inhaling the poisonous fumes emitted from the smoke pot. But his courage was noted when Captain Dixie Kiefer presented Parle’s parents with his Medal of Honor at the St. John Catholic Church Mass at Creighton University in January 1944. According to the Naval Historical Center, Parle “was the only Navy member to receive a Medal of Honor for actions performed in the Mediterranean and Atlantic theaters.”
Parles is buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Omaha. In July 1944, the Navy destroyer escort USS Parle was commissioned in his honor; the ship remained in service until 1970. Creighton University’s military science building is dedicated to Parle, and his Medal of Honor is housed there.
Parle’s full Medal of Honor citation reads:
"For valor and courage above and beyond the call of duty as officer-in-charge of small boats in the U.S.S. LST 375 during the amphibious assault on the island of Sicily, 9-10 July 1943. Realizing that a detonation of explosives would prematurely disclose to the enemy the assault about to be carried out, and with full knowledge of the peril involved, Ens. Parle unhesitatingly risked his life to extinguish a smoke pot accidentally ignited in a boat carrying charges of high explosives, detonating fuses and ammunition. Undaunted by fire and blinding smoke, he entered the craft, quickly snuffed out a burning fuse, and after failing in his desperate efforts to extinguish the fire pot, finally seized it with both hands and threw it over the side. Although he succumbed a week later from smoke and fumes inhaled, Ens. Parle's heroic self-sacrifice prevented grave damage to the ship and personnel and insured the security of a vital mission. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country."