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Creighton alumnus' selfless act key to preserving success of World War II battle

The family of Ensign John J. Parle, BSC'42, receives his Medal of Honor from U.S. Navy Capt. Dixie Kiefer at St. John's Church on Jan. 25, 1944. Parle died of wounds suffered in extinguishing a fire in advance of the Battle of Sicily, thus preserving the attack's secrecy. He is Creighton's only Medal of Honor winner.Before Allied troops waded ashore at Anzio, before Operation Anvil in the south of France, before D-Day at Normandy and the beginning of the end of World War II, there was the invasion of Sicily.

The July 1943 naval, aerial and amphibious action on the Italian island was the first capture of European soil from Axis forces by British and American troops. And it may all have been possible thanks to the sacrifice of a young U.S. Navy officer and Creighton University graduate.

Ensign John J. Parle, BSC’42, was the officer-in-charge of small boats aboard the USS LST-375 on July 9, 1943. With the attack imminent and its preparations having gone unnoticed by the Germans and Italian defenders of the island, Parle caught sight of a blaze aboard a small vessel filled with Bangalore torpedoes.

Realizing any explosion, fire or smoke would alert the enemy to the Allied presence, Parle dashed to put out the fire before it could ignite the torpedoes and was successful in doing so. But he was unable to completely douse the blaze and the fire pot from which the blaze had poured continued to smolder. Braving the smoke and flames, he sped to the pot itself, seized it in both hands and heaved it into the sea.

Ensign John J. Parle, BSC'43Hours later, the landing craft for the invasion churned through the Gulf of Gela on Sicily’s southern shores, moving forward in a successful surprise assault on the forces defending the island’s beachheads.

But a week later on July 17, as the Allied forces continued their push inland, Parle died of smoke inhalation incurred in his heroic act to preserve the secrecy of the operation. He was 23 years old.

Parle, for his deeds, received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration. He is, to date, Creighton’s only Medal of Honor winner.

“He was a fearless man by nature,” said the Rev. Richard Parle, Parle’s youngest brother, a Columban priest now living in Washington State, who was 12 years old at the time of his brother’s gallant action. “But he was also, by nature, a man of peace. When the war came, he hadn’t been for it in any way and he had hoped there were ways to avoid a war. When it came, though, he did his part.”

At Creighton, John Parle was president of the Xavier Forum, a Jesuit mission organization that organized service work around Omaha. His spiritual director was the Rev. Francis Deglman, S.J. Prior to his enrollment at Creighton, Parle spent a year at a small seminary in Ohio and pondered the priesthood, but homesickness drove him back to Omaha.

“He lived his spirituality,” Fr. Parle said. “I thought an awful lot of him when I decided to go to seminary. Johnny had a profound impact on my life, but how could he not have? He was my big brother. He looked out for me. He taught me things.”

Ensign John J. Parle's Medal of Honor is on display at the Creighton ROTC building that now bears his name.John Parle joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Creighton shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor drew the U.S. into World War II. Following his Creighton graduation, Parle went to the University of Notre Dame and completed Navy officers’ training, earning the respect of his fellow officer candidates and superiors alike for his tenacity and physical courage.

Having worked part-time during high school and college hauling sacks of grain at a local rail depot, John Parle developed tremendous upper-body strength and an iron-clasp grip. Fr. Parle said his brother liked to demonstrate his might by engaging in friendly wrestling matches in which an opponent was often surprised at how quickly the seemingly slight Ensign Parle could put a bigger man on his back.

“Johnny was about 165 pounds,” Fr. Parle recalled. “At Creighton, he hung around the gym a lot and one day, a light-heavyweight champion from Iowa came in and Johnny pinned him in no time. At Notre Dame, he pinned one of those big physical trainers they had like it was nothing. They knew what they had on their hands after that.”

After his training at Notre Dame, Ensign Parle received instruction in amphibious warfare on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico in the Southeastern U.S.

On one training exercise, a violent storm developed just as a wave of troops was ready to disembark from a landing craft piloted by Parle. As the men faltered, Parle found a length of rope, tied himself to his boat, threw the rope to the troops and had them each hold fast as he jumped into the water, pulled the soldiers to the beach and saved his craft from being swamped in the heavy rain and rough sea.

The Medal of Honor earned by Ensign John J. Parle, BSC'42.“I think John Parle, in many ways, exemplifies what we think about when we think about someone who lives with Jesuit values,” said David Crawford, Creighton’s archivist who helped dedicate part of a street and plaza for Parle at Parle’s high school alma mater, Creighton Preparatory School, in 2014. “It’s not that he saw something happening and thought, ‘Oh, what is my Jesuit training? What do I remember from Creighton?’ He just acted. He acted as a man for and with others. He acted as a man who put service and others above self. He did what had become natural to him.”

Following Parle’s death, his body was returned to Omaha and interred at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.

On Jan. 25, 1944, the Parle family assembled at St. John’s Church on the Creighton campus, where they were presented with Ensign Parle’s Medal of Honor. It was the first time a Medal of Honor had been bestowed in a church ceremony.

Navy Capt. Dixie Kiefer, second-in-command aboard the USS Yorktown when it was lost at the Battle of Midway in 1942, presented the medal and recited the commendation, which read in part:

“Undaunted by fire and blinding smoke, (Ensign Parle) 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… Ensign 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.”

While Parle was given full military funeral rites, it was not until 1998 that his headstone was adorned with the Medal of Honor decoration in a ceremony presided over by a fellow naval officer and Medal of Honor winner, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey.

The Ensign John J. Parle ROTC Building on Creighton's campus.Parle’s Medal of Honor is now located in Creighton’s Ensign John J. Parle ROTC Building, which houses the University’s military science and Army ROTC programs. A copy of the medal can also be found at the Douglas County Historical Society.

In 1944, a destroyer escort, DE-708, rolled out of the Defoe Shipyards at Bay City, Michigan, and was christened the USS Parle in Ensign Parle’s honor. Parle’s mother launched the ship and his uncle, a priest, blessed it. The ship saw action during World War II and the Korean War, and became flagship of the Navy’s fleet in Chicago, where it was used as a training vessel until 1970, when it was sunk for target practice off the coast of Florida. The Parle was the last destroyer escort in service with the Navy.

Fr. Parle still wears a Navy cap emblazoned with the ship’s name and number on it around his parish.

“People ask me sometimes, ‘What’s the USS Parle?’” he said. “So I get to tell the story. My big brother was a hero.”

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