Out of Control Smoke Pot Forges Medal of Honor, Extinguishes Ensign’s Life

From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

It was the night of July 9, 1943 and Operation Husky, the land and air operation to invade the island of Sicily had begun.

The weather was already causing havoc with airborne landings and tossing ships, laden with Army personnel.

What the allied forces lacked in weather cooperation they made up for in the one element they had working for them: the element of surprise. The Germans had fallen for the fake Operation Mincemeat, the details of they had obtained from a body dressed like a British naval officer the allies allowed to wash ashore in Spain with a briefcase filled with operational “plans” for an attack in Greece and Sardinia. The Germans diverted troops and equipment from Sicily giving the perfect opportunity for Operation Husky’s success.

But nothing ruins the element of surprise more than an explosion. As USS LST-375 inched closer to its amphibious landing at Licata, Sicily, 72 years ago today, something happened that put the mission into jeopardy.

Ensign John J. Parle  was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for valor and courage above and beyond the call of duty while serving as Officer-in-Charge of USS LST-375 during the amphibious assault on the island of Sicily July 9-10, 1943.  U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

Ensign John J. Parle was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for valor and courage above and beyond the call of duty while serving as Officer-in-Charge of USS LST-375 during the amphibious assault on the island of Sicily July 9-10, 1943. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

And that’s where John Joseph Parle’s bravery comes into this picture.

A native of Omaha, Neb., Parle was among the thousands of land-locked Midwesterners who joined the sea service following the attack at Pearl Harbor. He enlisted Jan. 11, 1942 at age 21 as an apprentice seaman, and was a 1942 ROTC graduate at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. He began Midshipman training at Notre Dame University that fall and on Jan. 28, 1943, he was commissioned as an ensign.

After training with Amphibious Force at Norfolk, Va., the 22-year-old ensign was assigned as the officer in charge of small boats attached to LSTs, or Landing Ship, Tank, with the Northwest African Amphibious Force.

On July 9, 1943, his LSTs were prepared to bring members of the 7th Army’s 3rd Division, under the command of Lt. Gen. George Patton, to the port city of Licata off the southern coast of Sicily, while other 7th Army divisions landed at Gela and Agriento.

As the boats slipped toward their destinations, they towed smaller boats filled with explosives, ammunition, fuses and smoke pots. Smoke pots were devices used by the Chemical Warfare Service to create smoke screens, to provide visual aids for landing forces, or signify to friendly forces where not to shoot.

One of those smoke pots on Ensign Parle’s boat was accidentally ignited. Realizing the heat from the pot could set off one of the boats filled with explosives, causing a blast that would surely alert the Germans of their approach to Licata, Ensign Parle acted without hesitation. He entered the craft, already filled with smoke and fire, to snuff out burning fuses, and tried to extinguish the smoke pot. After several attempts failed, he seized the pot with his bare hands, ran topside and threw it over the side.

A smoke pot similar to this one was used to screen ships or show where to land troops during Operation Husky.

A smoke pot similar to this one was used to screen ships or show where to land troops during Operation Husky.

But his courageous action took its toll on the 23-year-old. After inhaling smoke and poisonous fumes that turned into pneumonia, he died at a hospital in Tunisia.

For his heroic and courageous actions that not only saved other servicemen, but also ensured the security of the mission, Ensign Parle was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and the Medal of Honor for “valor and courage above and beyond the call of duty.” During the nearly the four years of WWII, the Navy only awarded 57 Medals of Honor, 15 of those for actions on a single date: Dec. 7, 1941.

Parle was buried at the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Omaha.

A year later, his family ensured their son’s remembrance. On July 29, 1944, USS Parle (DE 708) was commissioned, sponsored by Parle’s mother, Mary Parle. The ceremony was a family affair. Serving as an altar boy for the ceremony was Parle’s younger brother, Richard, while his uncle, Father Tom Parle, gave the ship’s blessing.

USS Parle (DE-708) off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 29, 1960. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

USS Parle participated in operations in the Pacific Campaign through the end of World War II. In 1970, the last destroyer escort in the U.S. Navy was used as gunnery practice and sunk off northeastern Florida that October.

As for USS LST-375, the ship survived the invasion of Sicily, and went on to participate in both the September 1943 Salerno landings and the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. After earning three battle stars for World War II service, the LST was decommissioned in 1946, sold and scrapped in 1948.

 

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