When I was in the 5th Grade, I won my first writing competition—a school contest on patriotic poems. The competition was sponsored by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars. I blogged about that experience here. If you read the opening of my prize-winning poem, you’ll understand why I am not a poet, but also why that contest was a seed for my young creative self.
Since then, I’ve been to VFW halls for weddings and anniversary celebrations, or Friday fish fries in Lent and Saturday pancake breakfast for the Boy Scouts, but apart from the fond memory of the poetry night, I never thought much about the local VFW hall. Until this weekend.
The last few months, I’ve been working on my mother’s autobiography. I encouraged her for years to record the stories of her childhood and family, her years as a new wife while my dad was in the Army, her good and bad times as a nursing student at the now-closed Charity Hospital in New Orleans, her upbringing in a big French-Catholic family in south Louisiana. My mother is in her 80s now, but she faithfully recorded her memories in her still-beautiful handwriting. I’ve been transcribing and fact-checking dates and names. If still wrote poetry, I might write this:
How do you spell Rudolph?
Let me count the ways!
Rudolph, Rudolphe, Rudof, Rudolf.
Genealogists, I feel your pain.
I asked my mother a question about a funeral, which led her to make an offhand comment about the funeral of Freddie John Falgout, the first soldier to die in World War II. The name was familiar but it took a while to place. I finally remember that the place where I received my patriotic poem award was the Freddie John Falgout VFW Post. But it was news to me that the first military death in WWII was a boy from the bayou.
What surprised me more was that Freddie John Falgout died in 1937, aboard a US Navy vessel docked in a harbor in Shanghai.
While my mother was speaking, my editor brain was in full swing. The US was not at war in1937. The US was never at war with China during WWII—the two countries were allies. How could the first US military casualty of WWII happen before Pearl Harbor, on board a ship docked at Shanghai? Was my mother confused?
We hung up, I Googled, and learned a good lesson. Beware of questioning your mother, because she was usually right.
Freddie John Falgout was a native of Raceland, Louisiana, one town over from where I lived in Lafourche Parish. I don’t know why he joined the Navy, but many young men did in the 1930s because, as my mother put it, the military guaranteed a bed and three meals every day, and many families could not provide those things in the mid-1930s.
In August of 1937, Freddie was a Seaman First Class aboard the Cruiser USS Augusta, which was docked in Shanghai. The Augusta’s mission was to aid in evacuating westerners from the city. This was the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War between China and Japan, which lasted from 1937 until 1945. The Battle of Shanghai went on for months and resulted with the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. This conflict is one of several military aggressions that led to second world war, and why Freddie John Falgout—though years before Pearl Harbor—was the first American soldier to die in World War II.
On August 20, 1937, Freddie was one day shy of his 21st birthday and was engaged to be married. That evening, the ship’s commander called for a movie night on deck. Though the Augusta was surrounded by Japanese ships in the harbor, it was considered safe. The US, after all, was not involved in the fight for Shanghai. The Augusta was there on an evacuation mission.
As sailors was setting up chairs for the movie, an anti-aircraft shell landed on deck. Shrapnel exploded from it, killing Freddie and wounding 18 other American soldiers. It was not known at the time if the missile came from the Japanese or Chinese, so there was no return fire. Later, it was confirmed that it was a Japanese “pom-pom” shell that had missed its target—a Chinese plane—and landed on the Augusta.
The next day, the crew of the Augusta marked off the spot where Freddie had died. At the same time, radio and wire services were spreading the news of the death of an American seaman in Shanghai. By August 21, 1937, Freddie John Falgout’s 21st birthday, his death was the front page story of the New York Times and another newspapers across the nation.
It took six weeks for Freddie’s remains to arrive in San Francisco. His body, accompanied by an uncle, then began a journey by train to his home town in Louisiana. He was buried with full military honors on October 3. Though only 500-600 people lived in Raceland, the funeral was massive—an estimated 10,000 people in attendance.
My mother recalled stories of people walking all day to get from their homes to the church for Freddie’s funeral. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called Freddie’s death “an unfortunate accident.”
It would be another fifty years–in 1957–before Louisiana Senator J. Bennett Johnston sponsored a Congressional proclamation to have Freddie’s death named the first American military death of World War II.. You can read it, and an article detailing the events of August 20, 1937, as well as Freddie’s family and life, from the Congressional Record – Senate, October 15, 1987, page 128
I am posting this on the 4th of July for two reasons. One, Freddie John Falgout was a soldier who died for our freedom. Second, our country’s history began on this date many years ago. Writing about our history is the way to keep it alive.
I learned this story through a chance comment from my mother. How many stories will be lost if we don’t ask? Look around. What happened in your town, in your family, to your neighbors, that you have never wondered or asked or written about?
Wonder Ask. Write. Do it now.