Saturday, April 05, 2008

Freddie John Falgout

It was August 21, 1937, Raceland, Louisiana native Freddie John Falgout’s 21st birthday. Daily newspapers across America featured Falgout’s name and sometimes his photograph, prominently on their front pages. Falgout, a Seaman First Class on the Cruiser USS AUGUSTA (CA-31), had been killed the day before in Shanghai, China when an anti-aircraft shell fell on the deck where he was sitting. Shrapnel from the shell also injured 17 or 18 other sailors, but none critically.

Falgout’s death aboard the AUGUSTA was the top story on the New York Times front page; his photograph and a picture of the AUGUSTA was featured on the third page.

The United States was not at war, but the AUGUSTA had ventured up the Whangpoo River to Shanghai to help in evacuation of American citizens. Their lives were threatened by escalating battles between defending Chinese forces and the invading Japanese army for control of the internationally important city.

Despite Falgout’s death and the other injuries, the AUGUSTA did not return fire, a New York Times story said, “because the officers were unable to determine whether (the shell) came from an airplane or from Chinese batteries nearby.”

Three American civilians had already died in Shinghai fighting, but Falgout was the first United States military casualty. And, since the Sino-Japanese War raged on for four more years until the attack on Pearl Harbor finally drew this country into World War II, historians acknowledge that Raceland’s Freddie John Falgout was technically the first U.S. military death in what became to be known as WW-II.

Even after it was determined that the fatal shell came from a Japanese anti-aircraft gun, the New York Times reported that President Franklin D. Roosevelt regarded Falgout’s death as “an unfortunate accident, which would not alter the determination of the government to keep the guards and warships in and near Shangai, at least for the present.”

Back in Louisiana, the August 21, 1937 New Orleans Times Picayune front page featured Falgout’s photograph in his Navy uniform, along with a picture of his father, two brothers and two sisters and a photograph of the family’s farm home. An accompanying story was written by Meigs O. Frost.

“Through this town of some 500 souls, on Bayou Lafourche, today, swept like prairie-fire in a dry autumn day the news ‘Fred Falgout, he got shot and killed at Shanghai over in China.”

In October, Falgout was buried with full military honors with an estimated 10,000 people from surrounding parishes attending the funeral. Later the Raceland Veterans of Foreign Wars post was named in his honor.

In the years since, the significance of Falgout’s death has slipped into obscurity, until recently, when Raceland accountant and American Legion officer Murphy Pitre discovered that Falgout’s fiancée, the former Louise St. Germaine, was still living, having married and raised a family in Napoleonville, Louisiana. Pitre and others from the American Legion, supported by the Raceland VFW post that bears Falgout’s name, led a drive to memorialize his death with a monument to be placed at the Lafourche Tourist Information Center on U.S. Highway 90 at Raceland.

Among the stories of Falgout’s death Pitre has collected is an eyewitness account by the dental officer on the AUGUSTA which was published in the October 1978 Sea Combat Magazine. Then Commander C. W. Schantz was interviewed by a writer for the magazine.

“If you haven’t heard it, and many haven’t,” Schantz said, “it is a good story to know.”

“On board the AUGUSTA, discipline and routine set the pace and although the ship and crew stood ready to meet any emergency, the patter of shipboard life was otherwise normal…..”

“The morning of 20 August was typical…At 0520 (5:20 a.m.) two Japanese shells landed fifty yards astern of the AUGUSTA. It was my thought then, my conviction now, that the Japanese, in many instances deliberately practiced ‘near misses’ on all foreign ships in the river.”

“At 1710 (5:10 p.m.) that afternoon, we spotted British troops erecting sandbag barricades on the shore. Two Japanese seaplanes hovered overhead. It seemed to us they were interested in us.”

“Shortly after evening chow, the crew began assembling on the well deck. An open-air movie had been scheduled, epilogue to a day of strenuous duty. Laughter and good-natured ribbing was the order of the evening as enlisted men scrambled for places from which to view the silver screen.”

“There was a sudden, nerve shocking, out-of-nowhere intrusion! A blinding flash! A rush of air! Screams - a low moan!”

“The intrusion was a one-pounder shrapnel shell landing and bursting in the midst of the gathering. Seventeen men were injured. As the smoke cleared, Freddie J. Falgout, S1/c, of Raceland, Louisiana, rose from the bench on which he had been setting. Slowly, as though in a trance, he began walking. Twelve steps. With each step blood spurted from a hole in his heart. He was dead as he walked – the first American blue-jacket to meet death by Japanese gunfire in their current war of world conquest.”

“A catapult silo shielded me from the blast that killed Falgout. A few inches one was or another and the first casualty of World War II, as in World War I, might well have been a dental officer.”

“On the following day, with a grim, tight-lipped crew in attendance, I marked off the stained deck area where Falgout died. With hot silver alloy, the shell-burst scar was preserved, a burning memorial to an American boy, a prophetic forerunner of mass murder to come.”

“The die was cast then in Falgout’s menorial; it was just a matter of time.”

Schantz was clearly unaware of the news accounts of the Shanghai incident; unaware that Freddie John Falgout’s August 20 death aboard the AUGUSTA had been August 21 front-page news across the nation.

“As a news story,” he said, “the death of Falgout was buried in the back pages. Our Navy had an important job to do – the Japanese were ‘so sorry,’ but disclaimed liability for the ‘accident.’ It was a tough ‘accident’ to prove, but not a man aboard the ship accepted the explanation.”

(By: Billy Ellzey)


Chief Radioman Charles Zobie was one of the “old salts” aboard the destroyer USS FOOTE (DD-511). He joined the Navy on November 11, 1934 and had a fantastic memory for places, events and people. His recollections were legendary and sounded like “who’s who” in the Navy. Zobie believed “a story untold is a story lost forever.”

After radio school, Zobie boarded the ammunition ship, USS NITRO (AE-2) for transportation from the east coast, through the Panama Canal, to the west coast for assignment to the flag on the Cruiser USS LOUISVILLE (CA-28). After Pacific fleet maneuvers in 1936 he crossed the equator for the first time when the LOUISVILLE was en-route to Peru for liberty and recreation.

He was then transferred to the Asiatic Fleet for duty with the flag on the Cruiser USS AUGUSTA (CA-31) - CinCAF (Commander in Chief Asiatic Fleet). While on AUGUSTA, they made a trip to Vladivostok, Russia, then down to Tsingtoo, North China at the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war.

The AUGUSTA steamed into Shanghai on “Bloody Friday”, August 13, 1937 to help in the evacuation of American citizens. They were accidentally bombed by three Chinese (friendly) bombers, but sustained no damage from the near misses. The AUGUSTA stayed at Shangai for five months during the struggle between the Chinese and Japanese for the city.

It was on August 20, 1937 that shrapnel from an anti-aircraft shell fired by the Japanese fell on the deck of the AUGUSTA killing Freddie J. Falgout, S1/c , Raceland, Louisiana and wounding seventeen other sailors, none critically. So, Freddie was the first member of the U.S. military killed by the Japanese before the declaration of WW-II and I had just had my twelfth birthday and was in the sixth grade.

Zobie was on the controlling radio circuit when the River Gunboat USS PANAY (PR-5) was bombed and sunk by Japanese aircraft, on December 12, 1937, in the Yangtze River and copied her last message before she went down. He was then transferred to Manila for a couple of months shore duty with the flag and it was there he got his orders for duty at the American Embassy in Chungking, China. He traveled across country from Hong Kong to Hangkow by train and from there to Chungking by gunboat.

Zobie and two other radiomen installed and operated the original radio station at the American Embassy in Chungking. He spent nineteen months there during which he experienced sixty-three Japanese bombing raids, eight in one week. The American Ambassador gave Zobie a commendation countersigned by Secretary State, Cordell Hull and Acting Secretary of the Navy, Edison. In addition, when he was transferred back to the states, he received a commendation from Admiral Yarnell, Commander in Chief of the Asaitic Fleet.

The Next ship assignment for Zobie was the USS FOOTE (DD-511), a new Fletcher Class Destroyer. He reported aboard as Chief Radioman in Boston, Massachusetts on December 22, 1942, the day the FOOTE was placed in commission, as one of the oldest crew members and remained on her until she returned to the states after WW-II.

Knowing I was from Louisiana, Chief Zobie told me the story of Freddie J. Falgout’s end at the Cincinnati, Ohio reunion of the FOOTE crew in 1988.

He wondered about the return of Freddie and I promised to look into it since Raceland wasn’t far from Baton Rouge.

After I returned to Baton Rouge, I went to Thibodaux, Louisiana a town on Bayou Lafourche about 15-miles upstream of Raceland and visited the local newspaper. Searching their archives I found their story covering Freddie. Then I went to Raceland and asked a few questions and found out that one of his two sister still lived there. I visited with her, but she was not well, so I didn’t stay long. I visited the cemetery and found Freddie’s above ground vault. As far south in Louisiana as Raceland is most internments are in vaults above ground, due to the water table.

I understand that a monument to honor Freddie was placed at the Tourist Information Center on U.S. Highway 90 at Raceland and dedicated on a bright, hot day in August 2001. Chief Charlie Zobie passed away on December 12, 1991 shortly after the USS FOOTE had their annual reunion in Denver, Colorado.

So, this is the rest of the story.

(Written by: Wilbur V. Rogers)


Post a Comment

<< Home