On the evening of August 20, 1937, on the eve of his 21st
birthday, Seaman First Class Freddie Falgout was searching for a seat for movie night on the well deck of USS Augusta (CL-31)
had arrived off Shanghai a week earlier, on August 14, 1937, and was moored on the Huangpu River. A humanitarian crisis was underway as hostilities between Chinese and Japanese military forces had resulted in the death of hundreds of civilians, including four Americans, and the ship and her crew were evacuating American citizens and refugees from Shanghai.
Despite the neutral status of the U.S. Navy, the Sailors of Augusta
became well aware of the risk of being in such close proximity to the Battle of Shanghai after an accidental near-miss when two bombs dropped by a Chinese air force Northrop 2-E light attack bomber landed just off Augusta
’s starboard bow. Augusta
’s commanding officer, Admiral Harry E. Yarnell
, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Asiatic Fleet, responded by moving his flagship out of the line of fire to a more prominent position off the Shanghai “Bund,” and he ordered American flags to be prominently painted on the ship’s three main battery gun housings as further protection against another near-miss.
The Sailors of Augusta
most likely didn’t realize it as they watched the Battle of Shanghai unfold from the deck of their ship, but they were witnessing the dawn of World War II. Admiral Yarnell was not so naïve. He was well aware of the formidable and growing capabilities of the Japanese navy. He had orchestrated a war game exercise in 1932 that exposed the vulnerability of Pearl Harbor to an aerial attack, which was later recognized as an accurate harbinger of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor nine years later on December 7, 1941. After witnessing firsthand the capabilities of the Japanese navy in the Battle of Shanghai, Yarnell sent intelligence reports on his observations to Washington in an attempt to raise awareness of what he perceived as a grave future threat to the U.S. Navy.
On the evening of August 20, 1937, however, the Augusta
Sailors were filling seats on the well deck for their movie night. The good ones filled quickly and were usually gone before the movie began shortly after sundown. The well deck had been strategically chosen for the night’s entertainment because the ship’s smokestacks and seaplane catapults offered a degree of protection from the surrounding gunfire. Despite this precaution, at around 1840, a misdirected antiaircraft shell landed in the midst of a group of Augusta
Sailors. It’s not clear whether the shell was fired by the Chinese or Japanese. Seventeen Sailors were wounded when the shell exploded. Seaman First Class Freddie Falgout was killed instantly by a small fragment that lodged in his heart. He was the only casualty.
Seaman Falgout’s death would reverberate throughout the United States and would be front-page news in almost every American newspaper. When his remains were returned to his hometown of Raceland, Lousiana, the following October, his funeral attracted more than 10,000 attendees. Despite the overwhelming national attention that immediately followed his death, with the exception of his family and his hometown, Falgout was mostly forgotten in the half century that followed.
A memorial plaque was placed on the spot of Augusta
’s well deck where Falgout had died. When the ship was refitted at Mare Island Navy Yard in 1940, the plaque was retrieved from the scrap pile where it had been discarded by one of Augusta
’s Sailors, Gregory Murdock. Murdock sent the plaque to the USS Augusta
Association, and it was later presented to Falgout’s youngest brother during an Augusta
In 1987, Louisiana Senator J. Bennett Johnston sponsored a congressional proclamation to have Falgout recognized as the first American military casualty of World War II. Senator Barnett cited a Sacramento Union
newspaper article entitled “The First to Fall—U.S. Sailor Died 50 Years Ago in Opening Round of World War II.”
“I rise today,” stated Senator Bennett on the Senate floor on October 15, 1987, “in recognition of Freddie John Falgout, an American serviceman who was born and raised in Raceland, Louisiana. In 1937, Mr. Falgout became the first American to die in the conflict that would eventually escalate into World War II.”
In 2001, 64 years after his death, a memorial to Falgout was dedicated on the grounds of the Lafourche [Louisiana] Visitor Welcome Center, along with a tribute to Falgout’s life and sacrifice inside the visitor center. The memorial states:
Freddie John Falgout
Seaman First Class U.S. Navy
Born August 21, 1916 in Raceland, LA.
Killed in the line of Duty
By gunfire on the USS Augusta
In Shanghai, China in Chinese-Japanese War
August 20, 1937