Raceland native first to die in WWII (2024)

So many life milestones were converging on Aug. 20, 1937, for Freddie John Falgout.

Raceland native first to die in WWII (1)

He was one day from his 21st birthday. His fianceé, Louise St. Germaine, was waiting for him back home, and he was serving his country in a foreign land.

Raceland native first to die in WWII (2)

Unfortunately, another life-altering event found the Raceland native that day: war.

Anchored off Shanghai, China, aboard the cruiser USS Augusta, Freddie and crew were evacuating westerners from the city as the Second Sino – Japanese War had begun.

Raceland native first to die in WWII (3)

Freddie, a Navy seaman first class, was killed when a Japanese shell hit the deck of the warship.

Although word of his death would be front page news across the country the next day, it would be decades before he was recognized as the first American military casualty of World War II.

“That was one of the battles that led to World War II,” said Peggy Benoit, administrator at the Lafourche Visitor Welcome Center where a monument to Freddie stands.

Raceland native first to die in WWII (5)

Born Aug. 21, 1916, Freddie John was the first of Harrison and Therese Champagne Falgout’s five children – Louise, Gus, Rita and Norris would follow.

After Therese died in 1934, Harrison would raise the kids alone. Freddie worked with his father on the family farm until the eldest Falgout offspring decided in 1936 to follow his Uncle Pierre’s footsteps and join the Navy.

“He wanted to be adventurous, and he wanted to go and see the world,” said Juanita Thibodaux, a niece of Freddie John. “He felt like he needed to roam and not just be a farmer I guess.”

Raceland native first to die in WWII (7)

It is unclear when Freddie John and Louise St. Germaine, a waitress from Napoleonville, began courting or got engaged. However, duty called for Freddie, and soon they were permanently separated.

Raceland native first to die in WWII (8)

By the summer of 1937, the Augusta was stationed in the Whangpoo River near Shanghai. It was clear Freddie was both enjoying Navy life and missing his family back home. In his last letter home, Freddie wrote: “China is a pretty nice place. I ought to have a good many smackers saved by the time I get back. How is the crop?”

On the fateful evening of Aug. 20, the Augusta crew was on deck watching a movie. Suddenly, high explosive shells rained down on the port city. A one-pound pom-pom shell landed on the deck, killing Freddie John Falgout and injuring 18 other American sailors.

The Augusta never returned fire because at the time no one knew if the shell came from Japanese warships or the national Chinese defenses. Plus, the United States was not at war with either nation.

Raceland native first to die in WWII (10)

Radio and wire services got word of Freddie’s death to the mainland that day. Rita Babin, 86, still recalls how the family first heard of her brother’s death.

“It was around noontime. There came the man from the funeral home, Leonard Falgout Jr. (Freddie’s cousin). He appeared and leaned his hand on the fig tree in the front yard and told Daddy. He said, ‘You have a son named Freddie John Falgout?’ We (his siblings) were all there, and Daddy said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘We just heard over the radio that he had been killed.’ Then in the afternoon, the man from the railroad came with the telegram saying Freddie had gotten killed.”

Raceland native first to die in WWII (11)

Freddie’s remains arrived in Raceland by train in October, escorted by his uncle Pierre.

His funeral was the largest in Raceland’s history with over 10,000 attendees, according to media accounts. Years later, the Raceland Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3665 would be named in his honor.

For half a century, Freddie’s story would disappear from the collective consciousness. It would only be known to family members and World War II historians.

Raceland native first to die in WWII (13)

Then in August 1987, an article in the Sacremento Union revived the tale of Freddie’s death and its meaning in American history.

That led former U.S. Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-La) to sponsor a proclamation, which Congress approved, declaring Freddie John Falgout the first American military casualty of World War II.

The brief spotlight on Freddie John Falgout’s death reopened another chapter to the story.

Raceland native first to die in WWII (15)

After his death, the USS Augusta crew placed a plaque marking the spot Freddie died. When the cruiser was refitted, the plaque was thrown in the scrap heap and nearly lost forever.

However, fellow seaman Gregory Murdock retrieved it, put it in his Washington State barn and forgot about it for many years.

One day, he read an article in the paper about Freddie and sent the plaque to Dick Jones, who was the USS Augusta Association president at the time.

Jones was able to track down Norris, Freddie’s youngest brother, and presented him the plaque at a USS Augusta reunion. For a decade, the tribute hung in the Raceland VFW building where Freddie’s other brother, Gus, was a custodian.

Despite a new understanding of the role Freddie John Falgout’s death played in American history, it would be a while before the thought of a memorial would cross anybody’s mind.

“This is what started it all,” said Murphy Pitre, referring to page 12 of “Best Little Stories of World War II,” penned by C. Brian Kelly. “I already knew about Freddie; a lot of people didn’t know.”

Pitre, 75, finance officer of American Legion Post 390 in Raceland, faxed his post commander, Lester Cromwell, the information from Kelly’s book. They decided it was time to start work on a monument for Freddie Falgout.

Pitre collected family artifacts, newspaper articles, eyewitness accounts and anything else related to the Raceland native.

The American Legion and VFW combined to raise over $10,000 for the black marble monument.

On Aug. 19, 2001, almost 64 years to the day of his demise, the memorial, which includes the Augusta plaque, was dedicated on the grounds of the Lafourche Visitor Welcome Center.

“We probably had about 3,000 people there,” Pitre said. “That’s not my estimate; that’s the newspaper estimate.”

Inside the Welcome Center is a small, moving display of Freddie John Falgout’s life – photos of the funeral, a scrapbook of his letters and personal photos and a copy of the Congressional proclamation.

“We have to promote this,” said Juanita Thibodaux, of the family’s decision to donate some items to the center. “Our local area needs to know.”

The Freddie John Falgout story has impacted one more life in a positive manner.

“When my dad, Norris, passed away, his wife Mrs. May gave everything to my son Marvin,” said Thibodaux.

Among the items was Freddie’s Navy ring, which had a broken red stone.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the U.S., Marvin chose to join the Navy just as Freddie did. He also had a Navy blue stone added to Freddie’s ring setting.

“He wanted to combine his naval life with Freddie’s out of respect and admiration,” said Thibodaux.

Marvin has served in the Persian Gulf and just completed a two-year stint in Japan. He now resides in Washington State.

It is unlikely that Freddie John Falgout’s story will be lost to history again.

The American Legion convinced the Lafourche Parish School Board to teach it in Louisiana history classes. And Pitre is assembling a team to lay a wreath at the monument in August.

Assuredly, Falgout’s legacy lives in Lafourche Parish.

Thousands of military personnel and mourners filled the streets of Raceland for the funeral of Navy seaman Freddie John Falgout. According to media reports, over 10,000 people attended the service. * Photo courtesy of the FALGOUT FAMILY

Raceland native first to die in WWII (16)

Raceland native first to die in WWII (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Laurine Ryan

Last Updated:

Views: 5974

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (77 voted)

Reviews: 92% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Laurine Ryan

Birthday: 1994-12-23

Address: Suite 751 871 Lissette Throughway, West Kittie, NH 41603

Phone: +2366831109631

Job: Sales Producer

Hobby: Creative writing, Motor sports, Do it yourself, Skateboarding, Coffee roasting, Calligraphy, Stand-up comedy

Introduction: My name is Laurine Ryan, I am a adorable, fair, graceful, spotless, gorgeous, homely, cooperative person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.