By Susan Dykes
On August 20, 1937, the crew of the USS Augusta which was docked in Shanghai, China were gathering for a morale-boosting movie on deck. Their night of entertainment, however, turned into a devastating incident which would become a significant moment in World War II history.
In the midst of one of the fiercest battles between Japanese and Chinese forces, the USS Augusta reached Shanghai just days before the incident on ‘Bloody Saturday,’ August 14, 1937. Though the United States had not officially entered the war at the time, the ship and crew were tasked to protect and help evacuate American and European citizens from the escalating danger in the international settlements of the Bund – the central business district of Shanghai. Marines from the USS Augusta were joined by those from the USS Sacramento to also protect Shanghai’s power plant, an operation that put the sailors directly in the line of fire.
The USS Augusta was thought to be secure on the night of the on-deck movie, despite the ship being surrounded by fighting and the presence of Japanese ships anchored in the nearby Huangpu River.
As the sailors were preparing to watch the movie with screen and benches brought from below, an anti-aircraft shell landed on deck sending shrapnel into the crowd taking the life of 1st Class Seaman Freddie John Falgout and injuring eighteen other sailors. Falgout, a native of Raceland, Louisiana, was about to celebrate his 21st birthday the next day. News of the incident quickly reached the United States, appearing in major newspapers and on the cover of the New York Times.
American Geographical Society Library staff discovered rare images of the aftermath of the incident in the AGSL Photographic Collections. The images, showing injured sailors and the deck where the shell hit, were taken by Harrison Forman and are available online in the UWM Digital Collections.
The Battle of Shanghai lasted months, eventually resulting in the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. It was considered one of many military battles that led to World War II, thereby making Falgout the first American military casualty of the war. In 1987, Senator J. Bennett Johnston, Jr (D) from Louisiana, honored Falgout as such, submitting an article about the incident from the Sacramento Union, which was printed in the Congressional Record.
View all images of the USS Augusta http://collections.lib.uwm.edu/cdm/search/searchterm/forman%20augusta/field/all/mode/all/conn/and/order/title/ad/asc/cosuppress/0