I walk through our park frequently, and this news has forever changed the way I will look at the trees on Forest Park Drive. Each one of those oak trees lining the road were planted for some family’s loved one who left Woodhaven to serve their country and never came home.
We have begun researching the stories of these young men from Woodhaven who sacrificed their lives for our country and, over time, we’ll introduce all of them to you.
We’ll introduce you to the young man from 96th Street who was, fittingly, an aspiring forester and writer who once was chosen to parade before King George and who sent letters to this very newspaper describing what he was seeing.
"Today is rather quiet, but up to last night the roar of cannon never ceased,” he wrote in one of those dispatches. “None of us will ever forget these days, as it is something worth while seeing and being in.”
This young man would write no more, killed in action in the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
We’ll introduce you to the young man who was an entertainer, a singer and a dancer who frequently appeared in local plays or musical reviews. He was a popular member of the Woodhaven Athletic Club, and was killed in action at 26. Upon his death, this newspaper wrote “He was well liked by all who knew him and the news of his death has cast a shadow over the entire neighborhood.”
We’ll introduce you to the young man from Woodhaven who was known as the King of Eastern Hurdlers and set a world’s record at Madison Square Garden the year before he died of gangrene from wounds received in battle.
Each one of these young men, and dozens more, are represented by a tree in our living, breathing memorial that sits, no longer forgotten, in Forest Park. But today I’d like to tell you the story of a young man for whom a tree was never planted.
As news of each new casualty came in, the Leader/Observer would publish the names of the dead under the simple headline “Taps.” I imagine that residents of Woodhaven hated that headline, and fearfully scanned the names for young men they knew.
His name was Private Fred Fleury, and in November 1918, his name was one of the young men listed under “Taps.”
Private Fleury had enlisted and sailed to France the year before, landing on Memorial Day. Private Fleury was born in Woodhaven, and had lived here his entire life. He was an automobile mechanic.
At first, his parents had been notified that he was missing in action after a brutal battle in France, and they held out hope that he would find his way home safely. The family was still grieving the loss of a cousin, George Schneider of Woodhaven, who was killed in France the month before.
But then the worst news possible was confirmed in a telegram from the War Department. Private Fred Fleury had been killed in action back in September and the news was just reaching the family now, in time for Thanksgiving.
But Private Fred Fleury was never memorialized by the planting of a tree in Forest Park.
Another young soldier, Frank Nauth of Woodhaven, was not only a childhood friend of Private Fleury, but they served together in the same unit in France and were at each other’s side when fragments of the same shell struck them both.
Private Nauth survived with a nasty leg wound, but he was informed that his friend had been killed instantly. He was sent to a hospital in Bath, England, to recover where, to his surprise, while up and about for a walk, he ran into Private Fred Fleury of Woodhaven.
Both young men were thrilled; Fleury himself had been told that Private Nauth was killed.
Two weeks later, the Fleury family received a letter telling them that their young son was quite well. Enclosed was his Red Cross Christmas tag, to be attached to the Christmas Box families could send abroad.
And just like that, mourning turned to joy as the family scrambled to put together a package, after having received the greatest Christmas gift of all – their son’s life back.
The following March of 1919, Private Fred Fleury came home, along with everyone else who survived the war, and took part in a celebratory parade through Woodhaven. And that May, Private Fred Fleury and the rest of Woodhaven bore witness to the planting of the trees for the young men whose families did not receive a Christmas miracle.