The story of Pvt. Fred Fleury and the Christmas miracle of Woodhaven: Our Neighborhood, The Way it Was

Photo courtesy of the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society

Over 100 years ago, Pvt. Fred Fleury from Woodhaven, Queens, went off to fight in World War 1.

In November 1918, Fleury’s family received the grim news that he had been killed in action. Yet if you look at any of the war memorials to the dead in Woodhaven, you won’t see Fleury’s name on any of them. This is the story of Pvt. Fred Fleury and the Christmas Miracle of Woodhaven.

Just over 100 years ago, Christmas was a bittersweet time for many in Woodhaven and around the world. On one hand, the Great War (later known as World War I) was now officially over. But on the other hand, families were now dealing with their losses.

Woodhaven suffered the loss of 70 young men. In time, each one of these young men may have turned out to be teachers and doctors and lawyers and policemen and community leaders. Instead, they lost their lives in service to this great nation and their loss was a tremendous blow to our community.

Each one of these men are remembered to this very day by a tree planted in a living, breathing memorial that sits in Forest Park. For years, the families of the dead soldiers would decorate the trees for Memorial Day but that tradition faded away over time, though it was revived in recent years by the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society.

But this story is not about one of those young men. Instead, it is about a young man for whom a tree was never planted.

As news of each new casualty came in, the local papers would publish the names of the dead under the simple headline “Taps.” You can imagine that residents of Woodhaven hated that headline and fearfully scanned the names for young men they knew. In November 1918, Pvt. Fleury’s name was one of the young men listed under “Taps.”

Fleury had enlisted and sailed to France the year before, landing on Memorial Day. 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. Fleury had been killed in action back in September and the news was just reaching the family now, in time for Thanksgiving.

But Fleury was never memorialized by the planting of a tree in Forest Park. Nor does his name appear on the large monument that sits in the front of American Legion Post 118.

Another young soldier, Frank Nauth of Woodhaven, was not only a childhood friend of 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 Fleury.

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, Fleury came home, along with everyone else who survived the war, and took part in a celebratory parade through Woodhaven. And that May, 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.