Frederick J. Birkett III – Lieutenant, United States Coast Guard

Lieutenant, U.S. Coast Guard
New York Division
Date of Action: October 4 & 5, 1918


The Navy Cross is presented to Frederick J. Birkett, III, Lieutenant, U.S. Coast Guard, for heroic service in connection with the explosion of the shell-loading plant [T. A. Gillespie], Morgan, New Jersey, where he personally took charge of rescue work and continued throughout the night while under constant fire from a barrage of shell splinters.

4 October 1918:

There was an explosion at the T.A. Gillespie Co. munitions yard in Morgan, New Jersey. Coast Guardsmen from Perth Amboy responded. When fire threatened a trainload of TNT, these men repaired the track and moved the train to safety, thus preventing further disaster. Two Coast Guardsmen were killed in this effort.


Eighty-seven (87) residents and employees died from the explosion in 1918 when an explosion occurred in a munitions plant in the Morgan section of Sayreville, New Jersey. It left thousands homeless and over 6,000 people became sick from living outdoors during a cold snap. More than 300 died from an outbreak of Spanish influenza that came in the weeks after the blast.In a small, forgotten cemetery less than a mile from the site of the explosions, a memorial to the accident and to the dead was erected in the years after the event.

On October 4, 1918 the T. A. Gillespie Company was busy producing artillery shells for the war effort in Europe. The end of the war was only 39 days away. Unfortunately for the workers and the people of Sayreville, at 7:40 A.M. an accident occurred which caused explosions for more then 2 days, took the lives of 64 people, and spread the pandemic of Spanish influenza to over 6,000 residents.

The accident began when molten TNT was being poured into 155mm shells. Its cause still unknown to this day, a fire broke out in Unit 61-1, eventually resulting in the explosion of loaded freight cars. This particular plant was one of the largest facilities of its kind. At one time it provided 10% of the shells used at the front. These shells were stacked on open railroad cars, on pallets on the ground, and under work areas. Nearly 31 million pounds of explosives went off that day and into the next, along with over 200,000 shells in the warehouse. Homes for miles were destroyed or damaged.

Due to exposure, a lack of medical supplies, a lack of doctors (many of whom were off fighting the war) and a lack of electricity and heat (many families simply spent the night outdoors, a strong flu spread quickly amongst the survivors, afflicting over 6,000 people. Many families were found in the remains of houses blown away by the blast. Nearly 100 people died in the blast, and 14 to 18 of the bodies could not be identified. The bodies of the unidentified workers were buried in a mass grave off Ernston Road in Sayreville.

United States Coast Guard

  • DATE OF BIRTH: 01/12/1887
  • DATE OF DEATH: 02/21/1963

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