He was a hero in the truest definition of the word!
Navy Mess Specialist 1st Class Petty Officer Charles Jackson French was born in Foreman, Arkansas on September 25, 1919, the United States Navy Press Office reports. When his parents passed away, he relocated to Omaha, Nebraska to live with his sister, joining the Navy as a Mess Attendant just a couple months before his 18th birthday. While the job wasn’t glamorous, it was one of the few available for Black men at the time. While serving, he worked four years on the mess decks of USS Houston (CA-30), a Hawaii-based cruiser. Eventually, he returned home to Nebraska in 1941, only to reenlist in the Navy four days after the Pearl Harbor bombing in March 1942. He was then assigned to the high-speed transport ship, USS Gregory (APD 3). Here’s why we should talk about French even when it isn’t Veteran’s Day:
Three weeks before French’s 23rd birthday, he became an international hero. The crew on the USS Gregory were just returning after transferring a Marine Raider Battalion to Savo Island, just north of Guadalcanal. The night of September 4, 1942 was a hazy one and any important landmarks were hard to see, with crews on both Gregory and sister ship USS Little (APD 4) patrolling the Solomon Islands area. Suddenly, just before 1 a.m. on September 5th, three Japanese destroyers, Yūdachi, Hatsuyuki, and Murakumo, snuck into the area undetected and opened fire. The crews on both ships began debating on whether to engage or depart quietly, but a Navy pilot also saw the fire and dropped a line of five flares into the water thinking it was coming from Japanese submarines.
Unfortunately, those flares shined a light on both Gregory and Little, giving their positions away and they instantly became the targets of the Japanese destroyers. Outarmed, it only took three minutes from the time the flares dropped before Gregory began to sink, her boilers bursting and the mess decks aflame. French was aboard and while segregation was active during that time, Black sailors prohibited from swimming with white sailors, by 1:23 am, French was one of the only uninjured sailors left. Floating on makeshift rafts, the Japanese ships turned their guns into the crew floating in the water. That’s when French sprung to action.
According to Navy Ensign Robert Adrian, once he regained consciousness, he saw the 5’8”, 195-pound French swimming the shark-infested waters gathering injured shipmates and piling them onto a raft. Once Adrian was rescued, French tied a rope around his waist and began swimming the sailors ashore. While Adrian says he tried to talk him into getting out of the waters teamed with sharks, French said he was “more scared of the Japanese than the sharks.”
He swam until sunrise when French and the 15 Sailors were discovered by a scout aircraft. French became one of six Sailors who saved the men that night, swimming nearly eight hours and rescuing all except 11 members of the USS Gregory. For his service, French received a letter of commendation from Adm. William F. “Bull” Halsey, commander of the Southern Pacific Fleet.
According to Omaha-World-Herald, French’s story was popularized in newspaper and radio accounts, courtesy of Adrian, and he received numerous recognitions. His story also made it to popular culture where it was told in bubble gum inserts, comic strips, a calendar, and by a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. French stayed in the military until the end of the war, taking a civilian job with the Navy in San Diego afterwards. Despite his accomplishments, he suffered from depression and alcoholism as a result of untreated post-traumatic stress, passing away at the age of 37 in 1956.
His story was all but forgotten until a few years ago. Bruce Wigo, the former director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, discovered it, promoting French’s heroism during the Spring of 2021 and urging USA Swimming to honor him during the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha last June. Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon then sent a letter to the secretary of the Navy last year to request a review of French’s file to see if he had received the proper awards due.
This past May, 80 years after French’s heroic rescue, the Navy honored him posthumously, presenting eight of French’s relatives with a Navy and Marine Corps medal, the highest award for non-combat heroism a servicemen can receive. The award was presented to French’s descendants during a ceremony where the Naval Base in San Diego renamed a Navy rescue swimming pool in French’s honor.
“French was an African-American serving at a time when prejudice and discrimination were ever-present in our Armed Forces and society, which makes this recognition of Charles (Jackson) French’s heroic actions even more significant,” said Capt. Ted Carlson, commander of Naval Base San Diego.
The ceremony was attended by French’s nephews and several other family members.
“I was elated,” said Chester French Jr., French’s nephew.
“[The event was] just awesome. It makes you want to cry. It took so long,” added his wife Linda.
89-year-old Roscoe Harris, another of French’s nephews, reflected fondly on meeting his uncle just after the World War II records, inspiring him to learn to swim. Harris’ father also served in the war.
“I’ve always felt glad to be a proud American. I was happy to see that, as an American Black man, [French] got recognized,” said Harris.
Rear Adm. Charles Brown was on hand to present each of the family members with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal in French’s honor and discuss why the homage and renaming of the Navy pool is important for future servicemen.
“It will inspire generations of sailors. It’s a story of the best of who we are,” said Brown.
Rep. Bacon is making sure that French is immortalized in other ways as well, introducing a bill to rename the Benson postal facility at 6223 Maple St. in Omaha as “Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Jackson French Post Office.” The bill cleared the Senate by unanimous vote and the House of Representatives this past March.
“It’s wonderful news that legislation to recognize Charles Jackson French’s incredible heroism is headed to the president’s desk. This post office renaming is important to his family, the community of Omaha, and the state of Nebraska. I’m proud we could come together to recognize his legacy of service and sacrifice,” said Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer.
Thank you for your service Mr. French. Because of you, we can!
Here’s why we should talk about Charles Jackson French even when it isn’t Veterans Day. Photo Courtesy of U.S. Navy