Hidden Figures: Charles Jackson French

"On the night of September 5, 1942, Charles Jackson French was on board the U.S.S. Gregory, a destroyer training ship, when it was sunk by the Japanese navy near the Solomon Islands. In the aftermath, French helped fifteen wounded survivors from the ship into a life raft. Fearing that the raft would drift toward the shore where Japanese troops were located, French towed the raft of wounded survivors toward a different island. He swam between six and eight hours in shark-infested water before being rescued by marines in a navy landing craft."

Also known as the human tugboat, French faced racism and discrimination right after his rescue and years later. When French finally reached safety with his crewmen, he was forced to separate from the crewman he just rescued. "It was Ensign Robert N. Adrian, an officer from the Gregory, who told an Associated Press reporter about the rescue. He also recounted the narrative on the NBC radio program, “It Happened in the Service.” Surprisingly, but not surprisingly, Ensign Adrian received the Purple Heart for being wounded in action during the attack, while French received a letter of commendation for “meritorious conduct in action” instead of a medal."

"When national headlines first appeared proclaiming, “Negro swimmer Saves Raft Load of Wounded: Tows Craft Six Hours in Shark-Infested Waters,” the full name of this African American hero was unknown. He was known to those he rescued only as a “Messmate named French.” It was soon later that French was only 22 years old when he performed these heroic actions. 

It is inspiring to come across stories like this, but it also breaks my heart. French did not receive the proper recognition during his time. He did make
"public appearances after the rescue, including attending a Creighton University football game with his sister in 1942. He was celebrated in the black press and was even the subject of a syndicated comic strip. French was also the only African American to appear on World War II patriotic trading cards issued by GUM, Inc. In June 2021, he was honored by USA Swimming at the Olympics Swim Trials in Omaha. Later that year Nebraska's three U.S. representatives, Don Bacon, Jeff Fortenberry, and Adrian Smith, co-sponsored H.R. 4168 to rename an Omaha post office for French. In addition, Rep. Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, has petitioned the navy, asking for French to be considered for a posthumous medal of honor." 

"French was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroic actions. The award was presented on May 21, 2022, at Naval Base San Diego, at a ceremony in which the base's rescue swimmer training pool was dedicated in French's honor."

1 comment

  • Mary Meyer

    Talk about “Never Quit”. Rest in peace, Charles Jackson French.

Leave a comment