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Unsung Heroes of WW II: Charles Jackson French, the Human Tugboat

History finds many, many historical facts we need to remember. This is one of them.

Charles Jackson French WW II

Charles Jackson French WW II

U.S.S. Gregory

U.S.S. Gregory

U.S.S. Gregory

U.S.S. Gregory

Charles Jackson French

Charles Jackson French was born in 1919 in Arkansas to Jackson and Louisa French. Jackson loved the Red River, which was close to his home, and learned to swim by the age of 8. Tragedy hit him when his parents died, and he was left an orphan. French went to Omaha, Nebraska, to live with his sister, Viola.

French enlisted in the Steward/Messman branch of the US Navy. This was a time because of segregation, the only position open to African Americans.

French was assigned to the USS Houston, served his four years, and returned home to Omaha. Before long, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and WW II broke out. French immediately re-enlisted as Stewart's mate 1st class and was assigned to the USS Gregory in 1942.

Sinking of USS Gregory

On September 5, 1942, a Navy pilot believed a sub was in the water and dropped flares flooding the area with daylight. As soon as the Japanese saw the Gregory, they began bombing it. Within forty minutes, the ship was sunk. However, the Japanese weren't finished as they began shelling the crew as they tried to survive.

Ensign Robert Adrian, the only officer to survive, found a raft close by with 15 men clinging to it. All the men were white, including Adrian. Then a survivor, African American Messman Charles French, found a rope and said he would tow them to safety. Ensign Adrian said it couldn't be done. French said he was an excellent swimmer, so he stripped off his clothes and had someone tie the rope around his waist.

For the next 6-8 hours, French swam in the shark-infested waters towing the men to open water. They were finally rescued and taken to the military hospital. Officers told hospital personnel they had to separate them from French since he was colored. However, every single man refused to let them separate French, the man who saved them.

This was when segregation was still practiced. French was not even allowed to swim with whites while they were in training. African Americans were not allowed to swim in public pools or in public beaches.

Charles Jackson French Becomes A Hero

Ensign Adrian began telling the story of the heroics of sailor French with the newspapers picking it up. At the same time, Adrian pleaded he be given the award of the Congressional Gold Medal but to no avail. Navy standards did not allow subordinates to receive an honor higher than officers. And the Commander of the USS Gregory, H. F. Bauer, received the Silver Cross posthumously.

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French did appear on Card No. 129 of the War Gum Card Collection. During WW II, one million African Americans served in the military, and French was the only one among generals, events, and heroes to be on a card.

Before long, French was another forgotten WW II hero. That is until 2009, when his story became part of an exhibition by the International Swimming Hall of Fame, located in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

French was called the Human Tugboat and it was well deserved.

Charles Jackson French WW II Hero

It was the Chicago Defender who named French Hero of the Year. In May of 2022, French was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. And in June 2022, President Joe Biden signed a bill renaming the US Post Office in Omaha, Nebraska, the Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Jackson French Post Office.

Years later, a Navy couple found the family of Ensign Robert Adrian. In talking with them, they said their father rarely spoke about the war except for French and said he wouldn't even be alive except for French. Adrian retired in 1966 and died in 2011, never achieving his quest to get medals due to French.

There is a campaign requesting a Congressional Medal of Honor is awarded to French. It seems a travesty that he never received a medal after such a courageous single-handed act of bravery saving 15 men.

Charles Jackson French died in 1956 and is buried in Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, California.

Navy and Marine Corps Medal

Navy and Marine Corps Medal

Charles Jackson French Marker

Charles Jackson French Marker

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