Forgotten hero remembered, may finally receive medal for heroism

| May 5, 2021

Charles Jackson French

Messman Charles French became a hero to his shipmates after their destroyer USS Gregory (DD-82) was sunk by Imperial Japanese Navy ships on 5 September 1942. Of the many acts of bravery among the men of Gregory during its final battle (including the mortally wounded skipper ordering his crew to abandon him and help other wounded, never to be seen again) was Charles French.

Aboard a lift raft with several other sailors and drifting towards enemy-held islands, French volunteered to tow the raft himself by swimming. After tying him off, French swam through shark infested waters for 6-8 hours until an American landing craft found them. Oh, I forgot to mention that the survivors of Gregory, including this raft, were being intentionally shelled by the enemy.

French received a letter of commendation from Admiral Bull Halsey that said;

For meritorious conduct in action while serving on board of a destroyer transport which was badly damaged during the engagement with Japanese forces in the British Solomon Islands on September 5, 1942. After the engagement, a group of about fifteen men were adrift on a raft, which was being deliberately shelled by Japanese naval forces. French tied a line to himself and swam for more than two hours without rest, thus attempting to tow the raft. His conduct was in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service.

Now many feel that a letter of commendation for a heroic eight hour swim through sharks and enemy shell fire is not enough. Military.com reports;

A movement is gaining steam to recognize a heroic Black sailor from World War II, who towed a raftload of wounded shipmates through shark-infested waters after their ship was sunk in 1942.

Social media posts over the weekend began highlighting the story of Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Jackson French of Foreman, Arkansas, who became a national hero after the destroyer Gregory was sunk Sept. 5, 1942, by Japanese warships near Guadalcanal.

Author and Navy veteran Malcolm Nance got the service’s attention Sunday when he tagged several official accounts in a Twitter post about French. Navy Chief of Information Rear Adm. Charles Brown retweeted the post, thanking Nance for highlighting French’s “heroic story” and promising to work with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday to see whether the service could do anything more to recognize the sailor.

A Change.org petition also was started Monday, urging Congress and President Joe Biden to posthumously award French the Medal of Honor.

Roughly 15 survivors of the Gregory, some injured, were gathered in a life raft. If they floated ashore, an ensign on the raft later said, they would be taken as prisoners of war, according to an article on the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s website.

That’s when French — a 22-year-old sailor in the racially segregated messman branch — volunteered to tow them to safety, the article states. The ensign told French the plan was crazy, that they were surrounded by sharks and he would only get himself killed.

But French said he wasn’t afraid. He pulled off his clothes, had his shipmates help tie a rope around his waist, and dove into the water. He was a powerful swimmer and towed the raft for somewhere between six and eight hours throughout the night, until a landing craft discovered and rescued them.

After he began swimming, he soon encountered sharks. “I got the hell scared outta me,” French told Chester Wright, author of the 2009 book “Black Men and Blue Water,” in an interview after the Korean War. “I nearly peed on myself when one of them sharks [touched] my feet. I [just] froze and tried to surface and float, [get] my feet outta the water.”

After the rescued ensign recounted the story to The Associated Press and on the radio, French became nationally known as the “Human Tugboat.” He received a hero’s welcome in his sister’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. His story was retold in comic strips and trading cards, and he traveled the country to help sell war bonds before enthusiastic crowds.

This might be the first time I agree with Malcolm Nance. More at the source.

Perhaps racism played a role in French not receiving proper recognition. Perhaps it was that he wasn’t considered to be in combat. If the latter, the Navy and Marine Corps Medal might have been the most apropos award. The Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the highest award for heroism not in combat and the non-combat equivalent of the Navy Cross, had only been created by executive order a month before French’s actions. Retroactive to 7 December 1941, the criteria and procedure for award of the medal were likely not yet formalized when word of French’s heroics came in.

It would seem to me well past the point to review French’s case. Award of a Medal of Honor would require congressional intervention, but award of a Navy Cross or a Navy and Marine Corps Medal would not. Either would easily be warranted in my opinion. Since they were taking direct fire, I’d feel the Navy Cross the more appropriate of the two.

 

Category: Historical, Navy, Valor, War Stories, We Remember

Comments (12)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. E4 Mafia '83-'87 says:

    He certainly earned a much higher award than he was given. Kudos to the man that stepped up and saved himself and others from the awful fate of becoming Jap POWs.

  2. MI Ranger says:

    Will definitely agree that he earned a higher award than was given. I find it hard to believe that the Admiral would sign a letter of commendation that said that and thought it was the right award, if race did not play a part.
    This man did as much if not more than a medic often does to save 15 of his comrades from capture, while being actively shelled, in shark infested waters. He deserves at least the Navy Cross. Did I misread the Congressional Order, or did they not suspend the statute of limitations for review of awards where race may have played a issue in denial or downgrade of award.

  3. FuzeVT says:

    Darn guy’s a stud. I think I would lean toward Medal of Honor just based on what I read here, but I’m sure the details would sway me one way or the other. Racism preventing awarding a medal? Kind of sounds like it. I know that lots of guys missed out on medals for one reason or another, but for him to be recognized at the time for risking life (from nature) to avoid having his companions killed by direct action or by being taken prisoner of the Japanese and to just get a letter seems more than just an over-site. Well, that was the racism of the times, one has to admit. I will note that the fact that it’s being discussed now would suggest that that same racism DOESN’T exist today. Or even going back to the 90s when a lot of this (blacks finally getting the awards they deserve) started to happen.

  4. SFC D says:

    This whole story violates the laws of physics. There is no way a man with a set of brass balls the size of what PO1 French possessed could float, let alone tow a raft. A letter of commendation? You gotta be kidding me.

    • KoB says:

      Took the thoughts right outa my head SFC D. And if the shark had of tried to bite this Hero in those big brass ones, the shark woulda broke off a few teeth.

      BZ PO1 French! I like TOW’s suggestion too. Name a warship after this Hero.

  5. The Other Whitey says:

    That’s a portrait of a hero. He deserves a higher award, and a destroyer named in his honor. Maybe they can stop naming warships after politicians and go back to naming them after actual heroes? Yeah, I know, not with this illegitimate regime in place.

  6. borderbill says:

    Navy Cross. BZ PO1 French.

  7. Dustoff says:

    I say MOH. And while we’re at it can we please award Alwyn Cashe’s family his much deserved MOH….please.

    • UpNorth says:

      I guess Pedo Joe has already forgotten about Alwyn Cashe.

    • Roh-Dog says:

      This to the scientific notationed!
      Inaction has been a great injustice to the goodly Sergeant’s bravery and sacrifice, for him and his Troops.

      I will never forget.

  8. Roh-Dog says:

    I’m glad I waited ’til the evening to read this, its beer:30 hours at Fort Roh-Dog and this cold one is hoisted to the deeds of Messman Charles French.

    Aside: f*ck sharks. Them’s the devil’s fish.

    No greater love…

    (And now its dusty in here, damnit)

  9. just lurkin says:

    I read about this on Facebook some time ago. Apparently part of the reason that he did not receive an award was that the Navy was reluctant to give him a medal equal or higher to what his ship’s commander received, and he was killed in the action. Still, a letter of commendation is completely inadequate for what French did and I don’t buy that this can’t be considered combat. If the Navy and Marine Corps Medal is appropriate for French’s action, and by any objective measure it would be, then he ought to get the Navy Cross of MOH.