Veterans push navy to honor black WWII sailor who saved 15 men
Eight decades after rescuing 15 drifting shipmates and coming under fire in the Pacific Ocean, some veterans are pushing the Navy to recognize Charles Jackson French, a hero they say deserves more recognition than he does. ‘never received any.
French, a black man from Foreman, Arkansas, worked as a messenger on a transport destroyer called USS Gregory, according to a 1943 Associated Press article. When bombs sank the Gregory near the Solomon Islands in a battle with Japanese forces on September 5, 1942, the French were fortunate enough to do so aboard a lifeboat. But neither he nor his fellow sailors were safe, just a smaller target than before.
“After the engagement, a group of about 15 men was adrift on a raft that was being deliberately bombed by Japanese naval forces,” Admiral William Halsey Jr. told The Associated Press.
To keep the men safe, French tied one end of a rope to the raft and the other around his waist, jumped into the shark-infested waters and swam for hours without stopping.
“His conduct was in accordance with the highest traditions of naval service,” said Halsey.
The French received a commendation and “became known nationally as the ‘human tug’,” Military.com reported. His face has been put on War Gum trading cards, and he’s appeared in syndicated comics, the Washington Informer reported, and the Black newspaper the Chicago Defender dubbed him Hero of the Year.
French’s story recently resurfaced thanks to a Twitter message retweeted by Navy veteran and author Malcolm Nance on Saturday, with Nance wondering why French was not considered for higher praise.
“BLACK MARINE OF WWII JUST GETS NAVY CORPS MEDAL TO SAVE 15 MEN AFTER SUNK IN COMBAT ACTION !?” Nance wrote, marking several official Navy accounts.
the Chief of Naval Information, Rear Adm. Charlie Brown responded the next day.
“Thank you for bringing this heroic story to light, Senior,” Brown tweeted, promising to speak with Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday to “see if we can do more to recognize the French Chief Petty Officer.
Several veterans told Newsweek it was no surprise that a black sailor like the French didn’t get the recognition he deserved.
“Too often in our past, military personnel of color were overlooked despite their loyalty and bravery in the face of overwhelming obstacles,” said Naveed Shah, a US Army veteran.
Lt. Cmdr. Ernest Morales III believes that French deserves the Medal of Honor, the highest American military honor: “There is no time like the present to correct the errors of yesterday’s thoughts. French executed gallantly on September 5, 1942 in defiance of his own personal safety to help save the lives of 15 wounded comrades.
In 1956, French died in San Diego at the age of 37, media reports.
He struggled with alcoholism as he aged, and his memories of war weighed heavily on him, author Chester Wright wrote in his book “Black Men and Blue Water,” Military.com reported.
“After interviewing friends up close, it would appear that he came back from the Pacific War ‘stressed’ that he had seen too much death and destruction,” Wright wrote.