Memorial Day Rewind: The Forgotten Hero of WWII

charles jackson french

Memorial Day Rewind: The Forgotten Hero of WWII

By Bruce Wigo.

The participation of Americans of African descent in the U.S. military has a long and distinguished history, dating to the Revolutionary War.  During World War II, more than one million African Americans served in the armed forces of the United States, but there was only one to appear on the hundreds of trading cards that depicted various war events, generals, and heroes, between 1941 and 1945.  That person was a swimmer by the name of Charles Jackson French. What’s most surprising about this card is that this was an era in American history when nearly every swimming pool and public beach denied African Americans their right to swim.

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.”

Charles Jackson French_Sun__Jan_10__1943_

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive

Charles Jackson French Calendar

Photo Courtesy: Austin Public Library, George Washington Carver Branch.

Upon reading the headline and the story of the rescue when it broke, Dorothy Peterson, one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s & ’40s, urged that once known, the name of this “powerful negro swimmer” should be preserved “for posterity!” When Charles Jackson French was later identified, he became a national hero. In addition to the War Gum trading card, his story was told in syndicated comic strips, on calendars and he made public appearances across the country to promoting the sale of War Bonds.

Charles Jackson French and sis Viola2

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF archive. French with his sister Viola during a public appearance at a football game in Omaha, Nebraska, circa 1943.

While Dorrie Miller, a hero of Pearl Harbor, the Tuskegee Airmen and other African-American war heroes have been memorialized with stamps, in books and films, the memory of Charles Jackson French has been lost to history almost everywhere, except within the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

As we celebrate Black History Month, to Learn more about this great American war hero of swimming, click here.




  1. Dirk Smith

    Wow! This is a cool story!

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    Does any movies talk about him ?

  3. avatar
    Sheila Goldsmith

    Truly Amazing Heroic Man!! Any books, or movies?

  4. avatar
    Jon Cunningham

    What a shame he and JFK never met.

  5. avatar
    Joe E. Roy

    There should be a movie made about this heroic man who risked life to save others. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” John 15: 13

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  6. avatar
    Rocky Scarbro

    I am a retired white cop.. I also consider myself an American Patriot.. only receiving a commodation an not the Navy Cross or ? the Medal of Honor seems like a miscarriage of justice.. I also blame black historians for not bringing this forward!! Let’s do the right thing and get this hero posthumously awarded a medal commensurate for his courage..
    Let’s correct History/////

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      suzanne sanders

      I believe that Charles Jackson French did receive the Navy Cross, and it might have been posthumously. I think he deserves a Congressional Medal of Honor. I have only discovered his story here in 2021, and I am a retired teacher. I am aware ofNavalHero Doris “Dorrie” Miller because he is of my home state, Texas. Charles Jackson French, an ophan of Freeman, Arkansas, deserves notoriety….I would imagine his home town in Arkansas never even heard of him. Perhaps some descended members of his family in Omaha, Nebraska, might remember his miraculous story. He was hailed as a “human tugboat” by citizens of Omaha, NE, where a parade was held in his honor at the close of WWII. I know he had a sister, Viola, with whom he is photographed at half-time at a football game, received recognition of some sort, after the war. Naval hero Charles French did marry, as I see on ‘FindAGrave’ that his widow (d. 1968) is buried beside him in San Diego at the American Military Cemetery in that city. I think that they did not have children, though. I think Charles Jackson French’s story of rescue is one of the most amazing I have ever read, and I never heard of him prior to today, March 5, 2021. The world needs to know his story, dead at age 37 yrs.

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        Very well-stated. You’re right- the world needs to hear his story.

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      Francisco Verduzco

      A “White cop”…why shouldn’t it surprise me that one would be quick to “blame Black historians.” The story was suppressed by the powers that be and was not made known to the general public…let alone the Black one. ??‍♂️

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    Terrell Courson

    I agree with Rocky Scarbro. I too am a retired LEO from Alaska and prior Navy veteran. The fact that this shipmate was not issued a Medal is insulting to all US Sailors. Terrell “Terry” Courson, Wrangell, Alaska

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    henry vincent VAN CLEAF

    the reason for no medal–wrong color. the navy did not even recognize african americans as actual sailors–only as stewards/messmen (not cooks) for several more years after this heroic act. it took 50+ years for the army to recognize people like reuben rivers and have the proper awards made.

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    Doc J

    Why did he die so young?