Memorial Day: The Story of Charles Jackson French – A Hero For Our Time

Charles Jackson French

Memorial Day: The Story of Charles Jackson French – A Hero For Our Time

On January 19, 2020, the United States Navy announced it was naming a new aircraft carrier after African American WWII war hero “Dorie” Miller. The announcement came more than 78 years after the events at Pearl Harbor that earned him the Navy Cross, the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps’ second-highest military decoration awarded for sailors who distinguish themselves for extraordinary heroism in combat with an armed enemy force. The U.S.S. Doris Miller is seen as a belated salute to the contributions of African Americans in the military. But it is just a first step. There is another Navy man who was at least equally heroic and deserves recognition.

The world first heard about this story on October 21st, 1942, when U.S. Navy Ensign Robert Adrian was in the Hollywood studios of the NBC Broadcasting Company. He was there for a weekly radio program called, It Happened in the Service. “For the past week,” the solemn sounding host began, “the prayers of the nation have been turned toward the Solomon islands, a small group of strategic islands in the South Pacific. Right now, one of the greatest battles of history is raging there and in the waters of the surrounding islands, and here in our studio tonight is a gallant naval officer who has already tasted the fury of that Solomon battle and who has had his ship blasted out from under him. But before we meet Ensign Robert Adrian, let’s listen to his story.”

That was the cue for dramatic organ music and the sound of sirens and explosions. Amidst those cacophonous sounds came a voice calmly announcing: “Abandon ship, all hands, abandon ship.” Adrian was the junior officer on the bridge when it took a direct hit from a Japanese ship. He was knocked unconscious for a moment and when he came to, he felt the ship turning on its side and sinking. Although wounded in his legs and with blast fragments in his eyes that clouded his vision, he managed to float over into the water with his life jacket as the ship sank below him. As he drifted, he saw the Japanese ships turn their searchlights and machine guns on the survivors. Then he heard voices and found a life raft filled with badly wounded shipmates. Upon questioning the men, he found only one shipmate who had not been wounded. It was Charles Jackson French, a negro mess attendant known only by his last name. When Adrian told French that the current was carrying them toward the Japanese occupied island, French volunteered to swim the raft away from shore. Adrian told him it was impossible – that he would only be giving himself up to the sharks that surrounded them. But French responded that he was a powerful swimmer and was less afraid of the sharks than he was of the Japanese. He stripped off his clothes, asked for help to tie a rope around his waist and slipped into the water. “Just keep telling me if I’m goin’ the right way,” he said. French swam and swam all night, 6 to 8 hours and pulled the raft well out to sea. At sunrise, they where spotted by scout aircraft who dispatched a marine landing craft to pick them up and returned them safely behind American lines.

When the dramatization ended, the host returned to the microphone: “And now standing here beside me is Ensign Bob Adrian of Ontario, Oregon. Ensign, yours was certainly an unusual rescue.”

“Yes, it was,”agreed Adrian. “And I can assure you that all the men on that raft are grateful to mess attendant French for his brave action off Guadacanal that night.”

“Well, he is certainly a credit to the finest traditions of the Navy.”

Adrian was then prompted to give a patriotic enlistment appeal and for everyone at home to unite behind the war effort.

Charles Jackson French

Photo Courtesy:

The next day, the Associated Press picked up the story of the “powerful Negro mess attendant who swam six hours through shark-infested waters, towing to safety a raft load of wounded seamen.” The story reached Philadelphia and the War Gum Trading Card Company, which as the name suggests, sold bubble gum with commemorative baseball-like cards depicting the war’s heroes and events. The card, captioned as: “Negro Swimmer Tows Survivors,” was #129 in the 1942 set. It has a beautiful color rendition of French towing the raft of wounded seamen in wavy blue water with two shark fins near the raft. The flip side told the story, without knowing the identity of the hero beyond being a “Negro mess attendant, known only as ‘French.’” It went on to say that because Ensign Adrian was immediately hospitalized, he “never learned the full name of the heroic swimmer.”

Then, on October 30th, NBC revealed it had learned about French through the Navy Personnel Bureau in Washington. He was 23-year-old Charles Jackson French, of Foreman, Arkansas. The revelation brought a passionate editorial reaction from the Pittsburgh Courier, one the nation’s leading Black newspapers.

“All those who thrill to high HEROISM are paying tribute to a black boy from Arkansas, who risked his life that his white comrades might live. We did NOT learn about this act of heroism… from the Navy Department. We learned about it almost incidentally, from Ensign Robert Adrian, white officer of the destroyer Gregory…when he broadcast over an NBC national hookup from Hollywood. He and other white Americans owe their LIVES to a black man whom he identified as a ‘mess attendant named French.’ Mess attendants are none too highly regarded in the United States Navy. They are either Negroes or Filipinos and they are BARRED from service in any other branch of the Navy unless serving in a segregated unit. There is not much OPPORTUNITY for heroism in a ship’s galley or an officers’ ward room. But all the men on a ship are in DANGER in time of battle, no matter where they are serving or what their skin pigment may be…Although Mess Attendant Charles Jackson French of Arkansas was not in a heroic job, he MADE a heroic job out of it. He who had been looked down upon as a caste man, frozen in status, suddenly was looked up to as a SAVIOUR.”

It also described what happened prior to Adrian finding the raft. That French had found the raft floating and had swum around with it, piling “wounded white comrades upon it until it had almost sank.”

“All men honor bravery and LOYALTY, and today all America hails ‘A Mess Attendant named French” who risked death that others might live. Americans like Mess Attendant French and Ensign Adrian, mutually undergoing danger to preserve American freedom for all alike, will make democracy a glowing reality in this country for future generations to enjoy.”

In time it was learned that Charles Jackson French stood 5’8” tall and weighed 195 pounds. He had been born on Sept. 25, 1919, in Foreman, Arkansas. But after his parents died, he moved to Omaha, Nebraska to live with his sister. On December 4, 1937, French enlisted in the Steward/Messman branch of the United States Navy – the only positions open to African Americans at the time. He was assigned to the USS Houston, the flagship of the Asiatic Fleet. As a Mess Attendant 3rd class, his job was to serve meals to white officers and sailors, clear their tables and keep the mess, not a mess. While French was onboard, the Houston was stationed in Hawaii and cruised the Pacific Ocean with stops in the Philippines and Shanghai, to name a few. After his four year commitment ended in 1941, French returned to 2703 North 25th St. in Omaha, Nebraska. But four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, French re-enlisted as a Steward’s Mate 1st class. He joined the crew of the USS Gregory in March of 1942. Although Stewards were a step up from mess mates, they were derisively labeled “seagoing bellhops” by the black press. Their job was to man the white officers’ mess and clean their quarters.

Back in the USA after the sinking of the Gregory, the “human tugboat” visited relatives in Foreman and received a royal welcome from citizens of all races in Omaha. He appeared before enthusiastic crowds at the halftime of a Creighton football game, at war bond rallies, on a calendar and in newspaper comic strips. There was even talk of a Hollywood film.

In early 1943, Twentieth Century Fox released the film adaptation of the Broadway musical,“Stormy Weather”with an all-black cast of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Katherine Dunham and Fats Waller. In June, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer brought to the big screen “Cabin in the Sky,” another musical with an all-black cast that included Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters and Lena Horne. Both were hits. “However,” reported the Pittsburgh Courier, “Warner Brothers has it in mind to go all of the companies one better and screen-Immortalize Messman French, the lad who swam through shark-infested waters, towing a raft of wounded sailors to safety after a Japanese sub had sunk their ship in the South Pacific.”

Robert Adrian

Photo Courtesy:

Based on his incident report, Ensign Adrian had been informed that Mess Attendant French was being recommended for the Navy Cross. It was the second highest honor, just below the Congressional Medal of Honor, and it was the medal that had been awarded to Doris Miller. Then in December of 1943, French’s heroism was immortalized in a poem written entitled “The Strong Swimmer,” by the 1942 Pulitzer Prize recipient, William Rose Benet.

THE STRONG SWIMMER
by William Rose Benet*

I have a story fit to tell,
In head and heart a song;
A burning blue Pacific swell;
A raft that was towed along.

Out in the bloody Solomon Isles
Destroyer Gregory gone;
Ocean that kills for all her smiles,
And darkness coming on.

The Gregory’s raft bobbed on the tide
Loaded with wounded men.
Ensign and seaman clung her side.
Seaward she drifted then.

A mess-attendant, a Negro man,
Mighty of chest and limb,
Spoke up: “Til tow you all I can
As long as I can swim.”

Naked, he wound his waist with a line;
Slipped smoothly overside,
Where the red bubble tells the brine
That sharks have sheared the tide.

‘I’m going to tow this old craft in
Since we ain’t got not one oar’
He breathed, as the water lapped his chin;
And he inched that raft ashore.

Strongly he stroked, and long he hauled
No breath for any song.
His wounded mates clung close, appalled.
He towed that raft along.

Clear to the eye the darkening swell
Where glimmering dangers glide;
The raft of sailors grimed from Hell
Afloat on a smoky tide

And a dark shoulder and muscled arm
Lunging, steady and strong.
The messman, their brother, who bears a charm,
Is towing their raft along.

He gasped, “Just say if I’m go’in right!”
Yes, brother, right you are!
Danger of ocean or dark of night,
You steer by one clear star.

Six hours crawled by. … A barge in sight
With the raft just off the shore. . . .
The messman coughed, “Sure, I’m all right’
He was just as he was before.

And all that they knew was they called him “French*
Not quite a name to sing.
Green jungle hell or desert trench,
No man did a braver thing.

He’s burned a story in my brain,
Set in my heart a song.
He and his like, by wave and main,
World without end and not in vain
Are towing this world along!

From “Day of Deliverance,” copyright, 1944, by William Rose Benet.

A significant award for heroism seemed assured, but it wasn’t to be. All he would receive was a letter of commendation from Adm. William F. Halsey, Jr., then commander, of the Southern Pacific Fleet. It read: “For meritorious conduct in action while serving on board 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.” They were eight hours in the water, but Admiral Halsey reduced it to two.

Ensign Adrian was outraged, but the Gregory episode was complicated by the issuance of a posthumous Silver Star to Lt. Cdr. H. F. Bauer, the ship’s CO. Wounded and dying, the skipper had ordered Adrian and the signalman on the bridge to leave him and go to the aid of another crewman who was yelling for help. He was never seen again. By Navy standards, it would be nearly unprecedented for a subordinate to receive a higher decoration for an act of heroism comparable to that of a superior. In addition to the Silver Star, a Destroyer-minelayer was named the USS Harry F. Bauer in 1944.

Charles Jackson French was probably manning his mop or carrying food trays on the USS Endicott when he heard the news. At the time, his destroyer was escorting convoys in the Atlantic theater, along the African coast and in the Caribbean. With the Endicott needing repairs in May of 1944, French was assigned to the USS Frankford, a destroyer that provided support from its five guns for the successful landings on D-Day, along with rescuing survivors of mined ships and downed pilots, and driving off enemy E-boat attacks. In August, the Frankford arrived in Naples, Italy for the invasion of southern France.

Charles Jackson French

Photo Courtesy:

Little is known of French after the war ended and he was soon forgotten. But sometime after the Korean War, he was at a friend’s home in San Diego and told his side of the story. One of those listening was Chester Wright, who repeated what French said in his book, Black Men and Blue Water. French told it pretty much as Adrian had done years earlier, but with a few twists. He laughed when he told how he almost peed himself when he felt the sharks brush against his feet, but guessed they weren’t hungry for a scared black man. As he told of raft being rescued, his mood changed from jovial to anger and tears. After the badly wounded men were taken to the hospital, French and the others were taken to a rest camp where authorities wanted to separate French because he was “colored.” The white boys from the raft and some of the other survivors from the Gregory refused to have him separated. He was a member of the Gregory’s crew, they said, and they were going to stay together. Anyone who thought different had better been better been ready to fight. There was a standoff that lasted some time, with the crew of the Gregory, all covered with oil and grime and looking like madmen, facing off against the masters at arms in their clean and pressed whites. Eventually, they realized the Gregory’s crew meant what they said and backed down. As French told this part of the story, his shoulders shook and tears coursed down his cheeks as he told how the white boys had stood up for him.

According to Wright, French had returned from the war “stressed out,” from seeing too much death and destruction. He was probably discharged with mental problems and left to fend for himself. He died on November 7, 1956 and was buried in the Fort Rosencrans National Cemetery, in San Diego, an almost forgotten hero.

The name of Charles Jackson French resurfaced in 2009, when his story was part of an exhibit on Black Swimming History at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, in Fort Lauderdale. The irony of French’s heroics was that it came at a time when African Americans were prevented from swimming in virtually every swimming pool and public beach in America. When he was being celebrated in Omaha in 1943, there was no pool in the city where he could have taken a dip. So one of the questions that remain is where and how did he become such a powerful swimmer? Unfortunately his surviving relatives don’t have the answer. The best guess is in the Red River and stone quarries near Forman, Ark.

About ten years later, the exhibit came to the attention of a retired Navy couple, who began some research of their own. They found the family of Robert Adrian, who had passed away in 2011, but his family had their own story to tell of Charles Jackson French. Their father rarely spoke of his war experiences, except for French, for if not for a black man named Charles Jackson French, he would tell them, neither he nor any of them would be alive. For his 75th Birthday, Adrian’s children had found an old record amongst their father’s treasures. It had been given to him by NBC back in 1943. It was the recording of It Happened In the Service. Hearing it after all those years brought him to tears.

Adrian had tried to locate French after the war with no success, but he also had suffered another trauma. It was almost exactly a year after the sinking of the Gregory and he was the gunnery officer on the the destroyer USS Boyd, when it came under attack. As the crew was helping to rescue a downed pilot, two enemy shells crashed into the ship, destroying the forward guns and exploded in the engine room, bursting the steam pipes. One officer and eleven men were killed and another eight seriously wounded. It was Adrian who led the rescue team and he had recurring nightmares the rest of his life seeing the bodies of those men burned alive by 800 degree heat. He was at sea for much of his carrier followed by a successful career as a banker.

After his second retirment, he began writing and one of the stories was published in Tin Can Alley, a newsletter that appealed to men who served on destroyers. It was called, Our Night of Hell off Guadalcanal and it told the story of the Gregory and French and his recommendation for the Navy Cross. He spoke about French to Navy Brass, but social justice was not the issue it is today. He had hoped that before he died, French would receive the commendation he deserved, but since it wasn’t he told his children to carry on with his dying wish.

Then in April of 2021, an online post about French from the International Swimming Hall of Fame caught the attention of Rear Admiral Charles Brown, the Navy public affairs officer who said the Navy will see if “it can do more to recognize Petty Officer French.”
In Washington, Nebraska Congressman Don Bacon said that he believed French deserved the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Let’s hope the naming of the Aircraft Carrier USS Doris Miller is just the first step in recognizing the contributions of African Americans in the history of our great country. And that the second step is to honor Robert Adrian’s dying wish, by recognizing the heroics and powerful swimming of Charles Jackson French – from a time when most white people thought Blacks couldn’t swim.

Subscribe
Notify of
avatar
6 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
avatar
danielle jensen
11 months ago

Hi Bruce! Danielle from Rep. Bacon’s office here..Wanted to let you know that Rep. Bacon will be honoring Petty Officer French on the floor of the House tomorrow morning, by reading an account of his life into the Congressional Record. It can be viewed on CSPAN during the 10 am ET hour. It is first-come, first-served so we don’t have an exact time. Hope you are able to view it.

avatar
Basil North
4 months ago

I am speechless, as I often am, when I learn of the subverted and hidden acts of unbelievable courage and sacrifice by African-Americans contributing to the formation and preservation of this nation. And for those who object so greatly to teaching “critical race theory”, I say that we need only teach the facts about African-American contributions and no “theories” will be necessary.

avatar
David Zimmerman
4 months ago

I was shocked to see that he only got a letter of commendation but that was typical treatment for African American at the time.
At the very minimum he should get the Navy Cross.
As a retired Navy Chief Pretty Officer and Aviation Rescue Swimmer, I have seen award write-ups for the Navy Marine Corps Medal for saving 2 or 3 people at a time. But saving 15 people, in wartime, in shark infested waters by swimming 6-8 hours? Could go as high as the CMOH.

avatar
Scott Gibson
4 months ago

He should have and still should be awarded CMOH. It is a no brainer. Thanks for educating me on this, I’ve still a lot to learn.

avatar
Lovell smith
4 months ago

MOH for sure!

avatar
Jim
4 months ago

Stunning in its individual heroism and stunning in its shame. Get the CMOH done!

6
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x