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Who was Charles Jackson French?

He is a World War II hero you'll never hear of

By Lawrence Edward HincheePublished 2 years ago 4 min read

Charles French is a World War II hero you will hear very little about. The reason why is about as obvious as the reflection from a mirror. In September 1942, Charles was pulling a life raft with fifteen injured sailors around his waist. He swam for six to eight hours. Now imagine doing that in shark infested waters, oh by the way the Japanese are trying to kill you and oh you have to deal with racism as well.

Charles Jackson French faced all of this and more during his time of service and helped save many lives through grit and bravery. His service to this country is something that should never be forgotten, and his story is one that can inspire all of us to do good for our fellow man. (Source: Veteran Life)

How Charles Jackson French Became “The Human Tugboat”

On the night of September 4, 1942, during the Battle of Guadalcanal, the USS Gregory was struck by an attack from multiple Japanese destroyers. Sadly, it wasn’t much of a fight. The ship was severely damaged after only minutes and began to sink into the shark-infested waters. What happened next would take Navy Messman Charles Jackson French from the mess hall and into quiet adoration for his bravery. As the attacks continued and the ship began to sink, many Sailors suffered injuries. If ever there was a time for survival mode, it’s the middle of the night when you’re injured, and your ship is sinking into the ocean. French was lucky enough to escape without much harm and began gathering injured Sailors to put into a raft. With gunfire continuing all around them, French, a nearly 23-year-old Black man who wasn’t even permitted to swim with his fellow white Sailors during training, tied a rope around his waist, tied the rope to the raft, and began to swim. (Source: Veteran Life)

Fellow troops tried to talk him out of the desperate move, to take cover and escape the shark-infested waters, but French wouldn’t listen. He said that he was more afraid of the Japanese shooting at him than the sharks, and he continued on his way.

“Just tell me if I’m going the right way,” French said.

After sunrise, French and his fellow Sailors were spotted and eventually rescued. For his bravery, Navy Messman Charles Jackson French was provided a letter of commendation from Adm. William F. “Bull” Halsey, the Commander of the Southern Pacific Fleet, and the Navy Cross, the second-highest award available. The citation read:

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 was 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. (Source: Veteran Life)

French would go on to earn the name “The Human Tugboat” and garner immense respect from his fellow military peers.

But Even War Heroes Face Discrimination

During French’s time in the military, segregation was still an issue he faced. Undoubtedly, there were other forms of racism and discrimination that also accompanied such treatment. To serve side-by-side with his fellow troops knowing the unfair treatment he faced is one thing, but to be willing to put his body under such duress to save them is beyond heroic. Even after all of his heroics, once he and the others made it to a rest camp, the authorities at this camp insisted on having French segregated from the whites in the group. Understanding the actions French took for them, the crew became angry, demanded that French wasn’t leaving, and stated that anyone who had a problem could catch hands. After a tense standoff, the others realized that the survivors meant business and backed down. (Source: Veteran Life)

Growing Efforts To Honor Charles Jackson French

Charles Jackson French has a story that’s been forgotten in the pages of history. Like many other Black stories from wars, such as the all-Black female 6888th Central Postal Battalion, recognition can often be minimized or come far too late. (Source: Veteran Life)

In many ways, Navy Messman Charles Jackson French remains an unsung hero of World War II. As is the case with many African Americans who served America during the time, Charles Jackson French is a name that more people should know. His bravery, heroism, and toughness are a testament to the best in mankind even when mankind isn’t being its best. This is a true testament of the U. S Navy. (Source: Veteran Life)

There are campaigns to demand a Congressional Medal of honor for Chief Petty Officer Charles French posthumously and plans for the Navy to dedicate a swimming pool in his honor. Why a swimming pool? Why not his medal? While we may never hope to be in such a perilous situation, life will inevitably throw uncomfortable situations our way. May we all proceed and help others with the courage and strength of Messman Charles Jackson French, a name that will never be forgotten. (Source: Veteran Life)

Why did we have to segregate the troops? Seriously? Why should awards be presented to blacks and other minorities posthumously?

Look at the Navajo Indians. If not for them, we wouldn’t have won against the Japanese. The Japanese couldn’t crack their language or code. American soldiers were given orders to kill any code talker that was about to become a prisoner of war.

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About the Creator

Lawrence Edward Hinchee

I am a new author. I wrote my memoir Silent Cries and it is available on I am new to writing and most of my writing has been for academia. I possess an MBA from Regis University in Denver, CO. I reside in Roanoke, VA.

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