Dorie Miller is the most well-known African American hero of World War II. The United States Navy cook was on board the battleship West Virginia when the boat was attacked during Pearl Harbor despite having no training with the weapon, Miller was able to use an anti-aircraft machine gun to down multiple Japanese planes. Miller wasn’t the only African-American hero of World War II, though. This is the story of Charles Jackson French, who rescued several soldiers during the Battle of Guadalcanal.
Growing Up and Early Naval Days
Charles Jackson French was born in 1919 and grew up in Foreman, Arkansas. During his youth, he would often swim in the Red River and became quite adept at it. French, who moved to Omaha as a teen, first enlisted in the US Navy in 1937. He went into the service as a mess attendant, the only rate then available to a Black man. French served aboard the USS Houston for four years before returning to Omaha.
French had only been out of the Navy for a couple of months when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Days later, he went down to his local recruitment office and reenlisted. In March of 1942, French was assigned to the USS Gregory (APD-3). The ship sailed on the Pacific Ocean heading towards Guadalcanal.
The Ship is destroyed
On September 4th of 1942, the USS Gregory found itself under attack from Japanese destroyers. While the ship attempted to fight back, the enemy fire was too much. The gunfire hit two of the ship’s boilers and the Gregory was set ablaze by the fire. It only took 3 minutes for the ship to sink.
As one of the survivors, French found himself in the water on a life raft. He quickly went to work pulling other sailors aboard with him. In the end, there were fifteen additional sailors on the raft with the mess attendant.
An Incredible Swim
While the sailors in the life raft were off the burning ship, they were still in deep trouble. Ensign Robert Adrian realized that the currents were pulling the lifeboat back towards a Japanese-held island. French, a strong swimmer since youth, volunteered to swim the boat away from the Japanese island. When Adrian told him that the swim would be arduous and the water was full of sharks, French responded that he was more afraid of the Japanese than he was of the sharks.
The mess attended tied a rope around his waist and the boat and began the journey. French swam against the current for between six and eight hours. He told Adrian, “Just keep telling me if I’m going the right way.” Once daylight broke, the raft was spotted by a scout plane, and a landing crew was sent out to rescue them.
When the sailors were rescued, the Master at Arms attempted to separate French from the men he had just saved. The rescued men angrily reacted to this decision, threatening a fight if it wasn’t reversed. The mess attendant later noted that the sailor’s support had stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Ensign Adrian fought for French to receive the Medal of Honor for his heroic rescue. Instead, the Navy only issued a letter of commendation. It 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 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.”
Notably, the letter reduced the hours French spent swimming from six-eight to two.
The mess attendant died in 1956 at only 37 years of age. French’s story was soon told by the War Gum Trading Card Company. He was only referred to as French on the card, though. He was also featured in a 1943 comic book and was honored at halftime during a Creighton University football game.
In 2022, the Navy announced that they would name a pool at their San Diego base in French’s honor. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said in a statement:
“The story of Charles Jackson French needs to be told and shared for generations to come. He exemplified our core values and faced adversity with unwavering grit and selflessness. Generations of Sailors will train [at the pool] and never forget the values and legacy of such a brave American hero.”
A pool and a letter of commendation don’t seem like enough for this true American hero.