A movement is gaining steam to recognize a heroic Black sailor from World War II, who towed a raftload of wounded shipmates through shark-infested waters after their ship was sunk in 1942.
Social media posts over the weekend began highlighting the story of Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Jackson French of Foreman, Arkansas, who became a national hero after the destroyer Gregory was sunk Sept. 5, 1942, by Japanese warships near Guadalcanal.
Author and Navy veteran Malcolm Nance got the service’s attention Sunday when he tagged several official accounts in a Twitter post about French. Navy Chief of Information Rear Adm. Charles Brown retweeted the post, thanking Nance for highlighting French’s “heroic story” and promising to work with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday to see whether the service could do anything more to recognize the sailor.
A Change.org petition also was started Monday, urging Congress and President Joe Biden to posthumously award French the Medal of Honor.
Roughly 15 survivors of the Gregory, some injured, were gathered in a life raft. If they floated ashore, an ensign on the raft later said, they would be taken as prisoners of war, according to an article on the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s website.
That’s when French — a 22-year-old sailor in the racially segregated messman branch — volunteered to tow them to safety, the article states. The ensign told French the plan was crazy, that they were surrounded by sharks and he would only get himself killed.
But French said he wasn’t afraid. He pulled off his clothes, had his shipmates help tie a rope around his waist, and dove into the water. He was a powerful swimmer and towed the raft for somewhere between six and eight hours throughout the night, until a landing craft discovered and rescued them.
After he began swimming, he soon encountered sharks. “I got the hell scared outta me,” French told Chester Wright, author of the 2009 book “Black Men and Blue Water,” in an interview after the Korean War. “I nearly peed on myself when one of them sharks [touched] my feet. I [just] froze and tried to surface and float, [get] my feet outta the water.”
After the rescued ensign recounted the story to The Associated Press and on the radio, French became nationally known as the “Human Tugboat.” He received a hero’s welcome in his sister’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. His story was retold in comic strips and trading cards, and he traveled the country to help sell war bonds before enthusiastic crowds.
But the only official recognition he received came in the form of a 1943 letter of commendation from Southern Pacific Fleet commander Adm. William Halsey, according to the Swimming Hall of Fame article.
Halsey’s letter praised French for his “meritorious conduct in action,” which he said “was in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service.”
Though the survivors felt French deserved a Medal of Honor or at least a Silver Star, the Swimming Hall of Fame story states, he never received either.
In his interview with Wright, French described the intense racism he encountered, even after he helped save his shipmates. After they were rescued, French said, the master at arms at a rest camp tried to order him to stay in a segregated section with other Black troops.
But French said white shipmates from the Gregory, including some of the sailors on the raft he had towed, objected and said, “He ain’t going nowhere!”
French’s white shipmates engaged in a nearly five-minute standoff with the master at arms and his subordinates, making it clear they weren’t going to let them take French away.
“He is a member of the Gregory’s crew, and he damned well will stay right here with the rest of us,” French said one of his shipmates demanded. “Anybody who tries to take him anywhere had [better] be ready to go to ‘general quarters’ [ready to fight] with all of us.”
The master at arms looked at the crew of the Gregory — still filthy, covered with oil and grime, and looking like “wildmen,” French said — and backed down.
As he spoke years after the incident, French was still overcome by emotion at the memory, Wright wrote.
“French’s shoulder shook, [and] tears coursed down his cheeks,” he wrote. “And all the author could get from him was, ‘Them white boys stood up for me.'”
According to Wright, French suffered from alcoholism during his later years. He died in 1956 in San Diego, at age 37.
“From close questioning of friends, it would appear that he returned from the Pacific Wars ‘stressed out’ from seeing too much death and destruction,” Wright wrote.
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