Those of you who follow us on Facebook may have seen a recent Veteran’s Day post featuring a photograph of a young man named Charles Jackson French. This week, we’d like to take the opportunity to tell a bit more of his story.
French was born in Foreman, Arkansas in about 1920. He grew up as an orphan and enlisted in 1937. He was serving as a mess man on the USS Gregory when it was sunk by Japanese forces near the Solomon Islands in September of 1942. When twenty-four or twenty-five of his injured shipmates were unable to swim to safety, French tied a rope around his waist and swam, dragging a life raft filled with the wounded men, for at least six (some estimates go as high as eight) hours until they were picked up by another vessel.
The ship actually went down not far from the shore, but the men knew they were in unfriendly territory and would be taken prisoner as soon as they hit land. This was why French made the decision to swim away from shore. In a later interview, he recounted: “I knew that if we got close enough them [Japanese] would kill us. They, we had been told, would soon as kill a man already wounded as anybody else. So, I being lucky enough to not get hurt just put a line around my middle and started a paddling away from the beach. Then I got the hell scared outta me.”
Because not only were they in danger of getting picked up by enemy forces, the water they were in was full of sharks. Jackson recalled, “So I thought what’s worse, them sharks or them [Japanese]? At least them sharks will be quick. […] So, I just keep paddling. I nearly peed on myself when one of them sharks touched my feet.”
When the men were spotted and pulled aboard an American landing ship, French was told by the vessel’s crew to move to the “colored” quarters. The men who he had saved insisted that he remain with them on deck.
In October, French received a hero’s welcome in Omaha, where his sister Viola lived. He was hosted by S. Edward Gilbert (Omaha Star Editor), met with Senator John Adams, visited the Naval Headquarters, the Omaha World-Herald, and the Glenn L. Martin Bomber Plant. He was also honored at Creighton University’s homecoming game, where it was reported that he received a five-minute standing ovation.
The Solomon Islands episode was featured in a series of war-hero trading collectible cards distributed by Gum, Inc. as part of their War Gum product line. Several months later, French received a letter from Admiral William F. Halsey, commending his actions, but the shipmates he saved thought he deserved a greater acknowledgement of his heroism. He never did, perhaps due to a precedent that a subordinate crew member never receive a higher commendation than an officer on the same vessel. The ship’s commanding officer Lt. Cdr. H. F. Baurer received a posthumous silver star for refusing help while mortally wounded, allowing other crew members to be saved.
French remained in the Navy, and also served in the Korean War before spending the rest of his life in California.
 Wigo, Bruce. “The Story of Charles Jackson French.” https://ishof.org/assets/charles-jackson-french_article.pdf