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Charles Jackson French, a WWII Naval Hero

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.

Photo of Charles Jackson French and his sister Viola, appeared in the Omaha Star on 11/6/1942. Image source: Newsbank Omaha Star Archives.

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.

Charles Jackson French and his sister Viola at the Creighton homecoming football game on October 31, 1942. Image source:

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.

Gum Inc., #129, “Negro Swimmer Tows Survivors”. Image source:

[1] Wigo, Bruce. “The Story of Charles Jackson French.”

[2] Ibid.

USS Hazard

USS Hazard

Along the Missouri River, Freedom Park sits at 2497 Freedom Park Road. Opened in 1974, it comprises a 12-acre tract of city-owned land near the Greater Omaha Marina. On exhibit are the cold-war era submarine USS Marlin (SST-2), Douglas A-4C Skyhawk, and LTV A-7D Consair II. An anchor and propeller garden exist along with shipboard rocket launchers. The parks major feature, however, is the USS Hazard (AM-240), the only Admiral-class minesweeper in the United States.
The USS Hazard served the United States Navy during World War II. The Navy commissioned the ship that carried a 104-member crew on December 30, 1944. The minesweeper is 184 ½-feet long and 33-feet wide, weighing 950-tons. The crew’s former mess hall today is a museum where a large collection of photos with numerous weapons and munitions carried on the ship are available for public viewing. It also contains quartermaster logbooks, blueprints, and a radio room that plays 1940s music.
The minesweeper’s first mission was to perform escorts from San Diego, California to Hawaii. Later, it swept waters off the Kerama Retto Island group, fifteen miles west of Okinawa. At the war’s end, the ship cleared waters off Korea and Japan for occupation forces. The ships motto was, “Where the fleet goes, we’ve been.” The Hazard earned three battle stars for WW II service. Decommissioned by the Navy in 1946, the ship rested in Orange, Texas’ naval yard.
The ship’s logs showed that the World War II crew was disorderly. The shore patrol arrested three-crew members in Oakland, California for having the Central Bank, Oakland’s brass nameplate. The shore patrol arrested another crewmember for, “throwing and breaking glasses on the floor of the Congo Club,” in Galveston, Texas while people danced. They arrested the same man later when he tried to bring a lawn chair into the same club. Other reports show many crewmember offences of drunkenness, public urination on sidewalks, and interfering with women working as shipyard employees.
A group of Omaha and Houston business people formed the USS Hazard Corporation that negotiated USS Hazard’s sale. They outbid the Mexican and Portuguese governments for the minesweeper. They purchased the ship and paid to have it towed up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in 1974 on a barge. Three state governors agreed to open large river dams to release enough water to float the ship in river waters in 1971. It took 29 days for the ship to arrive in Omaha, making the 2,000-mile trip from Orange, Texas at a speed of 100 miles per day. Crewmembers thought the Hazard lucky because the ship never received battle damage. Most operating systems are still functional.
The Hazard’s sister ship, the USS Inaugural (AM-242), went to St. Louis, Missouri to serve as a museum, but was destroyed on August 1, 1993 by flooding that ripped the USS Inaugural from its moorings. After floating down the river, it banged into the Poplar Street Bridge. The boat was rescued and lashed to a barge south of the MacArthur Bridge. Two months later on September 23, 1993, it rolled to port and sank. The ship’s remnants emerges with the Mississippi River runs low.
The USS Hazard suffered setbacks due to flooding in 2011 when the Missouri River crested at 36 feet. Engineers feared that the vessel would shake free, float down the Missouri, and take down the Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge. They anchored the minesweeper to keep it in place while floodwaters floated in. When the water receded, the ship leaned to its side. After volunteers restored the minesweeper, it reopened in 2015. Freedom Park closed again in 2019 because of flooding. Today, it remains closed.
In Freedom Park, the USS Hazard rests. The minesweeper served the Navy during World War II along with its sister ship, the USS Inaugural. After the war, the Navy decommissioned the ship. The USS Hazard Corp bought and shipped the minesweeper up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to Omaha, Nebraska. After floodwaters destroyed the USS Inaugural, the USS Hazard became the only admiral class submarine in the United States. Although Freedom Park is closed, the USS Hazard is still one of the gems in Omaha.

Bob Nandell, “The Unsinkable USS Hazard” (8 August 1982), The Des Moines Register, pg. 251.
Brooke Criswell, “Shipshape After Repairs, It’s Open to Public Again” (11 October 2015), pg. 11.
“Grand Opening at Freedom Park U.S.S. Marlin” (22 August 1974), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 28.
“Decommissioned U>S. Navy Minesweeper Is Purchased” (9 April 1971), The Lincoln Star, pg. 22.
Robert McMorris, “A Jolly Crew” (12 April 1971), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 5.
“Decommissioned U>S. Navy Minesweeper Is Purchased.”
AP, “Ship Renovator Recalls Plight of USS Hazard” (21 October 1981), pg. 27.
“Minesweeper Being Towed Up Missouri” (31 May 1971), St. Joseph News-Press, St. Joseph, Missouri, pg. 15.
Bob Nandell.
“World War II Mine Sweeper Tied Up Permanently at Omaha’s Riverside” (14 May 1988), pg. 7.
Tim O’Neil, “WWII Craft Rides St. Louis Levee, Sinks Like Riverboat” (25 November 2012), St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis, Missouri, pg. B003.
Connie White, “Flooding on Bluffs Side Shuts Down Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge” (15 March 2019), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 4A.
Brian Mastre, “The Future of Freedom Park” (27 October 2014), 6 News On Your Side, accessed on 16 January 2020.

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