Featured Image: Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Jackson French and his sister, Viola, are honored at a Creighton football game in Omaha on Oct. 31, 1942. Public domain.
Meet Charles Jackson French, the Sailor Who Swam Through Shark-Infested Waters to Save his Shipmates
By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, Edge
During an inky black September night near Guadalcanal in 1942, a WWI-era destroyer (that was converted into a high-speed transport) was on patrol after transferring a Marine Raider Battalion to Savo Island.
A low haze hung in the air that made landmark identification all but impossible. As they steamed between Guadalcanal and Savo Island at 10 knots, the Japanese destroyers Yūdachi, Hatsuyuki, and Murakumo entered the area undetected to deliver a “Tokyo Express” package of troops and supplies to Guadalcanal.
Then, the USS Gregory, along with its companion USS Little, saw flashes of gunfire and spotted four radar targets at close range. (A fourth ship, a Japanese cruiser, had joined the three Japanese destroyers.) The Japanese were shelling an island and had still not spotted the Gregory.
While the two American vessels were debating on whether to engage the enemy or depart quietly undetected, a U.S. Navy pilot in the area who also saw the gunfire, dropped flares thinking the fire came from a Japanese submarine.
Gregory and Little, silhouetted against the blackness, were spotted immediately by the Japanese destroyers. Gregory brought all her guns to bear but was completely overmatched. Less than three minutes after the fatal flares had been dropped, she was dead in the water and beginning to sink.
Gregory’s skipper, himself seriously wounded, gave the order to abandon ship.
Then the Japanese began firing again, not at the sinking ships, but at the surviving crew in the water.
Swimming with sharks
Once in the water, fifteen crew members boarded a life raft. All were severely injured except one man: a Black mess attendant named Petty Officer First Class Charles Jackson French. When the men began to realize that the current was taking them toward a Japanese-held island, French volunteered to swim the raft away from shore.
Ensign Robert Adrian, who was on the bridge at the time of the attack, tried to talk French out of swimming by pointing to the dozens of sharks that had started loitering around the raft.
French responded that he was a powerful swimmer and was less afraid of the sharks than he was of the Japanese. He stripped off his clothes, asked for help to tie a rope around his waist, and slipped into the water. “Just keep telling me if I’m goin’ the right way,” he said.
French swam all night for eight hours and pulled the raft well out to sea. At sunrise, they were spotted by scout aircraft who dispatched a craft to pick them up and return them safely behind American lines.
French later recalled in an interview that once they were rescued, the master at arms at a rest camp tried to order him to stay in a segregated section with other Black troops.
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.”
The master at arms looked at the crew of the Gregory, still filthy, covered with oil and grime, and looking like “wildmen,” French later said, and backed down.
As he spoke years after the incident, French was still overcome by emotion at the memory.
In an interview with Chester Wright, author of the 2009 book “Black Men and Blue Water,” Wright wrote “French’s shoulder shook, [and] tears coursed down his cheeks, and all the author could get from him was, ‘Them white boys stood up for me.'”
For his heroic action, French received a letter of commendation from Adm. William F. Halsey Jr. in May 1943.
The commendation stated:
For meritorious conduct in action while serving on board 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 without rest, thus attempting to tow the raft. His conduct was in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service.
According to Swimming World Magazine, “the irony of French’s heroics was that it came at a time when African Americans were prevented from swimming in virtually every swimming pool and public beach in America. When he was being celebrated in Omaha in 1943, there was no pool in the city where he could have taken a dip.”
French suffered from alcoholism during his later years, no doubt brought on by the trauma of the war. He died in 1956 in San Diego, at age 37.
In May of 2021, Nebraska Congressman Don Bacon called on the Navy to properly recognize French’s heroism in combat.
This Black History Month, we honor the lesser-known war hero Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Jackson French. Fair winds, sailor, and following seas.