After a daring rescue in the Pacific during World War II, Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Jackson French was dubbed the “Hero of the Solomons” and the “Human Tugboat.” French was one of the most celebrated Black sailors during the war, along with Doris “Dorie” Miller, who received the Navy Cross for valor during the attack on the fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Charles French was born in Foreman, Arkansas, on September 25, 1919. After his parents died, he moved to Omaha, Nebraska, to live with his older sister, Viola. The French enlisted in the United States. In 1937, he joined the Navy and served for four years. He was discharged with honor on November 11, 1941, but re-enlisted after Pearl Harbor. As an attendant, French was assigned to the mess (kitchen). Mess attendant, along with stevedore and steward, was one of the few jobs available to African American men in the navy.
French was aboard the USS Gregory, a destroyer training ship, when it was sunk by the Japanese navy near the Solomon Islands on the night of September 5, 1942. Following the incident, French assisted fifteen injured survivors from the ship into a life raft. Fearing that the raft would drift toward the shore, where Japanese troops were stationed, the French towed the injured survivors to another island. He swam in shark-infested water for six to eight hours before being rescued by marines in a navy landing craft.
Ensign Robert N. Adrian, the only officer from the Gregory’s bridge who survived, told an Associated Press reporter about the rescue. He also recounted the story on NBC’s “It Happened in the Service.” While Ensign Adrian received the Purple Heart for being wounded in action during the attack, French received a letter of commendation for “meritorious conduct in action” rather than a medal.
Following the rescue, French made public appearances, including attending a Creighton University football game with his sister in 1942. He was lauded in the black press and even featured in a syndicated comic strip. French was also the only African American to appear on GUM, Inc.’s World War II patriotic trading cards.
French struggled with alcoholism and depression following his military service. He died on November 7, 1956, in San Diego, California, at the age of 37. Viola, his sister, survived him.
Since 2018, there has been renewed interest in properly recognizing Charles French’s heroism. He will be honored by USA Swimming at the Olympics Swim Trials in Omaha in June 2021. Later that year, Don Bacon, Jeff Fortenberry, and Adrian Smith, Nebraska’s three U.S. representatives, co-sponsored H.R. 4168 to rename a post office in Omaha after a Frenchman. Furthermore, Rep. Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, has petitioned the navy to consider French for a posthumous medal of honor.