Find the nearest body of water to you. Jump in and swim for two hours straight, then come back and tell us how you feel.
Oh, and while you are at it, don’t forget to tie a raft to yourself that’s holding more than a dozen people in it, fill the water with sharks, while multiple units of the Japanese Imperial Navy try to kill you at the same time. We haven’t even mentioned the racism yet.
Charles Jackson French faced all of this and more during his time of service and helped save many lives through grit and bravery. His service to this country is something that should never be forgotten, and his story is one that can inspire all of us to do good for our fellow man.
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How Charles Jackson French Became “The Human Tugboat”
On the night of September 4, 1942, during the Battle of Guadalcanal, the USS Gregory was struck by an attack from multiple Japanese destroyers. Sadly, it wasn’t much of a fight. The ship was severely damaged after only minutes and began to sink into the shark-infested waters. What happened next would take Navy Messman Charles Jackson French from the mess hall and into quiet adoration for his bravery.
As the attacks continued and the ship began to sink, many Sailors suffered injuries. If ever there was a time for survival mode, it’s the middle of the night when you’re injured and your ship is sinking into the ocean. French was lucky enough to escape without much harm and began gathering injured Sailors to put into a raft. With gunfire continuing all around them, French, a nearly 23-year-old Black man who wasn’t even permitted to swim with his fellow white Sailors during training, tied a rope around his waist, tied the rope to the raft, and began to swim.
Fellow troops tried to talk him out of the desperate move, to take cover and escape the shark-infested waters, but French wouldn’t listen. He said that he was more afraid of the Japanese shooting at him than the sharks, and he continued on his way.
“Just tell me if I’m going the right way,” French said.
After sunrise, French and his fellow Sailors were spotted and eventually rescued. For his bravery, Navy Messman Charles Jackson French was provided a letter of commendation from Adm. William F. “Bull” Halsey, the Commander of the Southern Pacific Fleet, and the Navy Cross, the second-highest award available. French would go on to earn the name “The Human Tugboat” and garner immense respect from his fellow military peers.
But Even War Heroes Face Discrimination
During French’s time in the military, segregation was still an issue he faced. Undoubtedly, there were other forms of racism and discrimination that also accompanied such treatment. To serve side-by-side with his fellow troops knowing the unfair treatment he faced is one thing, but to be willing to put his body under such duress to save them is beyond heroic.
The story of Charles Jackson French takes an interesting turn once he and his fellow survivors reached safety. Even after all of his heroics, once he and the others made it to a rest camp, the authorities at this camp insisted on having French segregated from the whites in the group. Understanding the actions French took for them, the crew became angry, demanded that French wasn’t leaving, and stated that anyone who had a problem could catch hands. After a tense standoff, the others realized that the survivors meant business and backed down.
How Did Petty Officer First Class Charles Jackson French Die?
The unfortunate truth is that, while we know that French passed away at the age of 37 and is buried in the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery located in San Diego, CA, things are blurry. It wasn’t until 1988 that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was promoted by President Ronald Reagan to the cabinet executive level. Taking care of the military personnel that keeps us free has come a long way, and there’s still a way to go, but after returning from WWII, history loses track of French.
It’s a shame that so many who served our country were left to face the mental and physical ailments war may bring in solitude. Some speculate that alcoholism played a role, as there are some reports of French having to deal with the stresses of returning from war alone. Still, the man that we know and remember is one who’s a testament to doing the right thing even when it’s not easy and putting others before yourself.
Growing Efforts To Honor Charles Jackson French
Charles Jackson French has a story that’s been forgotten in the pages of history. Like many other Black stories from wars, such as the all-Black female 6888th Central Postal Battalion, recognition can often be minimized or come far too late.
In many ways, Navy Messman Charles Jackson French remains an unsung hero of World War II. As is the case with many African Americans who served America during the time, Charles Jackson French is a name that more people should know. His bravery, heroism, and toughness are a testament to the best in mankind even when mankind isn’t being its best.
There are campaigns to demand a Congressional Medal of Honor for Petty Officer Charles Jackson French posthumously and plans for the Navy to dedicate a rescue swimmer pool in his honor. While we may never hope to be in such a perilous situation, life will inevitably throw uncomfortable situations our way. May we all proceed and help others with the courage and strength of Messman Charles Jackson French, a name that will never be forgotten.