Strongly he stroked, and long he hauled,
No breath for any song.
His wounded mates clung close, appalled.
He towed that raft along.
— From “The Strong Swimmer,” by William Rose Benét
Omahans during World War II knew a strong-swimming, shark-defying, “human tugboat” of a hero when they saw one, regardless of the color of his skin.
And in the fall of 1942, they needed one, near the end of a dark year of military setbacks overseas.
So they cheered for Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Jackson French, 22, a Navy mess steward from Omaha called “The Hero of the Solomon Islands” by The World-Herald, for swimming through shark-infested waters for hours while towing a raft loaded with 15 of his wounded USS Gregory shipmates — all of whom were white — to safety near Guadalcanal.
He was cheered at a Creighton University football game, back-slapped by veterans at the Theodore Roosevelt American Legion post, and led a huge, mostly white crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance at Omaha’s largest Armistice Day observance since the end of World War I.
His feat made French one of the most famous Black sailors of World War II, the story told in newspapers and radio dramas, celebrated in comics, calendars and even on a bubblegum card. A Pulitzer-Prize winning poet wrote a tribute.
“It was talked about in our family, what Charles Jackson French did in the Navy,” said Chester French Jr., of Omaha, the sailor’s nephew. “He was a hero.”
Charles Jackson French will be cheered in Omaha again Tuesday night, when USA Swimming honors him during the finals of the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.
Four of his relatives who still live in Omaha, including nephews Chester French Jr., 81, and Roscoe Harris, 88, will be recognized at the event.
“This is an amazing story that happens to involve swimming — and his family happens to be here in Omaha,” said Jessica Delos Reyes, a spokeswoman for USA Swimming.
This time, the hero himself won’t hear the cheers. He died in 1956, at 37, from the effects of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.
“My mom told me he was in the war. He saved some people’s lives,’” said Lynnette Edwards, 50, of San Diego, French’s granddaughter. “In my eyes, he was a hero.”
Charles French received public acclaim during the war. But the Navy itself barely acknowledged his valor.
Ensign Robert Adrian, the only officer on the raft, recommended French for a Navy Cross, the military’s second-highest valor award. The same award was bestowed upon Doris “Dorrie” Miller, the hero of Pearl Harbor for manning a .50-caliber machine on the deck of the sinking battleship USS West Virginia.
But French received only a letter of commendation, months afterward, citing his “meritorious conduct,” which it said was “in keeping with the highest traditions of the naval service.” It was signed by Adm. William Halsey, commander of the South Pacific force.
Eric Ewing, a retired Navy chief petty officer who is executive director of Omaha’s Great Plains Black History Museum, thinks the Navy could have done better.
A lot better.
“He should have received a higher award,” Ewing said. “I received a couple of commendations in my career — and I never swam through shark-infested waters.”
Racism very likely played a role. The valor of service members from racial and religious minorities in that era often was downgraded or unrecognized.
“I believe had he been a European-American, he would have received more notoriety and a higher level of recognition,” Ewing said. “I wish I could say I’m surprised.”
Also, in the Navy culture of the era, it would have been almost unthinkable to give an enlisted mess steward — who was essentially a servant to the ship’s officers — a higher medal than an officer. The Gregory’s Georgia-born skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Harry Bauer, was awarded a posthumous Silver Star after he was wounded in the attack and refused to leave the ship's bridge. In 1944, a new destroyer was named in his honor.
Nearly eight decades later, a movement is building to secure a posthumous award for French equal to the valor he displayed at Guadalcanal and the acclaim he received back home.
It’s backed by a group that includes the former director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, four-time Olympic swimming medalist Anthony Ervin, who is African-American, and the children of Robert Adrian, who pushed tirelessly to get recognition for French from the day of the sinking to the end of his life in 2011.
“Dad had a lot of stories. This was always the most important,” said Joni Krafft, 63, Adrian’s youngest daughter, in a video interview last week from Annapolis, Maryland, where she lives.
After hearing accounts of French’s valor on social media and local television, Rep. Don Bacon, whose district includes Omaha, on May 17 wrote to acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker asking for a review of the sailor’s service record to make sure his valor was properly recognized.
“After nearly 80 years, swift action is now warranted to correct the historical record and properly recognize Petty Officer French for his heroism in combat,” Bacon said, adding, “it is appropriate that the Armed Forces recognize its heroes regardless of the prevailing racial inequities of the time.”
Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, said he hadn’t yet received a response.
Bruce Wigo, who headed the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, until 2017, uncovered French’s story a dozen years ago while scouring the internet for Black History Month stories about swimmers. He put up a display at the Hall of Fame and has published several articles about him.
“It is my belief that recognizing French for an award he DESERVED is long overdue and could inspire more Black kids to get in the water and swim,” Wigo said in an email. “Denial of an (awards) upgrade would be a travesty.”
Charles Jackson French was born in 1919 in Foreman, Arkansas, one of nine children in his family.
His parents died when he was still in his youth. He moved to Omaha to live with his older sister, Viola French Drakeford, one of several family members who had relocated there to find work.
It’s not clear exactly how and when French became such a strong swimmer. Relatives believe he may have learned in the bayous around Foreman, or possibly in the nearby Red River. It likely wasn’t in Omaha, where public pools excluded Black residents until the city built the Kellom Pool in North Omaha in 1952.
French enlisted in the Navy in November 1937 as a mess attendant, preparing and serving food to other sailors.
“At the time, that’s what an African-American could do in the military,” said Harris, one of French's living nephews.
French returned to Omaha when his enlistment was up four years later. He didn’t stay home long.
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, pulling the United States into World War II. Four days later, French re-enlisted.
“I want to do my part, because I’m already trained and I can start right away,” French told The World-Herald, which reported on his patriotic act.
That’s how he wound up on board the USS Gregory on Sept. 5, 1942, searching for Japanese submarines just offshore from Guadalcanal.
Suddenly a bright flare exploded overhead at 1 a.m., exposing three Japanese destroyers and a cruiser nearby.
The light also exposed the Gregory and a second ship, the USS Little. The Japanese ships opened fire with all they had. The outgunned U.S. ships didn't last long. The Gregory’s skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Harry Bauer, badly wounded by a shell that exploded near the bridge, ordered the crew to abandon ship, and it sank within 40 minutes.
Charles French ended up in a life raft, picking up injured men. Adrian, who had been knocked out by the explosion, found himself in the water when he came to. He was nearly blinded by metallic paint fragments in his eyes, but he swam toward the voices until he reached French’s raft. All of the 15 or so men on board except French were badly wounded.
The raft was drifting toward a beach Adrian calculated was held by the Japanese. They feared being taken prisoner, or killed.
So French volunteered to jump in the water and tow the raft away from the shore. He stripped off his clothes, tied a rope to his lifejacket, and pulled the raft seaward.
“Just keep telling me if I’m goin’ the right way,” he told them.
He may have seemed fearless, but French told an interviewer in the early 1950s that he saw the shark fins circling around.
“I nearly peed myself when one of them sharks (touched) my feet,” French said, according to “Black Men and Blue Water,” Chester Wright’s 2009 history of the Navy steward’s branch.
He swam all night long, for six to eight hours, until after first light an airplane spotted the raft and sent a Marine landing craft to take them safely ashore.
But French’s drama wasn’t over. In camp the next night, some Navy masters-at-arms tried to separate him from the USS Gregory sailors French had rescued and send him to a tent for Black troops.
The Gregory crewmen wouldn’t allow it, French said, and threatened to fight anyone who tried to make him leave. The incident moved him to anger and to tears when he told Wright the story a dozen years later.
“Them white boys stood up for me,” he said.
Adrian was sent to a naval hospital in Southern California. Producers of the NBC Radio show “It Happened in the Service” heard about the Gregory and invited Adrian to take part in a show dramatizing the rescue, only seven weeks after the sinking.
“I can assure you, all the men on that raft are grateful to mess attendant French for his brave action off Guadalcanal that night,” said Adrian, then 23, who at the time didn’t even know French’s first name.
The Associated Press picked up the story of the brave, heroic mess attendant, which ran in newspapers across the country. The War Gum Trading Card Company rushed out a bubble-gum card bearing a color scene entitled “Negro Swimmer Tows Survivors.”
A few days later, NBC revealed French’s name and hometown, based on information from the Navy. By the time French arrived at Omaha’s Burlington station on Oct. 30, 1942 — where he was greeted by the city’s African-American leaders — he was a famous man, celebrated during his visit to Omaha.
The Pittsburgh Courier, a leading African-American newspaper, editorialized with gaudy prose in a full-page article dated Nov. 14, 1942.
“All those who thrill to high HEROISM are paying tribute to a Black boy from Arkansas, who risked his life that his white colleagues might live,” the article began.
Roscoe Harris, who then was about 10 and still living in Arkansas, recalls being in awe of his uncle.
“When he told us his story about swimming — it stayed with me,” Harris said. “I wanted to get out and practice.”
Lacking a place to swim himself, Roscoe recalls lying in the dirt, kicking and waving his arms like his Uncle Charles.
The next year, French returned to sea aboard the new destroyer USS Endicott, which served tense duty escorting ship convoys across the Atlantic. Then he was assigned to the USS Frankford, which took part in the D-Day invasion in June 1944, and the invasion of southern France three months later.
But Charles Jackson French’s story didn’t end happily.
He returned home after the war, haunted and depressed by three years of combat at sea.
French settled in San Diego with his wife, Jettie Mae, and his 6-year-old daughter, Nancy.
“(My mother) told me the day he came home, he wasn’t the same,” said Lynnette Edwards, who is Nancy’s daughter.
Wright, who knew French, concluded, “he was probably discharged and left to fend for himself.”
He got a job at the Naval Electronics Laboratory, on San Diego’s Point Loma. He seems to have had little contact with his family in Nebraska and Arkansas. Neither Chester French Jr. or Roscoe Harris remember seeing him again, though even as children they knew of their uncle’s fame.
“My mother told me about it. My children knew it,” Harris said.
Friends and family said French fell into alcoholism, which contributed to his early death.
“He passed away from depression,” Edwards said. “My mom was with him. It was the day after her birthday.”
He was buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. His brief obituary in the San Diego Union Nov. 11, 1956, made no mention of his heroism. Jettie was buried there, too, after her death in 1968.
One person who did not forget was Robert Adrian. He remained in the Navy, recovering quickly from the wounds he received on the Gregory.
Adrian, too, spent much of the rest of the war at sea, and suffered his own traumas. He stayed in the Navy until 1966, retiring as a captain.
He spent years trying to track down the former mess attendant who saved his life and was disappointed when, years later, he learned that French had died.
“It was just a great sadness for my dad,” said Judy Decker, 77, the oldest of Adrian’s five children.
French’s story was one of the few wartime tales Adrian would tell, and he was frustrated that the Navy didn’t heed his tireless efforts to upgrade French’s award.
“He never gave up. But he felt he had come to a dead end,” Decker said.
In his attic, Adrian’s children found a recording of his 1942 “It Happened in the Service” broadcast about the sinking of the Gregory. They played it for him on his 75h birthday, expecting him to laugh at the memory.
Instead, he cried.
“It was a shock to him,” Decker said. “I think there was some trauma in him hearing it.”
Two years ago, Navy veterans Kevin and Kim Mickna spotted one of Wigo’s articles online and began their own research. They found the Adrian family and connected them with Wigo.
French's cause caught fire this spring, propelled by social media. On April 23, a Facebook group called WWII Uncovered posted an item on French that was based on Wigo’s research. The item attracted 215,000 “likes” and was shared 64,000 times.
The post was amplified on Twitter, where the Navy’s chief of information, Rear Adm. Charles Brown, said the Navy would “look into whether we can do more to recognize Petty Officer French.”
The Navy subsequently issued a statement saying that no official request had been made for a review, but “we continue to consider ways we can honor his legacy.”
That was before Rep. Bacon’s letter. Contacted last week, Navy spokeswoman Priscilla Rodriguez declined further comment, saying the Navy would respond directly to Bacon.
Wigo and Ervin persuaded USA Swimming to recognize French at the Olympic Swim Trials, which they hope will give new momentum to the awards effort.
Roscoe Harris and Chester French are excited to take part.
“You have someone in the family who did something like this — it’s like winning an Olympic gold medal,” Chester French said. “With the times we’re having now, it’s a positive.”
Lynnette Edwards won’t be there, but she’ll be watching.
Until she was contacted by a World-Herald reporter last Thursday, she did not know about the USA Swimming tribute, the viral social media posts, or even that the wartime valor of the grandfather she knew as "Papa French" was known to anyone outside her family.
“I’m in shock,” she said.
Edwards is sorry Nancy, who died in 2011 at age 72, didn’t live to see her father recognized.
“It’s a big deal,” she said. “And she’s not here to know about it.”
Don Bacon said French's is a story that should be widely told.
"This is a story of brotherhood, and being American," he said. "This is what America should be like."
And all that they knew
was they called him “French” —
Not quite a name to sing.
Green jungle hell or desert trench,
No man did a braver thing.
World-Herald researchers Sheritha Jones and Michelle Gullett and San Diego Union-Tribune researcher Merrie Monteagudo contributed to this report.