Charles Jackson French was a sailor during World War II known for his heroic actions during the Battle of Guadalcanal.

After his ship, the USS Gregory, was destroyed, French swam for hours towing a life raft carrying 15 fellow sailors, saving them from potential capture or death.

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Early Life and Navy Enlistment

Charles Jackson French was born in Foreman, Arkansas in 1919. He relocated to Omaha during his teenage years before enlisting in the US Navy in 1937.

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Due to racial restrictions of the time, he could only serve as a mess attendant. His initial service aboard the USS Houston lasted four years, after which he returned to Omaha.

However, following the devastating Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese, French reenlisted just a few months later. By March 1942, he found himself aboard the USS Gregory (APD-3), which set sail for Guadalcanal.

USS Gregory in 1942.

The Tragic Encounter

On September 4, 1942, the USS Gregory came under fierce attack from Japanese destroyers. In spite of its defense, the ship couldn’t withstand the onslaught. With two boilers compromised, the Gregory was consumed by flames and sank within three minutes.

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French, having survived the initial destruction, found himself on a life raft and quickly began rescuing other sailors. Eventually, he was accompanied by fifteen other seamen on that raft.

In the midst of their escape, Ensign Robert Adrian realized the drifting raft was approaching an enemy-controlled island. Knowing the peril, and banking on his adept swimming skills, French volunteered to navigate the raft away from potential capture.

Charles Jackson French. Image by the United States Navy.

Undeterred by Adrian’s warning of the strenuous swim and shark-infested waters, French’s primary fear was of the Japanese. With a rope tied around him, he swam tirelessly, battling the current for nearly six to eight hours until a scout plane spotted them at daybreak and initiated their rescue.

French After The Rescue

Ensign Adrian advocated for French to be awarded the Medal of Honor. However, the Navy provided only a commendation letter, which notably understated the hours French swam.

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French passed away in 1956 at the young age of 37. His bravery was commemorated in various forms: a War Gum Trading Card, a 1943 comic book, and a halftime tribute during a Creighton University football game. In 2022, the Navy decided to name a San Diego base pool in his honor.