The University of Nebraska at Omaha honored a long-unsung World War II hero once lauded as a “human tugboat” during a Black History Month event Thursday, Feb. 9.
Relatives of Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Jackson French accepted UNO’s first “Hero of the Heartland” award, presented by its Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Military-Connected Resource Center.
On Sept. 5, 1942, French, a 22-year-old mess steward aboard the destroyer USS Gregory, swam for several hours through shark-infested waters while towing 15 wounded survivors in a raft to be rescued after the ship was torpedoed and sunk near Guadalcanal in the South Pacific.
“Only God saw them through,” said his nephew, Chester French of Omaha.
French was Black; the wounded sailors were White. He was celebrated for his actions in Omaha and across the country after one of the survivors told the story on the NBC radio network shortly after the rescue. But the Navy, rigidly segregated at the time, awarded him no medal, only a letter of commendation.
People are also reading…
“It was in the peril of that night, when the USS Gregory was damaged and sinking, that Charles Jackson French acted,” said Navy Capt. Ben Selph, an operations officer at the Offutt-based U.S. Strategic Command, who spoke at the event. “Let us all be inspired by this moment.”
Eric Ewing, a retired Navy medical corpsman who is now director of Omaha’s Great Plains Black History Museum, said French’s story should be taught in schools.
“There are a lot of unsung heroes out there,” he said, “and a lot of them are Black men.”
Charles Jackson French was born in 1919 in Foreman, Arkansas, a small town in the state’s southwest corner, one of nine children in his family. His parents died when he was still a child, and he moved to Omaha to live with his older sister, Viola, who had moved here to find work.
French had just finished a four-year hitch as a mess steward in the Navy in the fall of 1941, but he re-enlisted in Omaha after the attack on Pearl Harbor. His work meant doing cooking, laundry and cleaning for White officers, the only job the Navy permitted African Americans to hold.
“It was a fancy name for a butler,” Ewing said.
For a little while after the heroic rescue, French surfed a wave of acclaim. The tale of the “human tugboat” was celebrated in newspapers, radio dramas, comics, calendars and even on a bubblegum card. A Pulitzer-Prize winning poet wrote a tribute.
Back in Omaha, 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.
But the Navy soon returned French to mess duty in the fleet, where he continued to serve for the rest of the war. When it was over, he took a civilian job with the Navy in San Diego, married a woman from Arkansas, and fathered a daughter. He died in 1956, at age 37, of alcoholism and depression brought on by his wartime service, according to friends and family.
Outside of his family, French’s story was largely forgotten until two years ago, when a social media post drew attention to an account of his heroism written by Bruce Wigo, the retired CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, for Black History Month.
Wigo’s viral post got a response from the Navy’s chief information officer and prompted stories about French by the Omaha World-Herald and other media outlets.
USA Swimming took note of his achievements during the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha in 2021. Last year, the Navy finally paid tribute by renaming a training pool at Naval Base San Diego. And it recognized his bravery by awarding him the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the Navy’s highest award for noncombat valor.
Back in Omaha, the post office in Benson was renamed for French last September following a legislative effort by Nebraska’s congressional delegation.
More awards could be in store. Linda Thomas of Bowling Green, Virginia, a former president of her state’s NAACP conference, has garnered the support of that organization and several U.S. senators in seeking to award the Medal of Honor to both French and Doris Miller, another Black Navy hero from World War II.
Such a move, she said, would recognize the hardship of racism they and other African American servicemembers endured in that era.
“It symbolically says ‘Yes, we get it,’” Thomas said.
At UNO, speakers said French’s story also offers an example young people can aspire to today.
“What can allow us to truly celebrate humanity? Even in chaos and disaster, we hang onto each other, because of the heroes among us,” said Joanne Li, UNO’s chancellor. “French’s example shows us that everyone within themselves has that capacity for greater good.”
Taricka Burton, who heads the Office of Multicultural Affairs, said French was UNO’s first “Hero of the Heartland,” but he won’t be the last. Others will be spotlighted during heritage months honoring Asian and Pacific Islander, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans, among other groups.
“We’re going to really work hard to find the heroes among us,” Burton said.