The U.S. Navy is set to name its new destroyer after Second World War hero Charles Jackson French, who bravely saved 15 shipmates from shark-infested waters after the Japanese sank their ship.
French, one of six sailors involved, swam for hours to rescue all but 11 USS Gregory’s crew members by towing them to safety on a raft. Despite being recommended for the Navy Cross, he was never awarded a medal for his bravery, according to Daily Mail.
Instead, he was given a letter of commendation by Admiral William F. ‘Bull’ Halsey, the commander of the Southern Pacific Fleet. Recently, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro announced that a new Arleigh Burke-class destroyer will be named after French to honor his heroics. Del Toro posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal to French in May 2022, and a training pool for rescue swimmers at Naval Base San Diego was also named after him.
On the night of September 4, 1942, the USS Gregory’s crew was patrolling the waters between Savo Island and Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean when it encountered Japanese destroyers Yūdachi, Hatsuyuki, and Murakumo. The Japanese ships went undetected and opened fire on the USS Gregory and her sister ship USS Little.
Amid the chaos, the crew deliberated whether to confront the Japanese destroyers or withdraw quietly. A Navy pilot, mistakenly identifying the flashes as Japanese submarines, dropped flares, inadvertently exposing the ships.
Subsequently, the Japanese destroyers, joined by a cruiser, initiated firing at 1 am, marking the beginning of the Battle of Guadalcanal. The USS Gregory, facing superior firepower, became engulfed in flames and sank within three minutes during the Battle of Guadalcanal.
Among the crew was French, a 22-year-old Mess Attendant. U.S. warships, including the USS Gregory, were segregated during World War II, with Black sailors often assigned roles such as cooks and stewards.
Following the sinking of the USS Gregory, French, and a few uninjured sailors were left floating on makeshift rafts in shark-infested waters. In a display of remarkable heroism, French improvised a human tugboat by tying a rope around his waist. Throughout the night, he swam for six to eight hours, towing a raft laden with his injured shipmates.
“Just tell me if I’m going the right way,” he is said to have called out to the sailors who were all white.
French’s heroic act prevented the raft, carrying his shipmates, from drifting towards a Japanese-occupied shore. Despite urging him to leave the perilous waters, French, standing at 5’8″ and 195 pounds, stayed resolute, and stated that he feared the Japanese more than the sharks.
A scout aircraft spotted French and the 15 sailors on the raft at sunrise, leading to their rescue by a Marine landing craft. Upon their rescue, hospital staff attempted to segregate French from his shipmates into quarters designated for Black individuals. However, the injured shipmates vehemently opposed this segregation, even threatening to fight against it.
Despite his heroic efforts, French’s story, initially featured in a comic book, was largely forgotten after the war.