Times of war often feature people demonstrating awe-inspiring feats of heroism. There are some heroic actions that are especially impressive to hear about, though — and rescuing people from the prospect of a shark attack in the midst of a war certainly qualifies. That gives you a sense of what Steward’s Mate 1st Class Charles Jackson French accomplished during World War II — an act of extreme bravery that the Navy recently recognized with the dedication of a new facility in his name.
An article by John Wilkens from the San Diego Union-Tribune (via the Los Angeles Times) has more details on French’s life and deeds, as well as why it’s taken as long as it has for him to get his due. (Given that French was a Black man in the Navy in the 1940s, if you guessed racism as the reason why he wasn’t honored far and wide at the time, you are almost certainly correct.) French was on board the USS Gregory, which was sunk by Japanese forces near the Solomon Islands in late 1942.
As Wilkens describes, French got a number of injured sailors into a lifeboat. He then spent the next six to eight hours pulling the boat to safety, avoiding both sharks in the water and the possibility of an attack from the enemy forces still in the area. Reportedly, he had one request of the men in the boat: “Just keep telling me if I’m going in the right direction.”
Despite the efforts of one of the men whose life he’d saved, Robert Adrian, to get French a Navy Cross for his heroic act, French was not decorated during his lifetime. It took the efforts of several parties decades later, including relatives of both French and Adrian, to get official acknowledgement for what he had done.
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French is now the posthumous recipient of the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. And, last May, the Navy dedicated a surface rescue swimmer training pool at Naval Base San Diego in French’s honor. The story of what French did is extraordinary; one hopes that more people will learn his story in the months and years to come.
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