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Family, community ask Navy to recognize Black WWII Navy vet who pulled 15 men to safety

Posted at 11:44 AM, May 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-05 14:13:16-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) -- The story of a Black Navy veteran who saved 15 of his crewmates during World War II was only known among a few families for many years. But now, through social media, the tale of Petty Officer Charles Jackson French is being shared with thousands of people, and they're asking that the war hero get proper recognition.

In September of 1942, in the midst of the second World War, the USS Gregory was struck by Japanese destroyers off Guadalcanal.

On board was Petty Officer French, a mess attendant who, up until that day, had stayed in the background.

But as he and his crewmates were floating on a raft closer and closer to the line of fire, French jumped into the shark-infested water, tied a rope around his waist, and pulled at least 15 men to safety over a span of six hours.

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A painting of French's heroism.

French’s tale was shared with his family in Omaha, and when he visited, he was given a hero's welcome, being paraded around town and at the Nebraska-Creighton football game.

Roscoe Harris says this tale of heroic deeds is something more people should know about.

“I thought that was a magnificent achievement as I grew older," Harris said. "But I didn’t see it in any history book or anything like that.”

This is also the story that Robert Adrian, who was on the USS Gregory, later told newspapers and the story he shared with his children about the man he owed his life to.

“We heard it," said Julie Decker, Adrian's oldest daughter. "And he always wanted the recognition for him.”

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Charles Jackson French and his sister

Decker says that was one of her father's dying wishes in 2011, that French get the recognition he felt the man deserved. The two men were never able to reconnect, with French dying at the age of 37.

While the Black veteran was celebrated by those he rescued and his community, he only received a letter of commendation from the Navy in recognition of his acts.

Dr. Nikitah Imani, a professor of Black Studies at UNO, says this is not uncommon for Black war heroes during this time before the Civil Rights Act.

“Ultimately, the more you recognize your heroes, the more you recognize the need to be more inclusive in the society as a whole," Imani said.

But now, through the power of social media, French’s story is being made public.

Bruce Wigo, who researched and shared the story 12 years ago, is pleased to see more people are learning about the hero.

“It really touches me that maybe something will happen to recognize this guy," Wigo said, adding that he thinks the Olympic Swim Trials should honor the man and his family when they are in Omaha in June.

The French and Adrian family are hoping that the Navy will look into the story and consider a higher honor. French's great-nephew, Chester French, says the award would be good for the family and the community.

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Robert Adrian

“A posthumous award is something that would be really appropriate in this case," French said.

Imani agrees, saying that to create a society of consciousness and character, we need to recognize our shared history and the stories like French's that have gone untold.

"Maybe this distinguished veteran can perform another service for us yet again, only this one not on the battlefield of war, but here on a different kind of battlefield for the ideology of peace," Imani said.

The Adrian family has reached out to Rep. Don Bacon, encouraging him to advocate for a high award for French.

Bacon released this statement:

“The recognition of U.S. Navy Petty Officer First Class Charles Jackson French is long overdue, and I support ongoing efforts to address this oversight. As the most diverse and integrated part of American society, it is only right that our African-American military heroes also be fully recognized for their service. We owe this to ourselves, to our military, our veterans, and to every future American who will answer the call. This three-decade veteran salutes him.”

The Navy's Chief of Information said they will be working with the Navy's Chief of Operations to take another look at the story.

This story originally reported by Jessika Eidson on 3NewsNow.com.

AUDIO: Learn more about the sinking of the USS Gregory in this vintage radio broadcast. Note that some of the language is unacceptable by today's standards.