Navy will name ship after ‘human tugboat,’ a forgotten WWII hero

The Navy will name a new Arleigh Burke-class destroyer for one of World War II’s most remarkable — and most ignored — Naval heroes, Charles Jackson French.

A Black cook aboard a ship sunk at Guadalcanal, French pulled a makeshift raft full of wounded shipmates for eight hours through shark-infested waters by swimming with a tow rope tied around his waist. His swimming pulled the men to safety, overcoming a current that would have pushed the boat toward a Japanese-occupied shore.

Though submitted for high valor awards, French never received a medal or decoration, except for a single letter of thanks from a senior admiral, a note which misstated how long he had swam in the rescue.

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro announced Wednesday that a future Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer will be named USS Charles J. French, after Mess Specialist 1st Class Petty Officer Charles Jackson French. Del Toro made the announcement during his keynote address at the Surface Navy Association’s 36th National Symposium in Arlington, Virginia.

An all-night swim pulling 15 men

On the night of Sept. 4, 1942, near the Solomon Islands during the battle of Guadalcanal, French’s ship the USS Gregory and its sister ship, the USS Little, hid in the darkness after delivering Marines to shore. Unlike much of the Gregory’s crew, Fench had been in the Navy before the outbreak of war, finishing a full enlistment in 1941 before rejoining after Pearl Harbor. Though U.S. warships were, like the rest of the military, segregated during World War II, Black sailors often served as cooks and stewards.

As Japanese destroyers and a cruiser searched for the lightly armed Gregory and LIttle, a U.S. seaplane overhead mistook their position and dropped a flare, illuminating the two ships as easy targets.

As Japanese fire hit, the Gregory began to sink. Finding an impromptu raft amid floating wreckage, French secured a rope around his waste and began swimming through the ship’s debris field, eventually gathering 15 injured survivors on the raft. Expecting the Japanese to hunt for survivors and that currents would carry them toward Japanese occupied shore, French swam through the night until friendly aircraft saw him the next morning.

According to some accounts, an officer on the raft told French to climb aboard because of sharks in the water. French replied he was a good swimmer and was more afraid of the Japanese than sharks.

According to a Swimming World Magazine account of French’s story, when the French and his 15 shipmates, all white, were rescued, the staff of a hospital tried to separate French from the group into quarters for Blacks. The injured Gregory men refused, threatening to fight.

French was submitted for the Navy Cross, but received only a letter of commendation from the commander of the Southern Pacific Fleet, Adm. William F. “Bull” Halsey.

The letter noted that French had swam the raft for two hours. In fact, French swam for at least six.

In the months and years after, French’s story was covered widely, particularly in Black newspapers in the U.S., and he was dubbed the ‘Human Tugboat.’ His story was featued in a comic book and the white officer from the raft,  Ensign Robert Adrian, a Naval Academy graduate and veteran of the Guadalcanal-Tulagi landings, appeared on a national radio show to tell French’s story. But his story was mostly forgotten as the war continued.

French died in 1956.

Del Toro posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal to French in May 2022 and training pool for rescue swimmers at Naval Base San Diego is named after him.

“For too long, we did not recognize Petty Officer French appropriately, but we’ve begun to correct that. Recently, we renamed the training pool at Naval Base San Diego after him,” said Secretary Del Toro. “Today, with profound conviction and a heart brimming with long-overdue recognition, I am proud to announce the name of our newest destroyer, DDG 142, will be the USS Charles J. French.”

Fabrication of the ship is projected for 2026 with a projected keel laying set for 2027, projected christening in 2029, and delivery projected for 2031, the Navy said.

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