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Navy’s newest destroyer honors forgotten WWII hero

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro speaks on stage during a change of command ceremony where Douglas Perry was promoted to vice admiral aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman at Naval Station Norfolk on Jan. 12, 2024. (Billy Schuerman / The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)
June 10, 2024

During his keynote speech at Surface Navy Association’s 36th National Symposium in Arlington, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro announced the planned Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer DDG-142 will be named USS Charles J. French.

The Navy’s new destroyer will be named in honor of Charles Jackson French, Navy Mess Specialist 1st Class, who earned the nickname “Hero of the Solomons” for his actions in World War II onboard the USS Gregory.

After taking enemy fire from Japanese forces on September 5, 1942, the USS Gregory began taking on water, according to Task and Purpose. French placed 15 injured sailors in a life raft, tied a rope to his waist, and swam through the night, pulling the life raft and sailors to safety. While French was recommended for the Navy Cross, he received a letter of commendation at the time. Del Toro shared that he hopes that by naming the destroyer after French, the Navy will finally honor a war hero that time forgot.

Unveiling the name earlier this year, Del Toro said, “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.”

After the sinking of the USS Gregory, French served the remainder of his Navy career on the USS Endicott and the USS Frankford before retiring. He died on November 7, 1956, at the age of 37. His grave is located in the Fort Rosencrans National Cemetery in Sand Diego.

As heroic as French’s service is, his story is also a testament to the enduring camaraderie among military members. During the time of French’s service, the Navy was segregated. French’s true actions and selfless service may never have been known without Navy Ensign Robert Adrian. Adrian was among the sailors French had saved that night, and he never forgot the courage French had shown. On October 21, 1942, Adrian appeared on the NBC show “It Happened in the Service,” where he told the story of how French had saved his life.

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Following the show, French received social recognition for his actions. In 1943, Pulitzer Prize recipient William Rose Benet wrote the poem “The Strong Swimmer” about French. Despite this, no further awards or recognition were granted to French, and his story slowly slipped into forgotten history.

In 2019, a retired Navy couple saw an exhibit regarding French in the Black History Swimming Hall of Fame. Intrigued, they sought out Adrian. Adrian had attempted to find French after retiring and published the story in Tin Can Alley, a newsletter, under the title Our Night of Hell of Guadalcanal. Adrian reportedly recommended that French be awarded the Navy Cross prior to his own death in 2011.

In 2021, French’s story then came to the attention of Rear Admiral Charles Brown, who served as a Navy public affairs officer. From that time, French has been honored in numerous ceremonies.

In May of 2022, French was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroic actions in a ceremony at Naval Base San Diego. During the ceremony, the base’s rescue swimmer training pool was dedicated in French’s honor.

Additionally, in June of 2022, President Joe Biden signed H.R. 4168, designating the Post Office on 6223 Maple Street, Omaha, Nebraska, as the Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Jackson French Post Office.