The Human Tugboat

The Overlook

By Tom Clavin

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          Because of a book of mine being published this November (Lightning Down) and one Bob Drury and I are presently writing for a Fall 2022 release, I have been immersed in material on World War II. I want to share the story of an event that took place 79 years ago this month that is both inspirational and a bit disappointing. But there can be no doubt about the heroism of the African-American sailor Charles Jackson French, a petty officer aboard the USS Gregory.

          The Gregory was a Wickes-class destroyer constructed by the Fore River Shipbuilding Company in Quincy, Massachusetts. When it was launched in January 1918, bashing a bottle of bubbly against the bow was Mrs. George Trevor, the great-granddaughter of Admiral Francis Gregory, who had served in the U.S. Navy from the War of 1812 into the Civil War.

          Not long after World War I ended, the Gregory was mothballed. She was spruced up and put back into action when World War II began. June 1942 found the destroyer at Pearl Harbor where the Gregory became part of the Pacific fleet commanded by Admiral Frank Fletcher, which was preparing for the invasion of Guadalcanal. The ship was kept busy that summer as a troop transport and on patrol.

          On September 4, the Gregory and a sister ship, the USS Little, were en route to Tulagi after having ferried a Marine battalion to Savo Island. It was a very dark night with a haze obscuring landmarks. The captains of both ships decided to remain on patrol rather than try to navigate the dangerous channel. They were unaware that four Japanese ships would soon be returning from delivering troops and supplies to Guadalcanal.

At about 1 a.m. on the 5th, a Navy pilot saw gunfire below and thought it came from a Japanese submarine, so he dropped a string of flares to see if he could locate the surfaced sub. Whatever the source of the gunfire, the pilot happened to drop the flares near the two American ships, illuminating them just as the Japanese flotilla appeared. Seeing the smaller enemy ships, the four Japanese ships opened fire.

The Gregory took the brunt of it. Within minutes the overmatched destroyer began to sink. Two boilers had burst and her deck was on fire. The seriously wounded captain, Harry Bauer, gave the order to abandon ship. After arranging for several wounded men to be taken off, Bauer went to find more wounded crew members . . . and he was never seen again. The Little was also seriously damaged and its crew was seeking the safety of lifeboats. But the Japanese ships began shelling again —aiming not at the crippled ships but at their helpless crews in the water. The Gregory sank stern first some 40 minutes after the firing had begun and was followed two hours later by the Little.

This is where Petty Officer Charles Jackson French comes into the story. He was closing in on his 23rd birthday. He had been raised as an orphan in Foreman, Arkansas and had learned how to swim in the Red River. He enlisted in the Navy as soon as he was old enough, in 1937, completed his four-year enlistment, then re-joined right after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

That night, with his ship sunk, French realized one of the life rafts with 25 of his shipmates, some badly wounded, was drifting closer to the Japanese ships, where they could be captured or even killed. French grabbed a rope attached to the life raft and began swimming, towing the raft and the men in it behind him. He did this for over six hours through shark-infested waters until they were spotted and rescued by an American ship. Not another life was lost.

According to Ensign Robert Adrian, the only survivor of the men on the bridge of the Gregory that night, “I knew that if we floated ashore we’d be taken as prisoners of war. Then French volunteered to swim the raft away from shore. He stripped off his clothes and asked for help to tie a rope around his waist and tow them to safety.” Adrian told him it was impossible – that he would only be giving himself up to the sharks that surrounded them. “French responded that he was not afraid. He was a powerful swimmer, and he swam all night until we were eventually saved.”

After the story appeared in the papers, Adrian repeated it on a national radio program, and Gum, Inc. printed card #129 about the daring swim. The people back in America learned more about French’s heroism. Described as a “human tugboat,” he received a royal welcome from citizens of all races in his sister Viola’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He appeared before enthusiastic crowds at bond rallies and a high decoration seemed assured.

However, as in the case of many other African-American war heroes, French would receive a lesser reward than anticipated. When finally issued in May 1943, it came in the form of a letter of commendation from Adm. William Halsey, then commander of the Southern Pacific Fleet. The commendation recounted the details of the action and concluded, “His conduct was in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service.”

The survivors felt that French deserved a higher tribute, possibly the Medal of Honor, or at least the Silver Star. However, for his selfless actions, Captain Bauer was issued a posthumous Silver Star (and a Purple Heart). By Navy standards, it would be nearly unprecedented for a subordinate to receive a higher decoration for an act of heroism comparable to that of a superior.

That’s the disappointing part. But Petty Officer French was memorialized on War gum trading cards and in a comic strip. Also, the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper, named him Hero of the Year.

French died in November 1956, just 47 years old, and was buried in the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.

Those who agree that French was not adequately recognized can go to the change.org web site. An effort is underway right now to persuade the U.S. Congress to award him the Medal of Honor.

Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including the forthcoming Lightning Down: A World War II Story of Survival, to be published by St. Martin’s Press on November 2. To pre-order, please go to your local bookstore or to Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, or BN.com. (Psssst: It’s really good.)