You go over there

Heroism, athleticism, and sad to say, racism. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

In 1956, a 37-year old World War II Navy veteran named Charles Jackson French died in San Diego.

French, who was Black, had been “claimed by alcoholism,” according to friends. Here’s what we think we know about him—and why, perhaps, more people should know.

An orphan, French enlisted in the Navy right after Pearl Harbor. By summer 1942, he was serving as a mess attendant — a food server — on an old destroyer called the USS Gregory, which was right in the thick of the early U.S. war in the Pacific.

Part of the task force supporting Marines at Guadalcanal, the Gregory and a sister ship called the USS Little were ambushed just before Labor Day 1942, by four larger enemy ships.

The U.S. destroyers were outgunned. The Little was crippled. The Gregory caught fire and sank. But French survived, alone at first in the shark-infested waters.

Eventually he spotted a life raft, where roughly 15 other wounded survivors were taking refuge. The Japanese spotted the raft too, and started firing at it.

French, who was apparently a powerful swimmer, swam to the raft, tied a rope around his waist, and towed the 15 men for at least six hours, keeping them away from the beach. (The U.S. sailors had been told that if they were taken prisoner, they could expect torture and execution.)

As French recalled years later: I thought, what’s worse?The sharks or the Japs? At least the sharks would be quick.

Another American vessel finally found them. French and the other survivors were taken to a rest camp away from the fighting — and back to reality.

Now, the story turns, because French was Black and the others in the life raft were white. And, the fact that French had saved 15 men no longer mattered.

The Navy Master-at-Arms in charge of the rest camp—basically, security—ordered French away from the white sailors: “You go over there where the colored boys stay.”

French told some of the details of what happened next in an interview a decade later—an account that brought him to tears:

Then, some of the white boys … from the Gregory’s crew said, “He ain’t going nowhere! … Anybody who tries to take him had better be ready to go to general quarters.”

The sailor who did all the talking was from either Alabama or Georgia, according to French. (Aside: “Go to general quarters,” meaning “fight,” is some pretty excellent slang that I think we should bring back.)

There was a standoff: Us, covered with oil, and grime in our hair and all over our clothes, in our eyes—[against] the clean master-at-arms folks. We must have looked like wild men. Anyway, one of the master-at-arms said, “Them fools mean it. Just leave them alone. We’ve got other folks who need help.”

Then, French broke down: “Them white boys stood up for me.”

The Navy didn’t mention French’s feat at first, but one of the men he rescued, Ensign Robert N. Adrian told an AP reporter soon after.

The story was picked up in U.S. newspapers — especially those covering Black communities— and featured in a series of War Gum trading cards (think of baseball cards for World War II, that kids could collect and trade; the photo above is from that series).

The following year, French was the guest of honor at a Creighton University football game, and NBC Radio aired a dramatic recreation of the whole event. Hollywood talked about making a movie.

But then, crickets.

The Gregory survivors wanted French to get a medal, but it never happened.*

Eventually the Navy put a letter of commendation in French’s personnel file, but it diminished his achievements, saying he’d towed the men in the life raft for “two hours,” not “six or eight” as the witnesses claimed.

Ensign Adrian, who had told the story to the reporter, went on to serve a full career in the Navy, ultimately becoming a captain, and never stopped pushing for French’s actions to be recognized, his kids said.

"[French] should have gotten the Navy Cross for heroism," Adrian’s daughter said, quoting her father, who died in 2011. "He would say that with disdain.”

Now, every decade or so, someone discovers French’s story and tries to draw attention to it.

Most recent among these is is Bruce Wigo, the former president of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida, who publicized it recently.

The most recent version went mini-viral on Twitter, and now the Navy says it’s looking into whether it can do anything more for French posthumously, all these years later.

I talked with Wigo yesterday. He first learned of the story while writing a book a few years back about the history of Black swimmers in America.

One of the big remaining questions about this story is where French became such a strong swimmer. There aren’t that many people even now, Wigo pointed out, who can swim well enough to tow a life raft full of sailors for hours at a time in open water.

And, there were even fewer back in the 1940s—and especially, even fewer strong Black swimmers—because so many pools across the United States (including where French grew up)—prohibited Black people from using them.

“When they brought him to that Creighton football game, and cheered him at halftime,” Wigo said, “there probably wasn’t a place he could have gone for a swim in all of Omaha. All the pools were segregated.”

(*You’ll note there some recent accounts say French was awarded the Navy-Marine Corps Medal, which is the top medal for non-combat heroism. However, I can’t find a source for this; the only thing I’ve found so far is the letter in his file, which of course is nowhere near as big a deal.)

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7 other things worth your time

  • New Mexico spent millions in corporate incentives to bring a massive Netflix production hub to a struggling suburban development outside its largest city. Now they’re learning if it will pay off. (Bloomberg)

  • Engrossing story about the battle between a landlord or a tenant over a not-very-nice house in New York during the pandemic. Mostly, it leaves me I never bought any of those rental properties I was thinking about a while back. (Not kidding.) (Washington Post)

  • After months of increasing vaccination rates, fewer people in the U.S. are actually getting first or second shots, leaving the idea of an ultimate “herd immunity” more remote. (CNBC)

  • This is a few months old, but think of it as just in time for summer: how to map out a drive across the USA. (WSJ, $)

  • Amazon is moving Prime Day earlier in the year, most likely June. It’s become one of the biggest drivers of consumer demand during the year, second only to the December holiday season. (CNBC)

  • After 27 years of marriage, Bill and Melinda Gates announced they’re getting divorced. (Yahoo News)

  • The passenger count of a flight to Hawaii increased by one in midair, when a woman prematurely went into labor and gave birth. Fortunately, among her fellow passengers were a family physician ,and three nurses from Kansas City who were vacationing together and who specialize in neonatal care. The doctor said he and the nurses also wound up using wilderness medicine training they’d learned, including using shoelaces to cut the umbillical cord, and an Apple Watch to measure the baby’s heart rate. Mom and baby are doing fine. (Hawaii Pacific Health)

Thanks for reading. Photo credit: International Swimming Hall of Fame. (Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.) If you liked this post, please click that little heart icon below, or try the “instant feedback” stars below, back by popular demand.


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