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The WWII Story of a Black Man Who Rescued White Sailors by Swimming 6 Hours in Shark-Infested Waters

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 10, 2024 3:00 am

The WWII Story of a Black Man Who Rescued White Sailors by Swimming 6 Hours in Shark-Infested Waters

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 10, 2024 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Bruce Wigo—the former CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame—is here to share a story of an unknown American WWII hero.

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To search for the Our American Stories podcast, go to the I Heart Radio app, to Apple podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. From General George Washington to Audie Murphy, history's greatest war heroes gave everything for their country and embodied the meaning of bravery with their incredible acts of selflessness. Bruce Weigo is here to tell a story of an unknown American war hero.

Let's take a listen. In 2005, I was lucky enough to be chosen to be the new president and executive director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. And I'd always been, had a fascination with Benjamin Franklin, who himself was a renowned swimmer during his lifetime. And one of the first things that I did at the International Swimming Hall of Fame was go into their rare book room where I found a book called The Art of Swimming by the great 17th century scientist Melchizedek Thivenot. And in Franklin's autobiography, this is the book that he used to teach himself how to swim. One of the great puzzles of history has been Benjamin Franklin, greatest research physicist and scientist of the 18th century.

No scientific education, no education past the age of nine. It's been long overlooked about the influence of swimming on Benjamin Franklin. Swimming, as was presented in that book, is presented as physics, as fluid dynamics. And then later in life, a kid with no science education whatsoever outside of this book, which taught him about specific gravity and Archimedes' principles of buoyancy and flotation, positive buoyancy, negative buoyancy, and the impact of currents.

And when Benjamin Franklin becomes recognized as the greatest research scientist of the 18th century for his work in electricity, three terms that he coined that we still use today are electrical current and positive and negative. And where did he get it from? He got it from swimming, his experience of swimming.

And in the introduction to that book, I read an amazing piece. It said that in modern times, referring to 1699, the greatest swimmers and divers in the world were the Africans and Native Americans. It was for them that our ladies owe their pearls.

It's for them our merchants owe the recovery of treasure and merchandise and anchors lost at sea. So I grew up in the 1950s and at the time you didn't see many black swimmers. Most people assume that black people couldn't swim. Swimming was entirely segregated in the United States, but my very first swimming meet in the 1950s was at the Christian Street YMCA, which was formerly a colored Y. So this was, we swam against a team that was black and the team that I was on, the Germantown YMCA was part of the Philadelphia Swim Directors Society, which was the first integrated swimming league in the United States.

So these formerly colored YMCAs, which were now just YMCAs, competed against the white wise. So the idea that blacks couldn't swim and that there wasn't part of a history was something that was foreign to me. And when I went into the Swimming Hall of Fame after reading this book, I said, where is this history?

It doesn't seem to exist. It was all about the evolution of competitive swimming, which was something developed in Europe and it was purely a European sport and an Asian sport. The Japanese were great swimmers as well. So one of my first missions at the Swimming Hall of Fame was to rectify this absence of black swimming history.

So on the internet, late at night when I wasn't doing the work to raise money and save the Hall of Fame, I started doing some searches, Negro swimming, Negro drowning. I came across a reference to a trading card, number 129, and the only description of it was Negro swimmer toes survivors. It was part of a set of World War II commemorative cards, the sort of patriotic version of baseball cards printed by a company out of Philadelphia, gum ink. So it came with a, as you can imagine, with a piece of gum.

And it was kind of a bonus to buy their gum. There wasn't any picture on the card or any other reference, but on eBay, I found a number of war gums cards for sale, but not number 129. So I contacted a few sellers and card collectors and one was kind enough to send me a scan of the card, which showed a picture of a black man and shark fins out in the water and a rope tied to a raft with a whole bunch of wounded sailors on it. So now I had some other keywords for my Google search, Solomon Islands, USS Gregory, French, mess attendant.

And from there, the story really took off. On and on, I found the service records, the enlistment records, which told more about this man named French. The Pittsburgh Courier, which was one of the national black newspapers at the time. I mean, newspapers were segregated. Everything was segregated in the United States at that point in time. During the First World War, Woodrow Wilson segregated the Navy. Black people were no longer allowed to serve as officers or even sailors. They were relegated to service as mess men, stewards, and porters in the Navy.

Previous to this, starting back in the Civil War, where 25% of the Union Navy were African Americans, and they were officers and sailors, and some of them were heroes, all the way up until the First World War when Woodrow Wilson segregated the Navy. The story first came to light when Robert N. Adrian, a young ensign who was on the SS Gregory, told a reporter from the Associated Press about how a powerful 22-year-old Negro mess attendant named French swam through shark-infested waters, towing to safety a raft loaded of wounded seamen from the USS Gregory, a destroyer that had been sunk by Japanese naval gunfire near Guadalcanal. And you've been listening to Bruce Weigo tell the story of, well, a whole lot of things. First, his journey into swimming and ultimately to the Swimming Hall of Fame, and then to a story about Charles Jackson French. When we come back, more of this story, the story of an unknown hero in World War II, here on Our American Stories. Here at Our American Stories, we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith, and love. Stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.

But we can't do it without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love our stories in America like we do, please go to and click the donate button. Give a little. Give a lot. Help us keep the great American stories coming.

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Add life to cart. And we continue with our American stories. Let's pick up where we left off with the story of Charles Jackson French, a 22 year old mess attendant who was on the USS Gregory when it was sunk by the Japanese near Guadalcanal.

Here again is Bruce Weigo, the former CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Ensign Adrian was the only one on the bridge to survive and floated over into the water as the ship sank below him. He heard voices and found a life raft filled with 24 wounded men.

Adrian, though superficially wounded, was able to hang on. According to the press reports, he knew that if they floated to shore, we'd be taken as prisoners of war. And 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 so he could tow them to safety.

Adrian told him it was impossible that he would only be giving himself up to the sharks and French responded that he wasn't afraid. He was a powerful swimmer and he swam all night, six to eight hours until they were eventually rescued by a landing craft. After the story appeared in the papers, Adrian repeated it on a national radio program and gum printed the card and the world began to learn more about the heroic efforts of Charles Jackson French. Through military records, it was recognized that he was actually a 23-year-old orphan from Forman, Arkansas, who had moved to Omaha, Nebraska to live with his sister. And he enlisted in the Navy in 1937. The trading card described him as a human tugboat and he received a warm welcome and a royal welcome from citizens of all races in Omaha, Nebraska after the story came out and a high decoration was assured. Finally, it was issued. It came in May of 1943 in the form of a letter of commendation from Admiral William Halsey, then commander of the Southern Fleet.

The survivors felt that he deserved a higher tribute, possibly a Congressional Medal of Honor, at least the Silver Star and Navy Cross. And then in 2009, I came across a book, Black Men and Blue Water, written by Chester Wright. And in there was an interview with Charles Jackson French. He told a story. And I'm reading from directly from the book. So after he told of the story of rescuing all these, then he changed from laughter to what the author had trouble discerning. It was anger, frustration, and tears.

On questioning him after waiting a minute or two, French responded in more subdued, angry voice. And I'll use the language that was directly from the book. So I'm reading.

This is not my parody. When we was picked up and the Hurtwins was taken to be worked on, we was taken to the rest camp with the others. I heard they came up with some of that wild race. You colored boy mess. I was told you got to go over there with them colored boys to stay. And then some of the white boys, what was on the raft and other sales from the Gregory's crew said, he ain't going nowhere. He's a member of the Gregory's crew and he damned.

Well, we'll stay right here with the rest of us. Anybody who tries to take him anywhere had been ready to get a beating and be ready to go to General Quarters, meaning ready to fight with all of us. The boy who did all the talking was either from Alabama or Georgia, according to French. So for near on five minutes, there was a standoff us covered with oil and grime in our hair and all of our clothes and dirt in our eyes and then clean master of arms folks. We must have looked like wild men. Anyway, one of them the master at arms said them fools mean it.

Just leave him alone. We got other folks to help them crackers retreated and tuck their tails and left. The conversation with Charles Jackson French occurred shortly after the Korean War. The author Chester White attempted to probe the cause for such intense emotion concerning the incident that happened years before. French's shoulder shook tears course down his cheeks and all the author could get from him was them white boy stood up for me. French according to friends residing in San Diego was claimed by alcoholism from close questioning of friends.

It would appear that he returned from the Pacific War stressed out from seeing too much death and destruction. So in telling this story, I first published it on swimming World magazine and I believe swim swim the two big Internet's on there. And then I get an email from a couple who were retired Navy. One was a Navy SEAL and one was chief Petty Officer Kevin and Kim Micna who read the article and they had been wanting to do recognize war heroes that maybe were unrecognized and they picked up on the story and they started doing their own research and they came across the family of Ensign Robert Adrian who was the first one to tell the story. And there were newspaper articles about Adrian going on NBC radio telling the story of how this Negro seaman who's he only knew the name was mess man French. So the Mickey's contacted the family of Robert Adrian who had himself over the years been doing his best to get French recognized for what he had done. So in the newspaper articles that I found French had been recommended for a higher honor the Navy Cross or the Congressional Medal of Honor by Captain Adrian on these NBC broadcast interviews. In any event contacting the Mickey's contacting Judy Decker the daughter of Captain Adrian and other family members found that there was a record that was given to Captain Adrian after his broadcast where he told the story of French and they've reenacted a dramatization of the events that led to the sinking of the Gregory. So in really incredible feet of bravery French described later that, you know, he felt the fish under the water the Sharks but you know, they didn't like him. Apparently they didn't like black meat.

It's kind of French's response and French also described that he'd rather be eaten by a shark than by tortured by the Japanese. So this story starts to take wings. The Olympic trials in 2021 were held in Omaha, Nebraska Charles Jackson French's hometown. So reporter Steve Lewin from the Omaha Journal Andrew Saki from the television station in Omaha picked up on this and created a little mini documentaries on WKET and wrote about it extensively and a guy by the name Malcolm Nance. I guess an author forwarded the story on to Congressman Don Bacon of Omaha and he picks up the idea and says cheese. We ought to do something about it and came up with the idea of naming a post office after Charles Jackson French in Omaha, Nebraska in the area where Charles Jackson French lived at the time and at the deadline for this Senator Ben Sasse signs on to the bill. And so the bill passes they're going to name the post office but the Navy at this point also picks up and names the rescue training pool at the Navy base in San Diego the Charles Jackson French rescue training base and they award him the Navy Cross, you know, it's 75 years after his historic event. And Charles Jackson French I have to believe is one of the most inspiring stories of all. And a terrific job on the production and storytelling by our own Greg Hengler and the special thanks to Bruce Weigo for sharing the story of an unknown American war hero now known to you. And well, I love what he says about the risk. He was taking bringing his men away from the Japanese shorelines.

I'd rather be eaten by a shark and tortured by the Japanese. And of course those white boys stood up for me Charles Jackson French said and of course 75 years later Charles Jackson French gets the Navy Cross something he deserved right from the beginning. The story of Charles Jackson French is told by Bruce Weigo here on our American stories. Abusers in Hollywood are as old as the Hollywood sign itself underneath it lies a shroud of mystery from Variety Hollywood's number one entertainment news source and I heart podcast comes Variety confidential. I'm your host Tracy Patton and in season one will focus on the secret history of the casting couch.

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