The crew of high-speed transport USS Gregory (APD 3) were returning from transferring a Marine Raider Battalion to Savo Island on the night of Sept. 4, 1942. The night was black as ink and a haze was obscuring any landmarks, so the crews of Gregory and her sister ship USS Little (APD 4) were patrolling the area between Savo Island and Guadalcanal. Three Japanese destroyers – Yūdachi, Hatsuyuki, and Murakumo – came into the Slot undetected to bombard American positions ashore. Just before 1 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 5, the two ships saw flashes of gunfire.
While the crews of Gregory and Little debated whether to engage the Japanese destroyers or depart quietly, a Navy pilot also spotted the flashes of fire. Thinking the flashes came from Japanese submarines, the pilot dropped a line of five flares in the water. These flares became a backdrop for the silhouettes of Gregory and Little who now became the targets of the Japanese destroyers and a Japanese cruiser that had joined them. At 1 a.m., the Japanese opened fire. Outgunned, Gregory only lasted three minutes from the time the flares were dropped to the time she began to sink. Her boilers had burst and her mess decks were aflame.
Mess Attendant 1st Class Charles Jackson French, known only at the time by his last name, was on Gregory that night. French was a black man born in Foreman, Arkansas, Sept. 25, 1919. After his parents died, he moved to Omaha, Nebraska, to live with his sister. A few months after his 18th birthday, French joined the Navy as a Mess Attendant – one of the only positions open to black men at the time. He served his four years in the Navy working the mess decks of Hawaii-based heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA-30) and returned home to Nebraska in 1941. Four days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, French reenlisted into the Navy and was assigned to Gregory in March 1942.
Little did he know that three weeks before his 23rd birthday, French would become a Navy hero.
This was during a period of American history when segregation was active, which means black men and white men were not permitted to swim together, even during Navy swim calls in the ocean. However, at 1:23 a.m. on Sept. 5, 1942, French was one of a few uninjured Sailors that found themselves floating on makeshift rafts when the Japanese ships turned their guns from the crippled ships to the crew floating in the water.
French was an unassuming 5’8” and 195 pounds when Navy Ensign Robert Adrian, with injuries in his legs and blast fragments in his eyes, regained consciousness and saw French swimming around and gathering injured shipmates to pile onto a raft. With Adrian amongst the rescued Sailors on board the raft, French started to tie a rope around his waist. Adrian attempted to talk French into getting out of the shark-infested waters, but French responded that he was more afraid of the Japanese than he was of the sharks.
“Just tell me if I’m going the right way,” French said as he began to tow the raft full of injured Sailors, according to a 1942 radio dramatization introducing Adrian to tell French’s story.
Swimming until sunrise, French and the 15 Sailors on the raft he was towing were spotted by a scout aircraft. The pilot dispatched a Marine landing craft to pick them up. French was one of six Sailors who swam through the night and up to eight hours, rescuing all but 11 members of Gregory’s crew.
For his actions, French received a letter of commendation from the commander of the Southern Pacific Fleet, Adm. William F. “Bull” Halsey. The Navy plans to dedicate a rescue swimming training pool in May 2022 at Naval Base San Diego to French in honor of his heroic actions during the Battle of Guadalcanal.