Weekly Column

Sep 12 2022

Honoring a WWII Hero

Imagine it’s pitch dark. The Pacific Ocean is swirling below your ship. Suddenly the darkness is pierced by the bright flashes – gunfire from nearby enemy destroyers. 

Within three minutes, the ship you are stationed on is in flames and you and your fellow crewmates are in the rough water.

It’s hard to fathom how anyone would react. Most, I’m sure, would struggle to know what to do.

But on that fateful night in 1942, Charles Jackson French, then a 22-year-old Mess Attendant 1st Class, sprang into action.

When the USS Gregory, the ship French served on, was sunk by the Japanese navy on September 5th near Guadalcanal during World War II, French didn’t hesitate. 

In fact, amid the chaos, French helped 15 of his wounded crewmates into a life raft. Then, he tied a rope around his waist, and swam for nearly eight hours in the shark-infested waters to tow the men away until they were rescued. 

French’s actions that night saved the men’s lives, and ensured they were not captured by the Japanese close by. Afterwards, some of the men French rescued pushed for the Navy to fully recognize French’s heroism. While French’s story was briefly popularized in mass media and he became known as the “Hero of the Solomon Islands,” he only received a short letter of commendation. 

The survivors of the USS Gregory always felt French deserved a much higher tribute for his bravery. Sadly, French died in 1956 without such a recognition.

While the French family never forgot Charles’ heroism, it took decades until French’s story was rediscovered by the public.

As part of the effort to finally recognize French’s selfless actions, Congressman Don Bacon (NE-02) introduced a bill to rename the Maple Street USPS facility in Benson after French. I introduced the companion legislation in the Senate. While French was born in 1919 in Arkansas, he moved to Omaha in his youth.

After much work, we were able to the pass the bill through the House of Representatives in February, through the Senate in May, and have it signed by the President in June. 

Last week, we were all able to participate in the official renaming ceremony. It was an honor to meet the French family and contribute to the day’s events.

Forever designating the Maple Street facility as the “Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Jackson French Post Office” was an important step towards properly honoring an American hero. 

My hope is that these actions will also ensure future generations can be inspired by this story of a truly exceptional man and his remarkable actions to save his crewmates. I believe the passage of time only increases our obligation to keep these stories alive.

In addition to the post office renaming, Omaha Mayor Jean Slothert has proclaimed Sept. 9, 2022 as “Petty Officer Charles Jackson French Day.” In May of this year, the Navy also posthumously awarded French with the Navy and Marine Corps medal. 

I want to congratulate the family of the "Hero of the Solomon Islands" on these recognitions. Now, the Omaha community, and the country, will always know of French’s courage and selflessness in saving 15 of his fellow countrymen.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.