The year was 1942, the Pacific Theater of World War II raged, and amidst the chaos, a quiet act of heroism unfolded. Charles Jackson French, a U.S. Navy mess attendant aboard the USS Gregory, wasn’t a man seeking glory, but when duty called, he answered with unwavering courage.

French wasn’t on the front lines, his job kept him below decks, serving meals and tending to the needs of his fellow sailors. But when Japanese torpedoes slammed into the Gregory, turning her into a sinking behemoth, French’s true colors shone brighter than any searchlight.

As chaos erupted and men scrambled for life rafts, French, miraculously unscathed, found himself among injured comrades. Ignoring his own safety, he hauled wounded shipmates onto a life raft.

But their respite was short-lived. The raft, caught in the current, drifted perilously close to a Japanese-held island. The threat of capture, torture, or worse loomed large. Panic threatened to engulf the injured men, but French, ever calm and collected, devised a daring plan.

He secured a rope, one end tied to the raft, the other around his waist. With a strength born of desperation and selfless determination, French plunged into the dark, shark-infested waters. With powerful strokes, he towed the raft, his wounded comrades clinging to hope with each meter gained.”Just keep telling me if I’m goin’ the right way,” he reportedly said to the men on the raft.

Hours stretched into an agonizing night. Enemy searchlights scanned the dark sea, tracer bullets painting fiery streaks across the sky. Exhaustion gnawed at French, the rope biting into his flesh, but the thought of his shipmates spurred him on. He swam, hour after hour, a lone human tugboat pulling his fragile cargo away from danger.

At sunrise, a miracle appeared on the horizon: a scouting plane. French’s desperate signal caught the pilot’s eye, and soon, a Marine landing craft materialized, rescuing the exhausted but grateful survivors.

French, the unassuming mess attendant, had single-handedly saved 15 lives that night. His bravery earned him a letter of commendation, but for years, his story remained largely untold. Only recently has his heroism received the recognition it deserves, a testament to the quiet courage that can reside in the most unexpected places. In 2022, French was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. Last month the Navy announced that it will name its newest Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer for World War II hero Charles Jackson French.

Photo: military.com