‘The Human Tugboat’: This Sailor Pulled a Life Raft Through Shark-Infested Waters To Save His Shipmates

July 16, 2021Matt Fratus
A painting in the International Swimming Hall of Fame commemorates Charles Jackson French’s “human tugboat” swim. French received no medal for his actions that saved 15 shipmates. Image courtesy of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

A painting in the International Swimming Hall of Fame commemorates Charles Jackson French’s “human tugboat” swim. French received no medal for his actions that saved 15 shipmates. Image courtesy of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

When three Japanese destroyers attacked the USS Gregory as it sailed off the coast of the Solomon Islands in September 1942, a Black cook from the ship plunged into shark-infested waters and — with a rope tied around his waist — swam for eight hours, dragging a lifeboat full of injured shipmates away from Japanese territory.

It was an act of bravery for which his shipmates thought Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Jackson French deserved the Medal of Honor.

Instead, the Navy sent him a nice letter.

While newspapers and comic books of the time wrote of French’s extraordinary bravery and heroism, his story as the “one-man human tugboat” has largely been forgotten.

Among those who never forgot were his white shipmates. Ensign Robert Adrian, a white graduate of the US Naval Academy and veteran of the Guadalcanal-Tulagi landings, was among the first to come forward to share how French risked his life for his fellow wounded shipmates.

Charles Jackson French human tugboat coffee or die
The US Navy high-speed transport USS Gregory (APD-3) in port in 1942. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It was a nearly moonless night on Sept. 4, 1942, and the Gregory had just delivered a Marine Raider Battalion at Salvo Island. Flanked by its sister transport ship, the USS Little, the Gregory chose to stay on patrol, a decision that avoided crossing the dangerous channel infamously known as Iron Bottom Sound for the number of American battleships sunk there. While returning to its anchorage at Tulagi, disaster struck the Gregory. A passing US Navy aircraft spotted naval gunfire and, possibly assuming it was from a Japanese submarine, dropped flares nearly on top of the two US Navy transport boats. Silhouetted against the dark sky, the Gregory and the Little immediately came under attack.

A deafening explosion rocked the Gregory, killing everyone on the bridge except Adrian. The young officer waded into the ocean as his ship began to sink. Adrian found a life raft filled with between 15 and 24 wounded sailors and scrambled aboard. Their raft began to drift toward shore — shore then under the control of the Japanese. All sailors had heard stories of the fate of those captured by the Japanese: certain torture as a prisoner of war, or death. That’s when French, a 22-year-old mess attendant, volunteered to tow the life raft back out to sea.  

During World War II, Black and Filipino servicemen were not offered the same jobs as white servicemen, unless they were separated into segregated units. French was one of six Black cooks on the Gregory. Unlike most sailors, he was actually in his second enlistment. He had been in the Navy as a cook prior to WWII and had reenlisted when war broke out.

From the lifeboat, he plunged into the water and started to swim away from shore. He ultimately swam for six to eight hours.

And then came the sharks.

Charles Jackson French human tugboat coffee or die
A 1943 “True Comics” depiction of French’s heroism following his ship sinking near Guadalcanal. Image courtesy of Bruce Wigo/Swimming National Hall of Fame.

“I just keep paddling,” French reportedly told author Charles Wright in the book Black Men and Blue Water in an interview after the Korean War. “I nearly peed on myself when one of them sharks touched my feet. I just froze and tried to surface and float, get my feet outta the water. They was a whole lot of other folks in the water, some of em hurt pretty bad.”

French, a native of Foreman, Arkansas, had learned to swim at 8 and had been swimming ever since. One of French’s relatives told a TV station this year that, “I suspect that’s where Jackson learned how to swim, was in the bayou with all the water moccasin.”

Eventually, French and the boat neared Guadalcanal, where a US ship picked them up. The wounded were whisked away, while French was reportedly told to “go over there where the colored boys stay.” His shipmates wouldn’t allow it.

“He is a member of the Gregory’s crew and he damned well will stay right here with the rest of us,” French said one of his shipmates ordered. “Anybody who tries to take him anywhere had [better] be ready to go to ‘general quarters’ with all of us.”

Charles Jackson French human tugboat coffee or die
Charles Jackson French with his sister, Viola, at a Creighton University football game, Oct. 31, 1942, where he was honored. Screenshot courtesy of The Omaha World-Herald/YouTube.

“So for near on to five minutes there be a standoff, us covered with oil and grime in our hair and all over our clothes, in our eyes, and them clean master at arms folks,” French told Wright. “We musta looked like wildmen.”

He was left alone and ultimately returned to his sister Viola’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, to a hero’s welcome. He appeared before crowds cheering his heroism, and he was named “Hero of the Year” by the Chicago Defender.

While shipmates believed he deserved the Medal of Honor or, at the very least, a Silver Star (the award that the Gregory’s commanding officer received after the attack), the Navy’s sole acknowledgment of French’s actions came in the form of a letter from Adm. William F. Halsey Jr., then the commander of the Southern Pacific Fleet, which understated French’s actions on several points, including putting the length of his swim at two hours rather than the six to eight his shipmates testified to.

French’s story reemerged in the public earlier this year when he was honored by US Swimming officials before the finals of the US Olympic Swim Trials. The International Swimming Hall of Fame has a section dedicated to French, including a commissioned portrait of his swim.

After the war, French struggled with alcoholism, and in 1956, he died in San Diego at the age of 37. On June 25, 2021, US Rep. Don Bacon, representing Nebraska’s 2nd District, submitted legislation to name Benson Post Office in French’s honor.

Read Next: Even CIA-Trained Spy-Plane Pilots Were Afraid of Sharks

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Military Moves To Cut Suicides, But Defers Action on Guns

In a memo released Thursday, Austin called for the establishment of a suicide prevention working gro...

March 17, 2023Associated Press
us military drills japan-south korea
US, Partners Stage Military Drills Amid Japan-South Korea Talks

The Sea Dragon 23 exercises that started on Wednesday will culminate in more than 270 hours of in-fl...

March 17, 2023Associated Press
leo jenkins a word like god
‘A Word Like God’: New Book From Army Ranger Leo Jenkins

In his latest poetry collection, Ranger-turned-writer Leo Jenkins turns away from war to explore cosmic themes of faith, fatherhood, and art.

March 16, 2023Mac Caltrider
us drone
Pentagon Video Shows Russian Jet Dumping Fuel on US Drone

The Pentagon on Thursday released video of what it said was a Russian fighter jet dumping fuel on a ...

March 16, 2023Associated Press
10th Mountain Division
‘Climb to Glory’ — A History of the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division

From the mountains of Italy to the mountains of Afghanistan, the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division built its legendary reputation by fighting in some of the most inhospitable places in the world.

March 16, 2023Matt Fratus
iraq invasion 20 years later
Why US Troops Remain in Iraq 20 Years After 'Shock and Awe'

The roughly 2,500 U.S. troops are scattered around the country, largely in military installations in Baghdad and in the north.

March 15, 2023Associated Press
Ohio train derailment
First Responders
BRCC Donates Coffee to Towns Ravaged by Train Wreck and Historic Storms

Americans living in East Palestine, Ohio, and central Oklahoma are recovering from February disaster...

March 15, 2023Jenna Biter
Coffee Or Die Photo
DOD Official Says Sub Agreement Will Help Guarantee Free, Open Indo-Pacific

Mara E. Karlin, performing the duties of deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said the agree...

  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
  • Request a Correction
  • Write for Us
  • General Inquiries
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved