Omaha WWII hero Charles Jackson French to have destroyer named after him

OMAHA — Local World War II hero Charles Jackson French will soon have his name on a naval vessel.

The U.S. Navy announced last week that an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer will be named after French. Construction of the ship is set to begin in 2026, with delivery in 2031.

One of Charles Jackson French’s nephews, Roscoe Harris, speaks to a crowd of more than 50 who gathered to honor the Navy World War II veteran. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Petty Officer 1st Class French dove into shark-infested waters after the USS Gregory was sunk near Guadalcanal Island in September 1942 and saved 15 of his shipmates. He helped gather them on a nearby raft, tied a rope around himself and swam them to safety. 

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro announced the ship-naming honor Jan. 10 for the “Human Tugboat.” French served during an era when the Navy limited the jobs for Black sailors and rarely awarded them the same honors as whites for bravery. 

“Let this ship inspire us to challenge our own limitations and to always — always — answer the call of duty, even when the waters are rough and the path ahead uncertain,” Del Toro said in a statement. The secretary announced the naming during the Surface Navy Association’s annual symposium in Arlington, Virginia.

Effort to raise awareness

In 2021-22, U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb, and Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., worked with historians and family to draw attention to French’s cause. Through their efforts, the Benson Post Office was renamed the Charles Jackson French Post Office in 2022.

U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer and U.S. Rep. Don Bacon speak with family members of Navy World War II veteran Charles Jackson French in Omaha. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

French was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal the same year, and Naval Base San Diego renamed its rescue swimmer training pool after him. Now, a destroyer will bear French’s name. 

Fischer and Bacon have praised French’s heroism and applauded the Navy’s ship-naming decision. Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, said men and women would serve on the ship bearing French’s name “with pride.”

French’s nephew, Roscoe Harris, said in March 2022 that French’s story is “an American story.”

“He cared about his fellow sailors,” Harris said. “He cared about them when the Navy was segregated. He saved those white sailors because they needed saving.”