Sasse has Tuesday deadline to get post office named for Omaha WWII hero

Charles Jackson French saved the lives of 15 sailors in 1942

By: - March 20, 2022 6:03 pm

This is a painting commissioned for the International Swimming Hall of Fame Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It shows Charles Jackson French swimming injured sailors to safety after their ship sunk in World War II. (Courtesy of International Swimming Hall of Fame.)

The Baltimore Afro-American newspaper honored French with this photograph and story in November 1942. (Courtesy of Bruce Wigo)

OMAHA — The last hurdle preventing the naming of the Benson branch post office for World War II hero Charles Jackson French is a signature from U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.

The rest of Nebraska’s congressional delegation have been involved in a months-long effort to honor French, who lived in Omaha when he enlisted. The Senate Homeland Security and General Affairs Committee, however, won’t consider such proposals unless both senators from the state involved co-sponsor a bill or send a letter of support, a committee staff member confirmed Friday. 

But Sasse is holding to his long-held position of not sponsoring bills to rename post offices. The deadline is noon Tuesday to add the Benson post office renaming into the current bill, the Nebraska Examiner has learned. 

After the Japanese sank the USS Gregory on Sept. 5, 1942, Petty Officer 1st Class French jumped into the water, tied on a rope and started swimming, pulling a boat of 15 injured sailors to safety.

French’s nephew, Roscoe Harris, who’s nearly 90, said the current effort isn’t about a putting a Black man’s name on a post office, but about making sure people see and hear about the value of sacrifice. 

“This isn’t about white America or black America,” Harris said late last week. “It’s about America. This isn’t about my family. It’s about telling an American story. 

“The story should matter because he cared about his fellow sailors. He cared about them when the Navy was segregated. He saved those white sailors because they needed saving.”

A drawing for the Office for Emergency Management and Office of War Information shares the stories of American war heroes, including Charles Jackson French, who lived in Omaha when he joined the Navy. (National Archives)

French’s story particularly resonates because the Navy in those days didn’t recognize heroism by Black service members in the same way it did heroic acts by white sailors, military experts say.

The Navy limited the types of assignments Black sailors could do. French was a mess attendant, working in the ship’s kitchen or galley.

After his actions that day in 1942, his commander recommended him for the Navy Cross. The Navy instead gave him a less prestigious letter of commendation. 

His story has received more recognition in recent years thanks to Bruce Wigo of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. 

Wigo’s work to recognize an African-American swimmer’s heroics are a big reason why the Navy this year renamed one of its key training pools at Naval Station San Diego after French.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said she wants the delegation unified behind the post office bill. 

“It’s important to the family,” Fischer said. “It’s important to the Omaha community. I would encourage Senator Sasse to send a letter to the committee.” 

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a retired Air Force brigadier general and the only member of Nebraska’s delegation who served in the military, introduced the House version of the bill. Reps. Jeff Fortenberry and Adrian Smith joined as original co-sponsors.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., during a hearing in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. (Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)

“I’m hoping Ben will decide to support,” Bacon told the Examiner. “It is right for Omaha and the French family. It is important to remember our legacy and honor our heroes.”

Sasse, through a spokesman, said he, like others in the Nebraska delegation, asked Navy leadership to review French’s Navy file to ensure that he was given “appropriate honors.”

But spokesman Taylor Sliva said Sasse has no plans to sign onto the bill. 

“No, he won’t be co-sponsoring,” Sliva said in a text. “When he ran (and many times since) he said he wouldn’t be on post office naming bills. He wants to keep that promise to Nebraskans (but he certainly won’t be blocking anything).”

Sasse’s office has pointed to 2016, when then-Rep. Brad Ashford of Omaha brought a similar bill to rename an Omaha post office after Caleb Nelson, a Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan.

That year, the Republican-led Senate allowed the bill to get a floor vote under a procedure that suspended the rules. 

Under Democratic control, the Senate has largely stuck to a committee rule that requires support from both senators from a state to get a post office name to the Senate floor.

Nebraska’s congressional delegation is trying to get the Benson post office branch at 63rd and Maple Streets named at Navy World War II hero Charles Jackson French. They need a signature or letter from Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. (Cate Folsom/Nebraska Examiner)

Senate staffers acknowledged the bill could be pulled onto the floor using Rule 14, similar to what happened in 2016, but they said that is rarely done for post office bills.

Chester French, 82, another of Charles’ nephews, said he doesn’t want to get political, and neither does the rest of the French family. But the family would like Sasse to reconsider.

“What it would do is, it would show that a person of color, what he achieved, it’s on the post office building,” Chester French said. “It would be something where if young adults, old adults might be within the Benson area, if they knew a little about the history of him, they would think that this would be quite an achievement.

“I would tell him to go along with the rest of the delegation.”

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.