Sasse sends 11th-hour letter to get WWII hero French into post office bill

By: - March 21, 2022 6:05 pm

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)

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

OMAHA — U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse’s office said Monday that the effort by Nebraska congressional colleagues to rename the Benson branch post office after a Navy World War II hero with Omaha ties now has what it needs to advance.

Sasse spokesman Taylor Sliva confirmed that Sasse wrote a letter of support Monday to the Senate Homeland Security and General Affairs Committee, which handles post office naming bills.

“Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Jackson French is an American hero,” Sasse wrote. “Should the Committee consider and favorably report H.R. 4168, I intend to support it if it is presented to the full Senate, including by supporting unanimous consent requests to expedite its consideration as needed.”

Sasse’s letter was the last step to including Omaha Navy veteran Charles Jackson French in the bill naming post offices. The rest of the delegation co-sponsored the Senate and House bills in mid-2021. As recently as Sunday, Sasse had not signed on as a sponsor or sent a letter

French saved the lives of 15 sailors after Japanese forces sank their ship in 1942. Chester French, Charles’ nephew, said Monday he wanted to steer clear of politics and said he was glad Sasse wrote.

“I guess his heart was touched,” French said.

Family members, including Roscoe Harris, another of Charles French’s nephews, have said the post office naming bill was important because it told an American story about the value of sacrifice.

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.)

French’s story 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 service members, military experts said.

The Navy also limited the types of assignments given to Black sailors. French was a mess attendant in the galley, or kitchen, of the USS Gregory when it sank on Sept. 5, 1942.

Staff members for the Homeland Security and General Affairs Committee said Friday that postal renaming bills require support from both senators in a state to be considered, either as a co-sponsor of the bill or by sending a letter of support.

This is the letter of support for Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Jackson French that Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., wrote the Senate Homeland Security and General Affairs Committee. The committee handles post office naming bills.

Sasse’s staff said he had campaigned on not sponsoring bills to rename post offices. But this weekend Sasse did not completely close the door on the possibility of writing a letter. 

Sasse did co-sponsor a 2020 bill to rename a street near the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., after a Chinese man who tried to tell the world more about COVID-19.

Post office renaming bills rarely need more than a perfunctory voice vote once they clear the committee. Staff expect the bill to clear the committee this week and get a floor vote soon.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., led the Senate effort to get French’s name included in the bill. She had encouraged Sasse to join other members of the Nebraska congressional delegation in honoring French’s service and his family’s wishes. Her office had no immediate comment on Sasse’s decision to send a  letter.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., the initial sponsor of the House bill and a retired Air Force brigadier general, said he appreciated Fischer’s work and Sasse’s willingness to write the letter.

“I know the French family is thankful, and I believe the heroism of Petty Officer French is now part of Omaha’s legacy with this naming of the Benson Post Office,” Bacon said.

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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.