Senate passes bill naming Benson post office after Nebraska WWII hero

Charles Jackson French saved 15 sailors after Japanese attack on their ship

By: - May 26, 2022 6:30 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.)

OMAHA — Nearly 80 years after Charles Jackson French saved 15 fellow sailors’ lives, the U.S. Senate voted Thursday to put his name on a local post office.

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

President Joe Biden has 10 days to sign the bill.

Japanese forces had just attacked the USS Gregory on Sept. 5, 1942. The ship was sinking, and 15 injured sailors were stranded. Petty Officer 1st Class French tied on a rope, jumped into the ocean and swam their boat to safety, through shark-infested waters.  

French’s nephew, Roscoe Harris, has said the family wants people to see the value of sacrifice and to understand that French’s story is “an American story.”

French’s story matters to many 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.

The Navy also limited the assignments Black sailors were given. French was a mess attendant, working in the ship’s galley, or kitchen.  A Navy training pool in San Diego also bears French’s name.

The Benson post office branch at 63rd and Maple Streets will be named after Navy World War II hero Charles Jackson French.  (Cate Folsom/Nebraska Examiner)

Soon, his name will live on at the Benson post office, too. Another of French’s nephews, Chester French, said the new honor will show young people in Omaha’s African American community that heroes have looked like them for years.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., led the Senate effort to rename the post office. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., led the House bill. Both said Thursday that French’s service deserved to be honored.

“It’s wonderful news that legislation to recognize Charles Jackson French’s incredible heroism is headed to the president’s desk,” Fischer said, after the vote by unanimous consent. 

Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, said people will see French’s name on the building in Benson, think of a favored son of Omaha and “remember his bravery.”

He said, “We get to finally recognize in a formal way a WWII African American hero who was raised in the Jim Crow era but rose above it and saved 15 of his fellow sailors.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our website. AP and Getty images may not be republished. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of any other photos and graphics.

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.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.