Biden signs bill renaming Omaha post office after Black WWII hero

President Joe Biden signed a bill Wednesday to rename the Benson post office after an Omaha sailor who saved more than a dozen shipmates while serving in World War II.

The legislation, which designates the U.S. Postal Service facility at 6223 Maple St. the Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Jackson French Post Office, was one of two bills Biden signed Wednesday, according to the White House.

French, a Black man who enlisted in the still-segregated Navy as a mess attendant, was hailed as “the hero of the Solomon Islands” after the sinking of his ship, the USS Gregory, on Sept. 5, 1942, near Guadalcanal. He was credited with swimming for several hours through shark-infested waters while towing a lifeboat filled with 15 wounded shipmates, all of whom were White, until they could be rescued.

French was born in Arkansas but moved to Omaha as a youth to live with an older sister after his parents died.

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He stayed in the military until the end of the war, then took a civilian job with the Navy in San Diego. He died in 1956, at age 37, of depression and alcoholism from untreated post-traumatic stress, according to family members.

Though he was recognized at the time, French’s story was largely forgotten until Bruce Wigo, a former director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, unearthed it several years ago. It was amplified on social media in spring 2021, prompting USA Swimming to honor him during the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha last June.

Rep. Don Bacon, who introduced the bill to name the Omaha post office, said the designation would help preserve French’s legacy and give “Nebraskans and other Americans the opportunity to remember his heroic actions.”

“Despite the segregation at the time, he went above and beyond to answer the call of duty by saving his fellow sailors,” Bacon said in a statement Wednesday.

The post office designation is the latest honor posthumously awarded to French.

In May, his family was presented with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the service’s highest award for noncombat heroism. The award was presented during a ceremony in San Diego where a pool used for training Navy rescue swimmers was renamed in French’s honor.

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