Not many people can say they have swam for 6-8 hours straight while tugging a raft full of 24 wounded men away from Japanese capture and through shark infested waters to safety, but Charles Jackson French can.
Arkansas born, African American, Petty Officer First Class, Charles Jackson French didn't imagine he would be completing such a feat at just the age of 23 years-old. French had enlisted in the Navy in 1937 and served as a seaman aboard the USS Gregory during WWII. When the USS Gregory was destroyed in battle, 25 surviving seamen piled into a raft but noticed they were floating toward Japanese land, where they could potentially be taken as prisoners and possibly killed.
French bravely volunteered to swim the raft away from the shore believing he was a strong enough swimmer to battle through the treacherous waters.
Unfortunately, French's extremely selfless act did not receive its deserved respect and appraisal. Once French had swam until he saw another Naval vessel he was treated with appalling disrespect from white seamen aboard the vessel who ignored his remarkable heroism. Several years later, when the Navy finally decided to recognize French, they merely sent him a letter of commendation that down played the actual courageousness of French.
Charles Jackson French may be one the strongest open water swimmers of all time yet his story is continually left out of Navy, swimming, and even American history. To read more on Charles Jackson French check out The Story of Charles Jackson French by Bruce Wigo and additional history of African Americans and swimming check out Black Splash: The History of African American Swimmers by Lee Pitts
-photo credit: Bruce Wigo, President/CEO of International Swimming Hall of Fame