An American Doctor’s Quiet Fight in Occupied Paris

Surgeon Sumner Jackson with his son, Phillip, in Paris in the 1930s.
Surgeon Sumner Jackson with his son, Phillip, in Paris in the 1930s.
The war ended five days too late for Sumner Jackson.

Since his arrest in Paris along with his wife and teenage son nearly a year earlier, Jackson had survived beatings, starvation, and forced labor in Gestapo and SS prisons in France and Germany. Transferred to a concentration camp for political prisoners at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, he had to work 14 hours a day at a forge in the Walther small arms factory. Jackson endured it all, recalled a fellow prisoner, with a stoicism and dignity that seemed to emanate from sheer force of character.

Six-foot-one, with heavy dark eyebrows and outsized features, he looked more like a nightclub bouncer in a 1930s gangster movie than the chief surgeon of the American Hospital of Paris that he had been. When Jackson’s finger became seriously infected he had another prisoner amputate it, and kept working.

On April 21, 1945, the British Army finally reached the outskirts of town. The SS crowded 9,000 of the still barely surviving prisoners, Jackson and his son among them, on freight cars and shipped them to the port of Lübeck where they were put aboard ships. The remaining 3,000 prisoners in the camp were murdered. And then on May 3, not knowing that the two German ships standing out in the harbor were crammed with prisoners, British aircraft attacked them with bombs and rockets when they defied orders to return to shore. Seventeen-year-old Phillip Jackson managed to reach a lifeboat but was thrown overboard by the German crewmen. A few hundred prisoners who swam to shore were shot by the SS. Only 600 in all survived, Phillip among them. Sumner Jackson’s body was never recovered. On May 8 Germany surrendered.

In the coming months the full story of Sumner Jackson came to be known, and the amazing thing was that he had survived as long as he had. Through four years of German occupation he had not just managed to keep the American Hospital operating and caring for the Germans’ enemies; taking an almost unfathomable risk, he had brazenly forged patient records to ensure that a steady stream of American and British fliers evaded capture after being shot down over France.

It was all the more remarkable because he literally did it under the noses of the Germans, whose Paris headquarters were directly opposite the hospital’s gates.

Jackson had long been a fixture in the American community in Paris when the war broke out, and his experiences in the First World War had shown him to be a man of rock-steady nerves and determination. Born in Maine, he had volunteered in 1916 to join the British Army in France as a field surgeon and arrived just in time to be plunged into the horrors of the Second Battle of the Somme. He married a French woman but they both felt out of place on his return to America after the war. When he inquired about a job at the American Hospital he was told he would have to obtain not only a French medical degree but a French high school diploma; he promptly set sail for France and the four years of study required to satisfy the French bureaucracy. As a staff surgeon at the hospital in the interwar years he treated such well known American expats as Ernest Hemmingway, Gertrude Stein, e. e. cummings, and Zelda Fitzgerald.

As Charles Glass relates in his new book Americans in Paris, the Germans were willing to let the hospital remain open in part because it saved them the cost of treating ill and wounded Allied POWs themselves. And so Jackson was also able to spirit out a number of American, French, and British prisoners by falsifying records to show they had died; in fact they were on their way to England with the help of the Resistance, via the Pyrenees, Spain, and Lisbon.

In Neuengamme, recalled a fellow prisoner who befriended him, Jackson spoke little, never explaining why he had been arrested; determined to the last that nothing he might say would endanger those he had quietly risked his life for so many times already.
 

23 Responses

  1. sorel

    Qu’est devenu Phillip JACKSON,fils du docteur Sumner Waldron Jackson,qui a survecu a la destruction du bateau allemand parti de Lubeck debut 1945 sur lequel se trouvait aussi son pere. Le garcon,age de 17 ans,a retrouve sa mere,”Toquette” revenue de Ravensbruck.

    APPROXIMATE TRANSLATION:
    He became Phillip JACKSON, son of Doctor Sumner Waldron Jackson, which survived the destruction of the German boat started from Lubeck at the beginning of 1945 on which also his/her father was. 17 years the boy, old, has finds his mother, ” Toquette” returned of Ravensbruck.

    Reply
    • Loraine Riemer

      I am the daughter of Phillip Jackson. He still lives in Paris. Unfortunately my grandfather was not awarded the Medal of Freedom, even though I found an un-dated Citation for it. I live in Boston MA, feel free to contact me

      Reply
      • Terren M. Himelfarb MD

        Your grandfather was and remains a fascinating individual. He finished Thomas Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia and I completed my fellowship there in urology. The book indicates he was a genito-urinary surgeon. My daughter lived in the 6th arrondissement in Paris and in Boston, Ma. while in school. What a small world!

      • Parker Jamison

        Very unfortunately! I’m working on a project right now about the Resistance, a large part of which was inspired by your grandfather’s story. As the granddaughter of an American doctor who worked overseas, I felt a kindred appreciation for what Dr. Jackson did. I’m from Boston as well, and would love to connect with you somehow to learn anything more you might be able to share with me about his experiences.

      • Bill Murray

        Dear Loraine,
        I just finished the well researched book, Americans in Paris by Charles Glass. Your grandfather and father both should receive more recognition by Americans, at least, the Medal of Freedom. Unfortunately, as every day passes, more and more of the WWII generation are passing away and into history. It’s time to teach the current generation about the heroes of that era, time and place. Americans should be inspired to tell this story in TV movie or at least, documentary. .I will visit the American Hospital in Paris the next time I’m there and pay homage to your grandfather’s memory. He was simply a hero of our nation and his profession! It’s time contact your congressional delegates in this matter.
        Best regards,
        Bill Murray
        Las Vegas, NV

      • Patrick Loomer

        Dear Loraine,

        I came across your father and grandfather’s story while researching the sinking of the SS Thielbek by the RAF on May 3rd 1945. I found both them to be fascinating and inspiring, and I do hope that your father is alive and well.Is there any way I could contact you directly to discuss them further?
        I realize that it’s been a year since you posted, but I am EXTREMELY interested in talking with you about your father and grandfather.
        Best Wishes,

        Patrick Loomer

      • Henry Post

        Dear Ms Riemer,

        So thrilled to see your note of 11/7/12 on the Historynet.com site. Not sure how I got to the site but have been reading Americans in Paris by Charles Glass and your grandfather has become one of my heroes. Perhaps eternal life is what each of our forefathers left us in experiences that we can learn from and pass to our grandchildren.

        My wife, Suzy and I have been on an extended trip to Paris, the South and Venice celebrating our fortunate 55 years of marriage. Each year is greater and especially meeting folk like your Dad’s Father makes it an unusually happy event.

        Thank you for letting us write to you.

        Henry Post, Malibu, California past near 80 years

  2. Richard

    I am a retired history teacher and came across Mr. Glass’s book. I found it fascinating and I am in the deepest respect for Dr. Sumner and the others who so boldly risked their lives to help others.

    I wonder why (if indeed not) he as not won the Medal of Freedom award. I feel that he represented the very best of America and her values. How would I go about suggesting this move?

    Reply
  3. Monica Bove'-Simms

    I am the granddaughter of Charles Frederick Bove’ MD who wrote “A PARIS SURGEONS STORY, but Dr. Bove’ had abandoned his wife and two (2) sons in Baltimore, Maryland when his boys were babies. There was never any contact from him and my family never knew him. After reading Dr. Bove’s book, I have come to the realization that Dr. Bove’ had stolen Dr. Jackson’s story and he claimed it as his own. This is a sad testimony about a man that I share a bloodline with. Yes, the Medal of Freedom award should be given to the Jackson family in honor of a spectacular man! Feel free to contact me, I would love to talk to you Richard! Sincerely, Monica Bove’-Simms

    Reply
    • Loraine Riemer

      I am the daughter of Phillip Jackson. He still lives in Paris. Unfortunately my grandfather was not awarded the Medal of Freedom, even though I found an un-dated Citation for it. I live in Boston MA, feel free to contact me. Do you have a copy of your grandfather’s book??

      Reply
  4. Mel Brotzel

    I just finished the book, Americans in Paris, what a brave, unbelievably brave family, they should all have been awarded Medal of Freedom.

    Reply
  5. Hal W. Vaughan

    I am amazed and disappointed you make no mention of my book, Doctor To The Resistance. It is the complete story of Dr. Jackson and his family published at least a year before the Glass book.
    Hal W. Vaughan
    Author

    Reply
  6. France Bertram

    Dear Ms. Riemer,
    My name is France Bertram (nee Dixon). I am the granddaughter of Lucienne Dixon (Jeff). She was with the CND. She was in Ravensbruck with Charlotte Jackson. I had posted on the Free French website about my grandmother. A Swedish journalist contacted me and let me know about a documentary of the journey from Ravensbruck to Malmo, Sweden. I was sent a still of the documentary to identify as my grandmother. She is standing next to Charlotte Jackson throughout the film. I guess they were friends.

    This is the website to the documentary Harbour of Hope.
    http://www.autoimages.se
    Please contact me. I would love to hear from you.
    Cordially,
    France

    Reply
    • Loraine Riemer

      France,
      How can I get in touch with you directly? I would love to see that picture, and/or movie. I could not locate Charlotte on the trailer..
      Loraine

      Reply
  7. Loraine Riemer

    France,
    How can I get in touch with you directly? I would love to see that picture, and/or movie. I could not locate Charlotte on the trailer..
    Loraine

    Reply
  8. Janet Studer

    Dear Ms. Riemer,
    I have just finished Charles Glass’ book \Americans in Paris.\ When I read about your grandfather’s death, tears came to my eyes. Both he and your father Phillip should absolutely be awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom. I think all of us should contact our Congressional Representatives and request that these awards be made. Perhaps the Congressman/woman who represents the district in Maine where Dr. Jackson was born could sponsor the appropriate official resolution to make this request.

    Reply
  9. Loraine Riemer

    Hi Janet, Thank you for your kind words. The Medal of Freedom is awarded by the President, not the Congress.I have contacted the Senator of Maine, but she sent me to the Massachusetts Senator (my home state), who’s seat has been in flux. It will be a long road, but I am trying to bring them the recognition they deserve. Loraine

    Reply
  10. Janet Studer

    Dear Loraine, So pleased to hear from you. You are correct that the award is given by the President. I researched a few sites online about it. Evidently, the recipient must be a member of the armed forces. Was Dr. Jackson an officer of the U.S. military? I guess there have been exceptions and a few civilian awards have been given, but these appear to be a rare events and may or may not be allowed anymore — I don’t know. You said you found a Citation for the medal for Dr. Jackson. Do you know the significance of this Citation?
    The highest honor I could find for civilian service is the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Could this be an avenue to pursue? I believe your grandmother should be recgonized as well.

    Reply
  11. Patrick Loomer

    Dear Loraine,
    With regard to my request to contact you directly, I can be reached via email at patrick@loomer.fsworld.co.uk
    I would be incredibly grateful if you would consider contacting me.
    Many thanks in advance,

    Patrick Loomer

    Reply
  12. Loraine Riemer

    Patrick,
    My father is alive and well. There has been a lot of renewed interest in his story in recent months, and my grandfather was posthumously honored by the American Hospital in Paris, where he was chief of staff, with the creation of a \Jackson Award\. During your research on the sinking of the SS Thielbek, have you come across the History Channel \Typhoons’ last storm\? my father is one of the surviving interviewees.
    Feel free to contact me at loraineriemer@gmail.com, i look forward to chatting with you.

    Reply
  13. Patrick Loomer

    Hi Loraine,

    I wrote to you at your gmail address a couple of weeks ago, but haven’t received a reply. Please could confirm that you got my email? I am very eager to chat with you about your father and grandfather. my email is patrick@loomer.fsworld.co.uk so that’s where my email to you would have come from. Perhaps it’s in your junkmail?
    Many thanks,

    Patrick

    Reply
  14. Henry Post

    PS if your Father is interested and willing, it would be an honor for my wife and me to meet him. We are renting an apartment on Quai d’Anjou in Paris from 1 October until 15 October when we fly home to Los Angeles. We have six children; 20 grandchildren and a few greats. We are retired hotel owners. Henry Post My email is ABDIJHOEK@gmail.com; my phone in Paris is USA 011-406-539-7204. If he would simply be willing to receive a letter from me when we are home, not quite the thrill but a connection we would value.

    Reply

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