An American Doctor’s Quiet Fight in Occupied Paris

By Stephen Budiansky
7/30/2010 • Unknown Soldiers

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.

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