Doctor to the Resistance

We lived in the shadows as soldiers of the night, but our lives were not dark and martial. . . There were arrests, torture, and death for so many of our friends and comrades, and tragedy awaited all of us just around the corner. But we did not live in or with tragedy. We were exhilarated by the challenge and rightness of our cause. It was in many ways the worst of times and in just as many ways the best of times, and the best is what we remember today. Jean-Pierre Levy

Few Americans participated in the French Resistance, a movement that will always represent in my mind the epitome of moral courage. I wrote about one here. Although I imagine there were others, the only one I am aware of is Dr. Sumner Jackson. These are individuals we don’t want to forget.

Jackson’s various roles in the Resistance are described in Hal Vaughan’s Doctor to the Resistance: The Heroic True Story of an American Surgeon and His Family in Occupied Paris. Sumner Jackson graduated from the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1919 and soon thereafter joined the British Royal Medical Corp as a field surgeon during the First World War. Once America entered the war, he was enlisted by the U.S. Army Medical Corp to serve at the Red Cross Hospital in Paris. It was there that he met his wife, Toquette, a French citizen who was a nurse at the hospital then.

After the war, the couple returned to his home in Maine. But they found it difficult to adjust to life there and moved back to Paris. Jackson worked at the American Hospital in Paris, where he remained until the Germans captured him in 1944.

The Jacksons began acting as Resistance agents in 1940, soon after the Germans occupied Paris. At one point they even asked their 14 year-old son, Phillip, to gather photographic intelligence of German submarine and ship building installations around the port of Saint-Nazaire. However, most of their activities took place at the American Hospital and their home on Avenue Foch, not far from the hospital.

They used their home as a shelter for downed Allied pilots who they helped to escape back to England via the various secret routes to the Spanish coast, to hide French militants wanted by the Nazis, and to relay encrypted messages to members of the Resistance. At the hospital Jackson also treated and provided care for injured pilots, French citizens on the run from the Nazis, and members of the Resistance itself.

All the while they were trying to survive through bitter winters with scarcely any heating fuel and with limited food and medical supplies for themselves, the staff and patients at the hospital.

In 1944 the Jackson’s housemaid found anti-Nazi notes in Phillip’s clothes while doing the laundry. Soon after, the Gestapo detained the three members of the Jackson family and transported them to work camps, where most prisoners either died of beatings, starvation, or exhaustion.

Toquette was send to Ravensbruck and somehow managed to survive the war. Jackson and Philip were sent to Neuengamme. As the Americans approached the camp, the prisoners were taken to the port of Jubeck and forced into a prison ship. In an aerial attack on the German ships as they leaving the port on their way to Sweden, Jackson and Philip’s ship was bombed and quickly sunk. Jackson drowned while ministering to the injured, while Philip was able to swim back to shore.

By participating in the French Resistance Dr. Jackson, Phillip and Toquette joined with “Thousands of French patriots…who, under circumstances that none had foreseen, began to do things they never would have imagined possible. … They simply refused, at risk of their lives, to accept dishonor and degradation of human values.”