Why is it, on occasion, that the most remarkable people are the ones we so easily forget with the passing of time? Such is the case of Dr. Sumner Waldron Jackson, his wife, Toquette, and their only son, Phillip.
Sumner’s tale began on a boat to France in June, 1916, volunteering with a number of Americans to join Britain’s Royal Medical Corps as a field surgeon and medical officer, fresh out of Massachusetts General Hospital, with a team known as the “Harvard Group.” Operating out of the British General Hospital No. 22 at Dannes-Camiers, in the Pas de Calais, just north of the Somme on the English Channel, Sumner and his colleagues devised cutting-edge techniques to cope with the acute needs of the severely wounded. As America entered the war, they enlisted Dr. Jackson as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps at the Red Cross Hospital No. 2 on Rue Piccini in Paris’ 16eme arrondissement. He ultimately met his wife, Charlotte “Toquette” Slyvie Barrelet de Ricou, a nurse at the time, in that very hospital on Rue Piccini, where they served together day after day.
After the war and a failed attempt to readjust stateside, the Jacksons moved back to Paris, and Sumner began work as a genitourinary specialist at the American Hospital of Paris, and providing care for the Lost Generation; expats including the likes of Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds, Ernest Hemingway, and e.e. cummings. This was a prosperous time for the Jackson family, although it would not last long as the Great Depression paved the way for World War 2 and the German occupation of Paris. While nearly all expats left, Sumner and his family stayed put, defiant in the face of Parisian bastardization.
Sumner and his family began acting as Goélette agents for the French Resistance, and their apartment on Avenue Foch in Paris became a secret rendevous-point for the many comings and goings of the other Goélette agents. The Jacksons even enlisted their 14-year old son, Philip, to smuggle a camera to the city of Saint-Nazaire and gather photographic intelligence on German activities and installations. All the while, Dr. Jackson was secretly taking in downed, Allied fighter pilots into the American Hospital in Paris. Once there, he would coordinate with other Resistance agents and transport them back to England via a secret route to the spanish coast, with Toquette actively participating through her work at Avenue Foch.
While doing a great service, they paid dearly. Having been betrayed by an unknown source, in 1944 Sumner and Philip were transported to Neuengamme, while Toquette was taken to Ravensbrück, both brutal concentration camps. Ultimately Toquette was released after the war, while Sumner and Philip shared a different fate. As Allied forces approached Neuengamme in April 1945, Heinrich Himmler issued orders to evacuate the concentration camps, not wanting the prisoners to fall into enemy hands alive. Thus thousands of prisoners, including Philip and Sumner, were taken to the port city of Lübeck, to be forced into SS prison ships and sent to Sweden, where it was revealed, that they intended on killing them all by sinking the ships if not other despicable means. Unbeknownst to the SS, the British Royal Air Force was planning an assault on what they believed to be fleeing Nazi transporters, not wartime prisoners.
Chaos ensued as the RAF’s 198 Squadron descended upon the transporters, most notably Sumner and Philip’s ship, the Thielbek, into which the flying aces fired off multiple rockets, tearing the hull apart like a pellet gun to a piece of paper. Philip was able to swim to shore. Sumner, unfortunately, was not. He died as he lived, serving others first.
Dr. Sumner Waldron Jackson was a loving husband, father, resistance fighter, physician, man, and hero. His mode of aide will not be forgotten, nor will the heroic deeds done by Toquette and Philip. He embodies what Medecin Sans Frontiere (Doctors Without Borders) calls Temoignage, or “bearing witness.” The community of the world were his patients, and he acted bravely and accordingly to better the lives of all those around him, his way. This retelling was in no way comprehensive, and I highly recommend reading the book, Doctor to the Resistance, by Hal Vaughan. In parting, I’d like to share what a young English girl, rescued from an internment camp, and being treated at the hospital posted on the bulletin on Bastille day in honor of Dr. Jackson:
Portrait of an American:
We all agree he’s a perfect dear
Altho at times he inspires fear
And we quake in our beds when he draws near
Oh, so severe!
But those eyes so stern and steel blue
Can gleam with humour and laughter, too
And life takes on a brighter hue
When he smiles at you
What he says goes and there’s no appeal
Against a will as strong as steel
So you may as well just come to heel
However you feel.
From prison camp we drifted here
And he cured our bodies and calmed our fear
So let’s give him a rousing heer
For he’s rather a dear.
Photos courtesy of http://www.ourstory.info, http://www.histomil.com, iwka.wordpress.com, and http://www.wrecksite.eu, respectively. Story courtesy of the book, Doctor To the Resistance, by Hal Vaughan.