On the most dangerous street in Nazi-occupied Paris, an American family risked all.

 

IT HAD BEEN THREE LONG YEARS SINCE THE NAZIS ARRIVED, marching down the Champs-Élysées in their polished jackboots, ripping down Tricolors and replacing them with swastikas, plastering propaganda and decrees everywhere, casting a terrible shadow over the City of Light. They had even banned private ownership of cars, taking the best for themselves. By spring 1943, like so many Parisians, 15-year-old Phillip Jackson had grown to deeply resent the arrogant men in field gray, many of whom gathered in the upscale bars and restaurants in his neighborhood. Each day he walked to school from his home on the ground floor of 11 Avenue Foch, passing grand villas guarded by sinister, black-uniformed sentries. In his pockets he carried pieces of chalk filched from a classroom. When no one was looking, he would scrawl a V for victory sign on a wall—a schoolboy way of defying Hitler.

Phillip had no idea which Germans occupied many of the 19th-century mansions along the wide tree-lined avenue. Had he known his neighbors, he may well have expressed his contempt elsewhere. Avenue Foch, which stretches from the Arc de Triomphe to a large public park, the Bois de Boulogne, was no place for patriotic vandalism. Just a short walk from his home stood Number 84, the imposing headquarters of Gestapo counterintelligence in Paris. There, SS Sturmbannführer Josef Kieffer, the Third Reich’s most effective spy catcher, orchestrated the arrest, interrogation, and execution of the bravest Resistance fighters and most important Allied agents. Nearer the Jacksons’ home, at Number 31, was the headquarters of the SS unit that rounded up and deported French Jews to death camps. Other SS and Gestapo units had also appropriated buildings there. Indeed, Avenue Foch—which Parisians punningly called Avenue Boche— was the epicenter of a vast web of brutal secret police, double agents, collaborators, and informers.

Phillip—an adored and sheltered only child who had grown up spending summers on the beaches of Normandy and the Cote D’Azur, attending the best schools, surrounded by wealth and privilege—knew none of this. Nor did he know that his American father, Sumner Jackson, the chief surgeon at the American Hospital of Paris, had been aiding the Allies almost from the moment Paris had been occupied in June 1940. Maine-born Dr. Jackson, 57, who had once treated Ernest Hemingway, had already risked his life many times. He had helped hide at least one Allied agent and several downed airmen at the hospital, located in the leafy suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, before arranging for them to escape to Spain.

Phillip’s luck finally ran out one day that spring of 1943. While doing the laundry, the family’s maid found a piece of chalk in his pocket. She mentioned the discovery to Phillip’s strong-willed Swiss-born mother, Toquette Jackson, who had worked as a nurse at his father’s side in an operating theater during the First World War. Toquette forbade Phillip, whom she called Pete, from scrawling any more V signs. His father reminded the boy that such graffiti might draw the Germans’ attention to the family and put them in peril.

Several weeks later, Toquette had a surprise visitor. Francis Delouche de Noyelle, 21, son of a close family friend, made an extraordinary revelation. He worked for a Resistance network, Goelette-Frégate, operating out of Vichy France. The network badly needed a Paris base where agents could drop off key intelligence such as maps and photographs. Would the Jackson family allow the use of their home? Dr. Jackson still kept a medical office there, with an entry onto a side street, which made it ideally suited. It was a short walk from the busy Place de l’Étoile, with the Arc de Triomphe at its center. There was also an inescapable irony about plotting the Nazis’ demise right under their noses, on the very avenue where they were best protected.

Toquette and Sumner discussed Noyelle’s request at length and decided to go along with it. In doing so, they knew they were risking not only their lives but also that of their son. But it was a risk they felt duty-bound to take.

Phillip’s parents sat him down and told him of their decision. They did what they could to protect him, but the decision to involve Phillip would haunt both to the end of their lives. For safety’s sake, whenever Goelette-Frégate agents met at 11 Avenue Foch, Toquette and Sumner sent Phillip to the family’s country house at Enghien-les-Bains, 10 miles away. They also tried to shelter their son from awareness of their dealings with other Resistance workers, such as 38-year-old Paul Robert Ostoya Kinderfreund, known to agents as R, who ran the network’s Paris operations. And they did not run a radio from the address. That would be too risky.

But of course it was impossible to hide everything from Phillip. He noticed strangers delivering messages and he soon came to recognize several faces, including Kinderfreund’s. “I understood it was most important to not talk to anyone about it,” Phillip recalled. “Even within the family, as much as possible was to be kept secret from each other. It was safer that way. I didn’t know of course what a terrible price we would all pay.”

ON BASTILLE DAY—JULY 14, 1943—Phillip Jackson bicycled to visit his father at work. He took Avenue Foch to Boulevard Bineau, joining a river of other bicyclists. As usual his father was busy, so Phillip climbed onto the hospital roof, which afforded fantastic views of central Paris and the Eiffel Tower rising above the honey-colored grandeur of the city’s boulevards. But in an instant the tranquility vanished. Sirens sounded. Antiaircraft guns barked. The throbbing roar of aircraft engines grew louder. In awe, Phillip watched a flock of yellow-nosed German fighters attack several American B-17 bombers. Suddenly, a door leading onto the roof flew open.

“Don’t stay here!” Sumner Jackson shouted. “There’s shrapnel falling everywhere.” Phillip shuttled to safety, just missing the sight of a B-17, billowing smoke as it fell to earth.

His father returned to tending several young patients who had been brought to the American Hospital by the Red Cross from German prison camps. One of them, an English girl, had pinned a poem about him on a bulletin board:

From prison camp we drifted here
And he cured our bodies and calmed our fear
So let’s give him a rousing cheer
For he’s rather a dear

Embarrassed, Sumner took it down. The following day, another copy of the poem appeared on the bulletin board.

On his morning rounds later that July, Sumner met a new patient: a tall, swarthy young man dressed in an ill-fitting suit and accompanied by a woman from a nearby Resistance network. She had brought the man—the tail gunner from the fallen B-17, it turned out—to the hospital as a last resort. He needed a safe house; perhaps Dr. Jackson could help out?

Sumner Jackson took the gunner, 19-year-old Joe Manos, to his office. It was a nice place, well furnished, Manos thought; “a citation framed on the wall caught my eye and I believe it was the French Legion of Honor.” A nurse helped the gunner to a ward where, for the first time since parachuting into a beet field, he had a good night’s sleep. A few days later, Manos arrived at 11 Avenue Foch. Phillip was in the country while Manos hid in his home. “I suppose my mother thought that at 15, being with an American gunner was a bit too much for me,” Phillip recalled. “I think my father brought Joe to the apartment on the back of his bike.” Manos stayed until he had papers and a volunteer to guide him out of France and to safety. Several weeks later, Manos crossed into Spain swearing that he would never “complain about anything in the U.S. ever again.”

IN AUGUST 1943, while Joe Manos was savoring freedom in Spain, Phillip Jackson stepped off a train one afternoon in Nantes, near the Atlantic coast. He was to stay in Brittany with old friends for a few weeks. On the sly, Phillip had brought a Kodak Brownie camera. Thankfully, German guards did not ask to search his bags. He was near the Forbidden Zone, which stretched 15 miles inland all along the Atlantic Wall, the coastal defenses Hitler had arrayed from Norway to the Spanish border; possession of a camera there was outlawed.

In Brittany Phillip visited Saint-Nazaire. The port city, which the Allies had bombed repeatedly, was home to 21 U-boat pens. Seizing his chance to be something of a teenage spy, and full of what he would later call “childish foolishness,” Phillip snapped several photographs of bomb damage at the central train station and near the docks. “It was a bit of adventure—boyish bravado.” Several days later he returned to Paris by train. Again, he was not searched. Hoping that some of the photographs might be useful to the Allies, Phillip showed them to Goelette-Frégate’s agent R—Kinderfreund—who duly sent them to London.

By the time Phillip returned to school that fall of 1943, his home had become a critical “drop box” for several Goelette-Frégate agents who had important information—maps and photographs—they wanted to pass on to Allied intelligence. The most effective of these spies was a young Austrian, Erich Posch-Pastor von Camperfeld, codenamed Clayrec. He became an occasional “patient” of Dr. Sumner Jackson, who knew him as Etienne Paul Provost.

From October 1943 until May 1944, “Provost” delivered “economic and military information of the highest importance to the Allies, including some of the first designs of the V-1,” according to a postwar report. Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower believed this and other information about the V-1 flying bomb, the most worrisome of Hitler’s “secret weapons,” was crucial to victory in World War II. Without such intelligence, Eisenhower later wrote, the planned invasion of Europe at Normandy “might have been written off.”

Phillip was studying hard for his baccalauréat, the exam French students take at the conclusion of their secondary education, and school offered a welcome semblance of normality. At home he was increasingly aware of the strain on his parents. In January 1944, his father—living on meager rations, cycling to and from the American Hospital in the bitter cold—contracted pneumonia. Sumner wrote a friend in America about the family’s “dire need of clothing.” A colleague at the hospital recalled: “He was drawn and careworn and went about in an old army sweater with a hole that showed his elbow when he took off his long surgical coat.” The Jacksons hoped the liberation of France was near. But time was fast running out. Thanks to legions of informers, the Gestapo had become ever more effective, arresting thousands of Resistance figures all across France. In April 1944, Paul Kinderfreund warned Toquette Jackson to be doubly careful. The Gestapo in Paris was rumored to be paying 50,000 francs to any person who provided information on airmen who had been shot down. Those who helped evaders were to be executed on the spot—along with their families.

On May 24, 1944, the Goelette-Frégate network was finally exposed. Someone had betrayed the location of a safe house to the brutal Vichy French secret police, the Milice, who raided it and discovered a list of agents that included the Jacksons. The next day three Milice officers, wearing black shirts and felt berets, parked their black Citroën and knocked on the door at 11 Avenue Foch. When Phillip Jackson answered, the Milice forced him and his mother into a front room.

For Phillip, who had just turned 16, the exciting adventure of aiding the Resistance had taken a deadly serious turn. But he did not panic. He was quick witted enough to stand by an open window that faced Avenue Foch. When his captors were not looking, he waved away approaching agents he recognized, letting them know Goelette-Frégate’s Paris hub had been blown.

At the American Hospital, Dr. Jackson was on rounds when two Milice agents grabbed him and forced him into a car that sped to the Jackson home. Sumner, Toquette, and Phillip were then taken in the same car—not to the Gestapo offices a few doors away, but 250 miles south to the headquarters of the Milice in Vichy.

A week later, a traumatized Toquette wrote from her prison cell to her sister in Switzerland. “Today is the day Pete should have taken his examinations for the baccalauréate,” she said. “My courage is being tested to the extreme…, [but] if I knew that [Pete] was free my particular fate would be less painful.” In the cell he and his father shared, Phillip pulled a ticket from his trouser pocket. “It was for entry to my exam that day. I tore it up and said: ‘Good riddance, exam.’”

Although their captors did not resort to torture, they interrogated Phillip and his father at length. On June 7, 1944, the Milice turned the Jacksons over to the Gestapo in Vichy for further questioning. Because his parents had made sure Phillip knew no names, he gave nothing away. It was the day after D-Day. The Atlantic Wall had been breached. Allied troops were streaming across the very beach, now codenamed Sword, where Phillip had played as a child.

One morning, while the Allies were expanding their beachhead in Normandy, Phillip and his father were ushered out of their cell. Toquette watched as Gestapo guards hustled her son and her husband, looking all of his 59 years, onto a bus bound for a transit camp in Compiègne in northern France. From there, prisoners were dispatched to the vast Nazi web of death and work camps. She knew they were unlikely to return.

En route, Phillip and his father were allowed out of the bus late at night to urinate. “We walked into a field,” Phillip recalled, “and for a moment thought we might escape in the darkness, but my father said we hadn’t a chance handcuffed together. We then arrived in Compiègne—there were Red Cross parcels, but also vermin, fleas, and lice en masse.” On July 18, after a hellish journey, Phillip and his father arrived at a notorious work camp called Neuengamme, in northern Germany. “We were horsewhipped out of our carriages by the SS,” Phillip said, “and marched to the camp, guarded by the SS men with machine guns. At the camp, we were packed into two massive cellars, then taken in small groups to the shower room where our heads and bodies were shaved.”

Less than a month later, Toquette was also deported to Germany, bound for the women’s camp at Ravensbrück. On the same train was Violette Szabo, a beautiful agent with the British Special Operations Executive and an elite among the women of the French Resistance. An American passenger, Virginia d’Albert-Lake, befriended Toquette and spent much of the next six months with her at Ravensbrück.

“I have never known a woman with such courage, willpower, and vitality,” d’Albert-Lake later wrote of Toquette, with whom she worked clearing ground in a forest. “We women had never done hard labor. Clad in scanty summer clothes we were near dead with cold and hunger. Women fell unconscious. If no one was able to pick them up and take them to the infirmary they just laid there.”

BELLS RANG OUT ACROSS PARIS; freedom had arrived. It was August 25, 1944, “one of the greatest days of all time,” in the words of American correspondent Ernie Pyle. As the Allies drove through throngs of ecstatic Parisians lining Avenue Foch, the Jacksons struggled to survive in what the Nazis called the Nacht und Nebel—“night and fog”—of the concentration camps. Over 80,000 other Resistance operatives—more than the total number of Jews deported from France—had suffered the same fate as the Jacksons by the time the Tricolor flew once more atop the Eiffel Tower.

Among Phillip and Sumner’s fellow inmates at Neuengamme was Resistance leader Michel Hollard, 46, who had crossed 48 times from France to Switzerland carrying intelligence about Germany’s V-1 rocket program before being betrayed to the Gestapo. Hollard remembered Dr. Jackson as “very upright, with white hair, strong features, and a stern, almost hard, expression—he appeared as a person of great energy and forcible character.” Hollard would also never forget Jackson’s “immense dignity,” his main concern being “to contrive that news of his whereabouts and that of his child should reach his family in America.” Hollard tried many times to get a postcard smuggled out of the camp, addressed to a relative in Sweden, giving Sumner and Phillip’s whereabouts. Finally, the postcard arrived and word reached Jackson’s family in Maine.

Sumner Jackson survived the winter of 1944–45 working in the camp infirmary. He saw Phillip every other day, and got him a job in the camp kitchen so that his son did not have to clear bomb damage in nearby Hamburg—a work detail so brutal that even the strongest prisoners sent there lasted only weeks. Disease was rampant at the camp. One of Sumner’s fingers became infected; he had a fellow prisoner amputate it, without anesthetic. It was a severe loss—without the finger he could not hope to perform as a surgeon again.

AS THE WAR WAS GRINDING TO A HALT, the Swedish Red Cross frantically tried to evacuate hundreds of women, listed as political prisoners, from Ravensbrück. It was April 25, 1945. The Germans denied that the camp held any American or British women. But one inmate, British agent Mary Lindell, produced a list of prisoners and was able to persuade the Germans to allow those named on it to board a white bus belonging to the Red Cross. Among the women saved at the eleventh hour was Toquette Jackson.

That same week Sumner and Phillip Jackson were transported by boxcar to the Baltic seaport of Neustadt, where a prison ship, the SS Thielbek, was anchored. Early the next morning, Michel Hollard was marching in a group of French-speaking prisoners being sent to Sweden when he spotted Sumner standing in the open door of a boxcar, not far from Phillip.

“You must come with us,” Hollard told father and son.

Sumner Jackson replied that he had patients to care for. Hollard begged him to reconsider. Jackson said nothing in response, merely raising a weary arm. As Hollard recalled, he “pointed to the prostrate figures covering the floor of the wagon. They were the bodies of his dying patients.” Hollard ran to catch up with the column of prisoners, and then looked back. Jackson was gazing after him.

On May 3, 1945, Phillip Jackson stood beside his father in the Thielbek’s stinking hold. Conditions were horrific. Hundreds of people had acute dysentery. There was no food or water. Corpses lay all around. Phillip persuaded an old German guard to let him up on deck.

As he filled his lungs with sea air, he saw several RAF fighter-bombers in the far distance. A plane swooped down and fired a rocket. Phillip watched it scream toward him, certain it was slightly off target. Sure enough, the rocket exploded 50 yards away. But another projectile hit the Thielbek, which quickly began to sink. Terrified, Phillip tried to find his father but could not. As more rockets exploded, he stripped, plunged into the cold sea, and swam for his life. It was five days before the end of the war.

German sailors in a small boat fished Phillip out of the water and took him to shore, where the SS made him stand naked against a wall with other shocked survivors. Out of the 2,750 prisoners on the Thielbek, Phillip was one of only 50 who survived. “As they were getting their machine guns ready, English tanks arrived at the end of the road,” Phillip said. “The SS ran away. I found a blanket, draped it around me and went out in the street, and I happened on a British captain and I said, ‘Sir, can I do anything for you? I’ve escaped and I’m alone now.’”

The British quickly recruited Phillip as an interpreter. When not working with German prisoners he looked for his father, cutting a pathetic figure on local beaches as he moved from one washed-up body to another. Their faces were bloated beyond recognition, but Phillip was studying their hands; he was looking for one missing a finger.

Sumner Jackson’s body was never found.

Phillip’s mother was meanwhile recuperating in Malmo in Sweden. Later that summer, she learned that her husband was dead but that Phillip had lived. She wrote to his sister in the United States, “I want you to know that I never ceased to be in love with Sumner.”

From Germany, Phillip wrote to a friend in Paris: “I am not in a great haste to come back for my bachot [baccalauréat exam]. My father is dead. I do not know if I shall see my mother.” Several weeks later, he received a letter from Paris. To his great joy, he learned his mother was alive.

Toquette, who had aged considerably in Ravensbrück, met her only child at the Arc de Triomphe. Her neck and face were scarred by hundreds of lice bites. Phillip no longer looked like a boy; he was as tall as his father had been. Then mother and son walked home together. Phillip was still wearing a British uniform; under his arm was a small suitcase filled with pistols he had scavenged from German arms dumps. At 11 Avenue Foch he found his bedroom exactly as he had left it. Nothing had been touched.

Supported by his mother, Phillip returned to Germany in 1946 to testify in a war crimes trial for the 14 SS sadists who had run Neuengamme.

“Did you see people beaten by the SS?” a prosecutor asked.

“Yes, I did,” Phillip, now 17, replied calmly.

“Can you point to any particular SS man or officer who you saw beat a prisoner?”

Phillip turned to look at the SS men. Numbered cards hung from their necks.

“I saw number three, number five, number nine, and number ten.”

Every defendant Phillip identified was sent to the gallows.

Phillip returned to his school in Paris to complete his studies. He passed his baccalauréat and found work with an engineering company, where he thrived and gained rapid promotion. To his Swiss-born mother’s great delight, he married a Swiss woman and went on to father three children, one of whom chose in her late teens to emigrate to the United States. Phillip had grown to look very much like his father. In 1968 he lost his mother: Toquette Jackson died at the American Hospital, having served both France and the United States with great distinction in two world wars.

Today Phillip Jackson is 85, and resides at the famous Les Invalides veterans’ hospital in central Paris, within easy walking distance of Avenue Foch. Decorated with the Legion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre, he spends his days just a stone’s throw from Napoleon’s tomb, surrounded by other heroes and heroines of the French Resistance. He is, however, the only one among this extraordinary cadre who can trace his roots to the north woods of Maine, who is fiercely proud of his American heritage, and is often moved to tears when he recalls his exceptionally brave and humane parents, who did the right thing at a time when so many in France opted to collaborate rather than fight.

 

Originally published in the December 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.