Looking around campus, it’s easy to see the members of the Bowdoin community we’re most proud of. Some—Howard, Chamberlain, Stowe—are so deeply tied to the history of our nation that it would be foolish not to acknowledge the role Bowdoin played in their lives. Others—Mitchell, Druckenmiller, Osher—are the titans of the present. They’re philanthropists who demonstrate the benefits of a Bowdoin education in our society. Today, however, I present to you another Bowdoin alum worthy of our praise: Sumner Waldron Jackson.
I spent this summer on campus, trying to take in every bit of it before I graduate in the spring. I came to appreciate sitting outside of Gibson Hall on the bench in front of Bowdoin’s memorial to alumni who lost their lives fighting for our nation. That’s where Jackson’s name first jumped out at me. A member of the Class of 1909, he would’ve been in his late fifties by the end of the Second World War, and yet he’s listed as among those who died.
Most students don’t know this, but Special Collections keeps a file for every alumnus of the College. So I took down Jackson’s name and class year on the back of my hand and climbed the steps to the third floor of the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library.
I’ve done this a few times before and, for the most part, the files are pretty empty. Some contain correspondence between the College librarian asking for contact information for classmates or requests for the College Catalogue to keep up on what current Bowdoin boys are learning. Most just contain applications for admission and a report card.
Jackson’s file, however, is thick. The first document is an application to the Medical School of Maine. (We call it Adams Hall now.) This is where I learned that Sumner Waldron Jackson was born October 7, 1885 in Spruce Head, Maine, about an hour’s drive—by modern standards—from here. He attended Waldoboro High School, in Waldoboro, Maine. After that, he spent two years at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle, Maine. His principal there noted that Jackson was a “fine student” of “excellent character.”
Though he applied after Bowdoin, he did not officially attend the Medical School of Maine. He received his training as a physician in Philadelphia at Jefferson Medical School. After his studies, he went on to intern at Mass General in 1915. It’s at this point that he joined the service as a medic, according to a letter from Jane Graham Mason. (Her connection to Jackson is unclear to me.) In 1917, he married a French woman, Charlotte Sylvie Barrelet. They had one child together, a son Phillip.
After the end of the war, he stayed in France, working at the American Hospital in Paris. He was working as the Chief of Staff at the American Hospital when the Germans occupied France.
It’s at this point in the file that I come across a folded blue piece of paper that the College sent to many alumni at this time in history. It asks for the student’s name, birth date, current employment and other biographical information. Under the heading “Names of books published, papers contributed to the press, together with any other facts needed to complete this record” Jackson’s sister, Mrs. Clifford Swenson, had written the following:
“Was arrested May 24, 1944 by the French Militia for working in the underground movement in France. (Forces Françaises Combattantes, Reséan Goëlette) Turned over to the Gestapo. Deported to Germany. Concentration camp of Neuengarnme (sic) near Hamburg. Was drowned May 3, 1945 in the bay of Lubeck following the evacuation of the camp of Neuengarnme by the Germans.”
As I read on, I find copies of letters—translated into English for American relatives—that Phillip had sent to his friends and family members about the last few days of his father’s life. Phillip writes that he and his father were taken from Neuengamme and boarded a ship called Thielbeck, with approximately 2,200 other prisoners.
The rest of the prisoners were placed on two other ships, the Cap Arcona and the Alton. On May 3 1945, the British sunk both the Cap Arcona and the Thielbeck. Phillip describes surviving the bombing in a letter dated May 8, 1945:
“Fortuneately (sic), I was on deck and was not hit by the projectiles. I waited 5 minutes in hopes of seeking my father. I could not see him. I then jumped into the sea. I am a very good swimmer and was able to board one of the 3 salvage boats the Germans had lowered. I was saved before they knew we were prisoners.”
Two days later, he writes another letter, explaining more details of what had happened after the family had been taken from France. He refuses to describe what daily life in the camp was like.
“What I can tell you is that all you read and hear about Buchenwald, Saxemhausen, Dachau and Auswitch, will never come up to the truth.”
He goes on to talk about the day he was able to escape the Theilbeck. He theorizes that the prisoners were moved onto the boats in an attempt to create a “floating camp.”
He explains that while the Alton makes its way to port, the Cap Arcona and the Theilbeck fall behind. At 3 p.m. on May 3, Phillip counted eight bombs dropped between the two ships. The Cap Arcona burns and sinks within ten minutes. After the bombs, another three airships attack the Thielbeck. The ship sinks but does not burn, and Phillip is able to get to safety.
“I get to shore safe and sound and am freed a few hours later by the British. The sinking of the ships has been a calamity. Out of 7,000 men, 6,500 have perished and my father is among the number.”
The file also contains a letter from Jackson’s wife describing the predicament of the family in 1944:
“We were all three arrested on May 25, 1944, not because we were Americans, but because we were working for the underground liberation movement, what we call the ‘Resistance,’ we were therefore political prisoners and much worse off than the regular prisoners of war.”
After taking all this in, I begin to do some more research with the help of a few librarians. I’m completely shocked to find out that in 2004, Hal Vaughan wrote a book about the life of Dr. Sumner Waldron Jackson.
I had assumed that he had lived in obscurity. Vaughan wrote that Jackson and his family had multiple opportunities to escape France after the occupation, but they didn’t. Instead, they risked everything, hiding British and French soldiers in their home and at the hospital where Jackson worked and helping many escape Paris as part of the Resistance. A plaque commemorating Jackson still hangs in the hospital.
The British, however, never formally apologized for the attacks on these two ships. The joy and success surrounding the end of the war completely overshadowed the events of May 3.
It’s easy to look to the alumni who were renowned public leaders and think that they alone are the embodiment what distinguishes our school.
But surely if I were to comb through the archives, I’d find hundreds of stories like Jackson’s—stories of people doing what they can, where they can, to thanklessly help better people’s lives.