A French Prisoner with the Americans

ON 6 JULY 1940 , AN AMERICAN AMBULANCE brought two wounded French prisoners to Neuilly from the Hôpital Foch in Suresnes, which the Germans had just requisitioned. One of the two casualties was André Guillon, classified as dying from wounds he received fighting on 6 June at Beauvais. Guillon noticed, as he was wheeled into the Memorial Building, ‘the flowers, the walkways, winding through impeccable lawns, the very beautiful trees, an oasis of calm and silence, and yet something troubled us the moment we entered this magnificent hospital … the coldness of our welcome’. He soon realized that what he took for indifference was ‘neutrality that we quickly understood and that was absolutely necessary’. Another aspect of the hospital made a stronger impression: ‘There were no sentries at the door and no one controlled the entrances or the exits of the hospital.’ The Germans, however, had established their Neuilly headquarters, the Kommandatur, opposite the hospital’s main gate.

One of the first patients Guillon met in his ward was a Jewish officer he called Captain M., who told him, ‘Because I’m Jewish, someone [a German officer] refused to accept my word of honour as a French officer. Now, morally, I must try to escape.’ He asked Guillon what he should do. Guillon advised him to flee. ‘That, moreover, is what he did.’ As Guillon observed, Captain M. was not the only one. Dr Sumner Jackson, far from discouraging escape, looked the other way and falsified hospital records to say the men were terminally ill or had died.

Neither Guillon nor any of the other French prisoners saw Donald Coster, the American ambulance driver, in his basement hideout. Some time in mid-July, Sumner Jackson brought him documents to cross the Line of Demarcation and the Spanish border. Then, like Captain M., Coster disappeared from the hospital. When he reached Lisbon, his fellow drivers George King and Gregory Wait were waiting for him. They said that their fourth colleague, John Clement, had gone to Switzerland to work for the Red Cross. Coster returned to the United States. Writing about his experiences in the Reader’s Digest, he did not say why he went back to Paris from Belgium or that Sumner Jackson had helped him. Later, it was revealed that Coster was in the American consular service.

Sumner Jackson examined André Guillon’s wounds, which were not healing. Guillon wrote, ‘I remember Dr Jackson, who advised me to use sun therapy to reabsorb my wounds which were extensive and infected with a green pus bacillus. I went out every day to expose myself to the sun on the terraces of the hospital.’ Little by little, the wounds dried and healed.

During his time at the hospital, Guillon grew fond of Elisabeth Comte, who was sometimes called ‘Head Nurse’ but was listed on the hospital register as ‘assistant to the director’. Guillon observed two types of nurses, professionals and volunteers. Many of the latter were ‘daughters of Paris high society’. The rest were Swiss, American, Australian, Norwegian, Austrian and White Russian. ‘This ethnic group in particular … very much sympathized with the wounded, maybe a little too much for the Administration. There were flirtations, even marriages. We came to know the many varieties of caviar and vodka!’

Guillon appears not to have done much flirting himself, probably because his fiancée was visiting him. He got to know one French nurse who had worked in a leprosy colony in Madagascar and another who had been a race car driver. Two Canadian sisters, who were only 18 and 16, worked long hours as nurses and tended to his wounds. They had moved to France in 1939 to study the organ with the virtuoso organist of Saint-Sulpice Church, Marcel Dupré. The Germans had interned them in a concentration camp with other enemy aliens, but they escaped to the hospital.

‘The nurses imposed a regime that was as strict as it was necessary,’ Guillon commented. They ordered him to rest, but he was unable to lie still in bed every day.

I went out regularly in Paris. The attraction of liberty was that it helped me regain my strength. I found myself on the boulevard des Filles du Calvaire, when I felt I was going to faint. I managed despite this to go down into the Metro and transfer at La République (never had the wait seemed so long). Two hours later, I was in the American Hospital and my room where I climbed into bed. My neighbour alerted Mademoiselle L. [an Austrian nurse] about my catastrophic trip: my wounds were suppurating, my temperature passed 39°...! Sententiously, Mademoiselle L. told me, ‘You’re not going out to Paris again.’ Next day, my temperature went down. Eight days later, I went out again to Paris, but I was more careful!

Although the hospital tried to keep Germans out, Guillon came across a German physician observing procedures in the orthopaedic centre. He was Professor Schacht of the Berlin Faculty of Medicine, brother of former Reichsbank chief Hjalmar Schacht, who had been Charles Bedaux’s contact in Berlin. Hospital records ignored Professor Schacht’s visit as well as the treatment given to a German medical officer in June. He had broken a leg while working during the Battle of France with refugees near an American medical team. ‘He was taken to the American Hospital, where he spends his time praising the institution, ’ the New York Times reported on 29 June. ‘He hates to think of leaving.’

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