The Underground Railway

ON 9 FEBRUARY 1944, MAX SHOOP, a governor of the American Hospital and chairman of its legal committee, sent a cable from Geneva to hospital president Nelson Dean Jay in Washington:

Just have news of American Hospital, January 12th letter to Thavoz [sic] [Miss M. Thevoz, former chief nurse, had returned home to Switzerland after the German invasion] that Hospital full, 1st floor occupied French soldier patients, next 2 reserved civilians, 4th floor west terrace built into few patients rooms, food problem difficult but same old Chef also still there, Bergeret chief Jackson come [sic], not one window yet broken.

Nelson Dean Jay wrote to another governor on 14 February that he did not ‘understand Shoop’s reference to Dr Jackson although it is a relief to know he is still there’. In a second letter to Allen the same day, he added, ‘Please say that none of us can make out the reference to Jackson but from the message we assume he is at the Hospital which is good news for we were afraid he had been interned.’ The board attributed the confusing ‘Jackson come’ to a corruption in the radio cable, but Shoop may have been deliberately enigmatic. He was working undercover in Geneva for his old law partner at Sullivan and Cromwell, Allen Dulles. Dulles was the Office of Strategic Services’ chief in Berne, Switzerland, responsible for coordinating American operations with the French Resistance and gathering intelligence on the German military’s order of battle in France. After fifteen months in Switzerland as OSS Agent 284 with the code name ‘Mike’, Shoop could not have been unaware of Dr Jackson’s role in the Resistance.

In Paris, the Jacksons’ existence was becoming more precarious. Their health suffered from lack of nutrition, and Sumner contracted pneumonia. He wrote to a French friend in the United States, a former surgical nurse named Elizabeth Ravina, ‘about starvation and the family’s dire need of clothing’. Clemence Bock’s diary recorded, ‘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. He went back and forth to Neuilly on a bicycle.’ All he had to keep warm while cycling through rain and snow that winter were an old flying helmet and some fur gloves.

At the American Hospital, Otto Gresser came to see Jackson’s clandestine activities as routine: ‘He from time to time hid one or two airborne American or British soldiers who had been shot down but weren’t killed. He would hide and take care of them. Of course, it was very serious. This continued for a long time and I remember very well in full war there were two British soldiers in the corridor of the Hospital. ’ Although some of the hospital staff knew that Jackson was aiding the underground escape network, no one appeared to have denounced him to the Germans. If General de Chambrun had any suspicions, he kept them to himself. But, by the spring of 1944, too many people knew the secret.

The danger to American and British airmen did not cease when they left the American Hospital or any of their other refuges in Paris. They had to make their way, accompanied by men and women whom they did not know and with whom they often could not speak a common language, from one town, one village, one safe house to another, until they reached the Spanish border. The frontier region beside Spain lay in the Forbidden Zone, where controls were more rigorous than anywhere else. German troops with hunting dogs patrolled the Pyrenees mountain passes through which the airmen had to walk, sometimes for days, to reach neutral Spain. In April 1944, Sumner Jackson, Drue Tartière and other American and French civilians were dispatching more Allied air crews to the underground railway, but they did not know–or want to know, in case they were interrogated–what happened when the men left Paris.

One of the few Americans to see the network first-hand was Alice-Leone Moats, the New York Herald Tribune’s correspondent in Madrid. In late April 1944, contacts in the French Resistance took her over the mountains on foot and donkey into occupied France with the same guides who were taking Allied airmen out. She discovered that the Resistance operations chief along the border was a French customs police captain whom his colleagues called ‘Monsieur Frontière’. His colleagues were the smugglers he would have arrested in peacetime. ‘Nothing, of course, could have been more incongruous than a customs guard working hand in glove with smugglers,’ Moats wrote. ‘Monsieur Frontière’ had pockets filled with French identity cards and gave one to her ‘that someone with very poor eyesight might possibly have mistaken for a picture of me. It described me as a “Marchande de frivolité .”’

The customs captain took her to Pau, where she saw her first German soldier. ‘I stopped short, staring at him,’ she wrote. ‘He wore a grayish green uniform that looked as though it might have been taken off a dead man. His blouse was open at the collar to display a red, weather-beaten neck. All the German soldiers I saw went without shirts, and their clothes were invariably of bad quality. Only their boots were good.’ In Pau, she met two remarkable women, whom she identified only as Jane and Rosemary. Jane was English, and Rosemary was an American married to a Frenchman. Both ‘were directly connected only with the section of the Underground which made the arrangements for the Allied flyers to escape’. They told her that, in Paris alone, 500 airmen were waiting to leave.

Usually the men traveled in groups of four with a Frenchman or -woman acting as convoy. When a foursome left Paris, word would be sent ahead. That was where Rosemary and Jane came into the picture. Their job was to find somewhere to put the flyers up in Pau and see that they got out as quickly as possible. Getting quarters for them was the real problem. Jane’s flat was too small and too centrally located to be of any use. Rosemary’s house was out of the question … her husband knew nothing about her connection with the Underground.

Rosemary took Alice-Leone to a small hotel, ‘run by two extraordinary old maids’, where American airmen were hiding in the attic. ‘Not daring to knock,’ Miss Moats recalled, ‘we just opened the door. Three men lying in bed sat up, eyes popping with terror. “It’s all right,” Rosemary said. “We’re Americans.”’ The ‘boys’, as she called them, were wary, because police had raided the hotel that morning. They had not moved from the attic since. The women gave them Lucky Strike cigarettes.

‘Gee,’ one of the boys exclaimed. ‘I didn’t even know they made these things any more! We’ve been rolling our own ever since we’ve been in this country. None of us is very good at it’ … We asked them if they had had any narrow escapes. One, a snub-nosed kid from Texas, answered, ‘Well, at Toulouse there were police at the station asking everybody for identification papers. We just showed them our American cards, and they handed them right back without batting an eyelash. They were French, of course. Still, it was a terrible moment. I don’t like these French trains. I tell you, I’d rather go on ten bombing missions over Berlin than to take that train ride from Paris to Toulouse again.’

Jane and Rosemary told Alice-Leone about a downed fighter pilot named Carlow, whom they suspected of being a German spy. When Carlow arrived in Pau, he told Jane he had flown 100 missions. ‘To begin with,’ Rosemary explained, ‘they’re never supposed to go on more than twenty-five, and although I’ve passed about seventy flyers, I’ve never had one who had been on more than thirteen missions.’ Carlow was the first airman who claimed to have flown a fighter plane. All the others had been on bombers, usually B-17s. Having been out of the United States for many years and uncertain of contemporary American slang, Rosemary asked Alice-Leone to talk to Carlow to determine if he really were an American. If not, he would be killed that night.

Carlow came to Jane’s flat wearing rough, peasant clothes and a Basque beret. His height and Nordic good looks increased the three women’s suspicions that he was a German agent. In the guise of light conversation, they questioned him. ‘His accent, as he spoke, was unmistakably New England,’ Alice-Leone wrote. ‘I wasn’t surprised when he told me that he came from Maine. He named a small town that I had never heard of. That didn’t make any difference, because I figured that only a person who had lived in Maine a long time could have that accent.’ She mimed ‘All right’ to Rosemary, who relaxed. The Resistance would not have to execute Carlow. His 100 flying missions still troubled the women. Alice-Leone told him, ‘But America only got into the war in 1941.’ Carlow explained, ‘I was with the Eagle Squadron.’ The Eagles were Americans who volunteered for the RAF before the United States declared war. It turned out that Alice-Leone knew many of Carlow’s Eagle Squadron comrades. ‘It was safe,’ the women decided, ‘to let him leave that night.’

Rosemary prepared Carlow for his trek to Spain. She gave him ration tickets to buy bread and told him to return those he didn’t use to his mountain guide. A newspaper that she carefully folded into his pocket would identify him to the escort who would meet him at the bus station. Carlow was to follow Rosemary out of the flat thirty seconds after she left. Rosemary went outside and down the stairs. Carlow put his Basque beret back on his head. Alice-Leone and Jane shook his hand and wished him a safe journey. ‘The last we saw of him he was walking nonchalantly through the gate of the courtyard.’ Later, they heard Rosemary’s wood-soled shoes skipping up the steps. ‘She came in, hair flying and eyes shining, and flung herself on the bench in front of the fireplace. We wanted to know if the boys had left safely. “Oh, yes,” she answered. Then she cried, “Oh, Jane, just think –he really was a fighter pilot! He’s the best one we’ve ever had. We’ve never had a fighter pilot before!”’

While Carlow trekked west to Spain, Alice-Leone Moats wanted to go in the other direction, to Paris. Not many Americans dared take that chance, but she was after a scoop: the first eyewitness report from occupied Paris by an American journalist since the last three American reporters were expelled in January 1942. Her Resistance contact told her, ‘You will always be followed by someone of our organization, so if you are picked up by the Gestapo we will know it immediately. We will also know exactly where you’ve been taken and that same night the Maquis will storm the building and get you out.’ His promise was not reassuring. Nor were his last words: ‘Once they have grilled you with no success, they’ll certainly shoot you. As an American with false French papers, you will, of course, count as a spy.’ She went anyway.

In February 1944, Drue Tartière, who had no telephone at home, received a call at the garage near her house in Barbizon outside Paris. The caller was Josée Laval de Chambrun. Drue, more involved than ever in operations to rescue Allied aviators, was uneasy listening to the high-pitched voice of a woman she did not know. She was aware, though, that Josée was Pierre Laval’s daughter. ‘We need an American woman who can broadcast in English, and you have been recommended to me,’ Josée said. ‘I know you Americans in France need money these days, and I think I can get you 60,000 francs a month.’ Drue had concealed her stage name, Drue Leyton, for four years, lest the Germans keep their 1940 promise to put to death the American woman who had maligned them in broadcasts to the United States. Who, she wondered, had told Josée Laval de Chambrun that she was a broadcaster? ‘I’m sure you have me confused with someone else,’ she said. ‘I know nothing about broadcasting, and besides I have been very ill and cannot possibly do a job.’ Drue Leyton of Radio Mondiale had disappeared in June 1940, and Drue Tartière had no intention of resurrecting her. Luckily, Josée believed her. Drue walked back across the road to her house, where an American airman from Georgia, Mickey Coles, was hiding. Josée did not call again.

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