Joel McPherson an American Pilot in the Dordogne 1944

Rédigé par Alain dans la rubrique Portrait 

I have translated the following story from Histoire de la Résistance en Périgord par Guy Penaud published by Éditions Sud Ouest.

On the 29th January 1944 an American plane was shot down by enemy fire in the South West of France. Its pilot, Joel McPherson, managed to parachute out of his P-47 and landed at Rouillac on the outskirts of Angoulême in the Charente.

In an attempt to get back to England he set out to the south trying to get to the Pyrénées and over in to Spain. Fifty miles south and into the Dordogne he came into contact with the FTP Valmy, a maquis group situated in the forests around Douville. Their leader was Marcel Legendre and amongst their numbers was Robert Mathé, a resistant who had killed the first German soldier in the Dordogne on the 23rd October 1943.

McPherson remained with the group while plans were being made to get him down to the Pyrénées. This was not to be. On the 4th March 1944 Miliciens under the control of capitaine Jean spotted a truck travelling on the RN21 close to Pont-Saint-Mamet carrying members of the groupe Valmy including Marcel Legendre. The Miliciens opened fire on the truck killing 3 of its occupants. Legendre was arrested and taken to the prison at Périgueux where he was questioned and tortured but divulged no information about the whereabouts of his group. Later that day capitaine Jean, dressed as a civilian and pretending to be a doctor looking to help the local Resistance, visited houses around the area where they had stopped the truck. They managed to obtain information to the location of the groupe Valmy's camp, an isolated farmhouse at La Régasse. In the early hours of the 5th March his men encircled the farmhouse and started their attack. The groupe Valmy fought back as best they could, two of them managed to escape, one résistant was killed and the American pilot Joel McPherson and Robert Mathé were amongst seven taken prisoner. They were driven to the prison at Périgueux and soon after Mathé was transferred to a prison at Limoges where he was subsequently condemned to death, dated fixed the 22nd August 1944. 

The day before his execution the Résistance lead by Guingouin entered Limoges and he, along with many prisoners were freed. After his questioning and torture Marcel Legendre was sentenced to death, without appeal, and was executed by the Miliciens on the 18th March 1944.

As for Joel McPherson, agents working for the Allies had heard about his capture and approached a Doctor by the name of Jean Gaussen who was working at the hospital at Périgueux and involved with the Résistance. He was told to help Mcpherson escape, whatever the cost. Between them they hatched a plan that Mcpherson should feign a serious illness so he'd be transferred to the hospital where Doctor Gaussen was working. The Doctor agreed to help and organised two guards at the prison who were sympathetic to the Résistance to assist him. There was a small problem however,  the Doctor could speak no English and McPherson could speak no French, so a translator had to be found to help.

The plan was for the American Pilot to simulate an illness, but he was no actor ! They checked and confirmed that he still had his appendix, but no handbook existed on how to fake an illness so the Doctor went into as much detail as possible to teach the American the kind of pain he would be in if he had appendicitis. How to lay on the bed, how to react when checked by a Doctor and where the pain would be. Omitting would be impossible to fake so he was told an old recipe that would bring on vomiting, a crushed aspirin mixed with tobacco.

For the plan to succeed, a timetable would have to be followed to the letter. The plan was for McPherson to start showing signs of severe pain after lunchtime on Sunday 12th March. At four o'clock a guard at the prison would call a Doctor, who would diagnose that surgery was necessary and would then organise for the prisoner to be transported to the hospital at Périgueux that evening. On his arrival Doctor Gaussen would examine him, confirm the diagnosis and inform the surgeon that the problem was not extremely urgent and that surgery could wait until the following day or the day after. A 'commando' dressed as a hospital worker would enter the hospital discretely, pass the concierge who would think he was from a nearby hospital, get to the ward where McPherson would be awaiting surgery, knock out the guard and with the aid of a wheelchair, wheel him out of the hospital. Once out of the building he would abandon his inform and the wheelchair and they would be far enough away before an alarm was raised.

Doctor Gaussen, who was not working at the hospital on the Saturday, arrived on Sunday for work as planned and expected to find the American awaiting surgery in the guarded ward. Mcpherson was there, but he had already been operated on ! Discretely the Doctor asked a hospital worker what had happened. The plan had worked perfectly but it turned out the instructions to McPherson had been badly translated or misunderstood and he had started to feign his pains on Saturday not Sunday. He had been rushed into hospital and operated on that night !.

The Doctor present in the operating room told Gaussen "Ah, you should have been here yesterday evening ! A prisoner arrived suffering from appendicitis, an American or Englishman we presume, and no one could understand him. You should have seen the circus, he certainly didn't want to be operated on. He was saying "tomorrow, tomorrow". When the surgeon came in wearing his mask the prisoner jumped off the operating table shouting "I'm not ill". We thought he was a mad man !"

The next morning Doctor Gaussen asked the concierge to let him know when the American prisoner was going to leave but it was too late. He had already been taken to a high security ward guarded by the Police.

Later that day McPherson was taken to a ward back at the prison where amazingly a few days afterwards, by his own means, Mcpherson managed to jump the wall of the prison, in spite of his wounds, and escaped.

A lire également :
  • L'histoire de Marcel Legendre (Lien) 
  • Herbert Brill - An American in the Charente and Dordogne Résistance (Lien) 
  • Médecins et Membres du Service de Santé dans la Résistance (Lien) 
  • Histoire de la Résistance en Périgord par Guy Penaud (Lien)