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|Dickson's Natchez projects faded after his death in France|
(Fifteenth in a series)
On September 1, 1939, the Germans and Soviets invaded Poland triggering World War II.
The outbreak of war deterred Jeff Dickson from returning to Paris, and his entertainment show place, the Palais des Sports, a Parisian version of Madison Square Garden was taken over by the Nazis following their occupation of Paris. Looking for something to occupy his time he returned to his birthplace, Natchez, in January 1940 and set out to capitalize on the tourist trade through developing and promoting historical sites such as the Devil's Punch Bowl, the White Apple Village of the Natchez Indians, and Fort Rosalie. All were open to the public by February 1941.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered the war. This event would end Jeff's Natchez enterprise. Jeff was 45 years old at the time, a World War I veteran, and well past the draft age. He also had a wife Billie and a ten month old daughter, Chris. He had every reason to not enlist for the war effort, when there were so many younger men. However, he was still active and youthful and always looking for a new challenge.
His dilemma was whether to stay with his family--where he was greatly needed--or to join the crusade against Nazi Germany. Jeff, for whom no obstacle seemed too big, chose the latter option and enlisted in the U.S. Army. "Don't you cry and don't you worry," he informed Billie, "but I can't let anybody else do my fighting for me."
Although we might applaud his sense of duty to country, his decision to go to war might not have been the best. Sim Callon, Jr. of Natchez who knows Jeff's daughter, Chris, said that she informed him that for much of her life she resented her father's decision to go to war, which effectively deprived her of having a father.
Jeff had only been a sergeant when he was discharged at the end of World War I, so upon re-enlisting he was sent to officer training school where he received a commission as captain. He was then sent to England to serve as an intelligence officer with the Third Bombardment Wing, but later became chief of photography with the Fourth Bombardment Wing. Filming was particularly dear to him, having been involved with it during the first war.
He filmed planes flying in formation along with bombs being dropped. In July 1943 he was in the process of producing a film of bombing activity which in typical exuberant fashion he predicted "would be the greatest combat film ever made." He had most of his film, and needed only one more mission to obtain the last footage. To obtain it, he joined the crew of a flying fortress which would participate in a bombing raid on the German-held airport, Le Bourget, on the outskirts of Paris.
Reporter Al Buck recalled Jeff as being ready for the raid with his characteristic optimism: '"You know where I'm going. I'm going back to the Palais des Sports,' he told us with a confident smile. We might add that Capt. Dickson was a striking figure in his Army uniform and the chances seemed good that he would accomplish his purpose."
However, he was not all optimism. One night in mid-July, 1943, Jeff had a premonition. His friend, reporter Bob Considine recalled: "He was in London and called up his old pal Jack Harding, a former partner and leading fight promoter of England. Jack later told me that Jeff wasn't his old self that night, that he talked a lot about his wife and his daughter and gave Harding a letter to send to his wife in case he didn't get back from the mission."
Considine further recalled: "I had a letter in my pocket for him. It was from his wife. I tried to get up to his air base from London shortly after arriving there, [but] was delayed," and missed him.
On the morning of July 14, the squadron of flying fortresses crossed the English Channel into France with Jeff on board ready to shoot his last film footage. However, the mission would not be a cake walk; the large planes were soon set upon by German fighters. As Considine recalled: "The Messerschmitts and Focke Wulfe jumped his plane and broke it into pieces. For a long time it was felt that he might still be alive, because boys in other Fortresses saw eight chutes open out of the stricken bomber. It was felt that he got down safely and that he preferred to stay with the French underground. But he was either killed during the attacks on the plane, or went down with it. We have a hunch that if he was still alive when it began its plunge he was on a machine-gun, giving them hell. He was like that."
I do not know how his body was recovered and buried. However, Jefferson Davis Dickson, Jr. was eventually buried in the American cemetery at Omaha Beach.
After the war ended in 1945, there was no one left to revive Jeff's Natchez enterprises. He was the sole driving force behind them, and with his death that force was gone. To my knowledge his Natchez projects were never reopened after the war.
The White Apple Village was on property that Jeff had leased. As his museum building fell into ruin, the exhibits were never removed including the Indian pottery, much of it borrowed from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Occasionally people would wander into the structure, pick up a pot or two, and walk off. Jeff's widow sold the Fort Rosalie property on South Canal Street to D.A. Biglane in 1949, and the fort gradually fell into ruin as its log buildings rotted away. Many were probably demolished.
In 1944, Jeff's step-mother Hannah Dickson died in Jackson and was buried there in Cedar Lawn Cemetery. His father, Jefferson Davis Dickson, Sr., continued to live in the family home on Carnes Street. However, at the age of about 90 he went to New Orleans to live with his oldest son, Alba. He died there four years later on March 11, 1954 at the age of 94. His body was returned to Jackson for burial at Cedar Lawn.
How Jackson had changed during Jeff, Sr.'s near century of life. The streets crowded with automobiles during his funeral procession contrasted with the Jackson of 1859 when he was born just before the outbreak of the Civil War. His obituary made no mention of the fact that his family was probably the oldest in town, having moved there in 1822 shortly after the streets were surveyed and when most of the blocks were still covered in forest. There was no mention of the fact that his grandfather, David Dickson, had been lieutenant governor, first postmaster of Jackson, and U.S. congressman, nor mention of his uncle, Thomas H. Dickson who had served as the city's first mayor, nor any mention of Dickson House, the family owned hotel, which had been a center of antebellum social life. Nor was there mention that as a child Jeff, Sr. had probably been dawdled on the knee of his namesake Jefferson Davis. There wasn't even a mention of the fact that his son had been known as "the ringmaster of Paris." He was simply "Uncle Jeff," the old engineer. And his grave was never marked.
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