“For your freedom and ours.” This has been a commonly known yet unofficial motto of Poland. For centuries sons and daughters of Poland have been answering this call. Exiled from partitioned and occupied country, Polish soldiers participated in many independence movements all over the world. This love of freedom and personal liberty became Polish virtual creed.
In late 1770’s, news of the Declaration of Independence and the struggle of American colonists against powerful British Empire came to Europe. More than hundred Poles crossed the Atlantic with only one goal – to help fight for freedom of the new nation. Among them were two noblemen officers, Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Count Kazimierz Pulaski. Both of those men found their place in the Pantheon of American and Polish history. Both of them fought bravely in American Revolutionary War.
Throughout the American Revolutionary War Kosciuszko distinguished himself as a brilliant military engineer who’s specialty was defensive warfare. His fortifications at Fort Billingsport, Saratoga, Ticonderoga, and Fort Clinton (West Point), vastly contributed to American victory. Kosciuszko’s achievements were recognized and the Continental Congress granted him an American citizenship, a pension, 500 acres of land, and a rank of brigadier general. His close friend, Thomas Jefferson called him “As pure son of liberty as I have ever known”. Kosciuszko left America, which he called “My second country,” in October 1784. Back in Poland he became famous again for leading initially successful, but in the end doomed uprising against the Russian Empire.
The other freedom-loving Pole was Count Kazimierz Pulaski. He was one of the leading military commanders for Bar Confederation and fought against Russian domination of Poland. After his units were crushed by overwhelming forces he was forced into exile. Pulaski went to France, where he met Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was impressed by this young and brave cavalry commander and recommended him to George Washington and the Continental Congress for his love of liberty and military skills.
Upon arrival to America Pulaski wrote to Washington, “I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.” Pulaski became famous after Battle of Brandywine, where he was in charge of Washington’s 30 body guards and several scattered troops. His charges on the British army, averted disastrous defeat of Continental Army and allowed a safe retreat that saved Washington’s life. One week later he was nominated to the rank of brigadier general and in charge of reforming American cavalry. The well-known
Pulaski Cavalry Legion gained great recognition, and for this he was named “Father of American Cavalry”. His life ended tragically at age of 34 in October of 1779, during a brave charge on British forces in the Battle of Savannah. Mortally wounded, Pulaski was taken off of the battle field by his dear friend Colonel John Cooper. Later that day Pulaski died in Cooper’s arms.
Revolutionary War stories of friendship between Pulaski and Cooper were often told over generations in Cooper’s family.
MERIAN CALDWELL COOPER was born on October 24 1893 in Jacksonville, Florida. As a youngster he often heard stories about his Great Great Grandfather John and the courage, heroism and finally the ultimate sacrifice for America’s freedom by a young Pole. Somehow, deep in young Cooper’s mind was implanted an idea that someday he has to personally repay America’s debt to Poland, for Pulaski sacrifice.
Military tradition within his family and the youthful desire for adventure steered Cooper to apply to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1912. In his senior year, after the dispute over his belief in air power, which at that time Navy didn’t share, Cooper resigned from Academy. In 1916, he joined Georgia National Guard. This unit under command of General John J. Pershing was involved in Border War and chasing elusive Pancho Villa.
Cooper also had another deep desire, to be pilot. After couple of rejections for transfer to Air Service, his application was finally accepted in July 1917. Since United States was already involved in WWI, Cooper was deployed to France, and assigned to 20th Squadron of the
Day Bombardment Group. This squadron distinguished itself in St. Mihiel and the Muese-Aragon offensive. On Sept. 26 1918, while on a bombing mission, deep into enemy territory, his squadron was attacked by German fighters. After exhausting fight, with his rear gunner heavily wounded and his plane burning, he was able to extinguish flames by wild dive and then crush land. Both of them survived, but Copper’s hands and part of his face were badly burned. Within 2 months WWI was over and both of them returned to France from POW camp.
Despite this harrowing experience, Cooper decided not to return home, but instead offered his service to Herbert Hoover’s American Food Administration, which provided humanitarian aid to Poland. After 123 years of partition and non-existence as a country, Poland regained independence due to strong persuasion of President Woodrow Wilson to guarantee Poland’s rebirth. Shortly, after conversation with Hoover, he became the head of the U.S Food Administration in Poland’s Galicia region, with headquarters in the city of Lwow. He immediately distinguished himself as excellent organizer and administrator.
In March 1919, Poland’s independence was put to the test again. Soviet Union under the leadership of Lenin decided to expand their ideology and gain new territories. Under the famous slogan, “Over dead body of Poland we will bring communism to the heart of Europe“, 800,000 strong Red Army started marching West. Cooper quickly came to the conclusion, that with his military experience, he could serve Poland better than working for a food distribution administration. His childhood dream to repay Poland for Pulaski’s sacrifice slowly started to materialize.
Cooper met with Poland’s head of state Marshal Jozef Pilsudski and got a green light to create a squadron of American volunteers. Cooper immediately went to France, where he knew that a significant group of American pilots were enjoying their time after the war. On the streets of Paris he met his old friend Major Cedric Fauntleroy, an experienced pilot and tactician. In a short amount of time, Cooper and Fauntleroy got together six more American pilots, who were willing to go and fight for Poland. None of those young American pilots were of Polish blood line, or had any family ties to Poland. They often stated in their diaries, it was time to repay America’s debt, according to an old principal “For your freedom and ours.” American pilots decided to name newly established unit the Kosciuszko Squadron, and Major Fountleroy, who was the highest ranking officer, became the squadron’s commander. The famous insignia of the squadron was design by Lt. Elliot Chess, which incorporated symbols of Kosciuszko uprising, two crossed sickles and a four-cornered hat, on the background of the symbols of the American flag. The insignia was painted on all squadron planes.
The squadron went to action by straffing and bombing the Soviet army under the command of General Budyonny that was approaching Lwow. Their actions caused great damage, panic and chaos. Statement to the effectiveness of Kosciuszko Squadron was reported by General Listowski, “The American aviators, although exhausted, fought like madmen. Without their assistance, we would go to devil long time ago”. In the meantime, massive Soviet Army under the command of General Tukhachevsky marching from the northeast, came to the outskirts of Warsaw, only to be soundly defeated by Pilsudski’s spectacular counter attack. The battle went down in history as a “Miracle on Vistula”. Crashing defeat, forced Lenin to ask for cease fire. It was the only war in which the Red Army lost. The spread of communism was put on hold for another 25 years.
While Kosciuszko Squadron was in the midst of successful missions, Cooper’s luck run out, and his odyssey just began. On July 13 1920, on his 70th mission he was shot down over enemy territory. He was quickly intercepted by Budyonny’s Cossacks. What saved him from immediate execution was set of strange circumstances. Just before the unfortunate flight, he left his officer’s coat, by mistake, and was wearing only army’s surplus shirt with a name Corporal Frank Mosher. His burned hands, wounds from WW I, convinced the Cossacks, that he was not a bourgeoisie but just worker, a member of the proletariat.
Shortly after capture, he was interrogated by Budyonny himself, but was never recognized as Merian C. Cooper. Soon after, he was sent to a POW camp near Moscow. As he was being transported to the camp, he had a chance to see the reality of communism, what was known as “workers paradise”. He saw an entire population starving and on brink of collapse. This experience left a deep impression on him and a negative view of communism, for the rest of his life. Conditions in the camp were terrible. Every day, prisoners were dying by hundred. Half pound of the bread was only meal the prisoners had all day. On one day, according to Cooper, he was lined up for execution. Fortunately, once the commander in the camp yelled “fire,” he only heard an empty click, as there were no bullets in the rifles.
After this experience, Cooper decided to escape the POW camp. Together with two Polish officers, the men walked 450 miles to Latvia. Within a month, they crossed the border, and within a week they were back in Poland. After spending nine months in hellish POW camp, he was free again. In May 1921, Kosciuszko Squadron pilots were decorated with the most prestigious military medal, a “Virtuti Militari” cross. Before departure from Poland, Cooper was romantically involved with Malgorzata Slomczynska. A son, Maciej Slomczynski, was born out of this relationship.
After arrival in the United States, his adventurous spirit and another childhood dream to be an explorer, pushed him to travel the world. With Captain Salisbury, on the deck of “Wisdom II” sailboat, the men traveled to Solomon and New Hebrides Islands, Fiji, Singapore, Sumatra, Thailand, Bay of Bengal, Ceylon, Indian Ocean, Sudan, Red Sea, Iran, and Abyssinia, where he and his old friend Ernest Schoedsack were guests of Emperor Haile Selassie.
Later in 1925, Cooper and Schoedsack created one of the first ethnographic documentary silent films Grass. The other of their silent films were Chang and Four Feathers, which was one of the last major Hollywood pictures of the silent era. In 1933, Cooper and Schoedsack directed and produced the famous film King Kong, which even now is considered as a one of the greatest movies of all time. In late 1920s Cooper was involved in creation of Pan-American Airways, where first regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic flights were established. In 1933 he met actress Dorothy Jordan. They fell in love and were married later that year. His powerful position in Hollywood and RKO Radio Picture helped to pave the way for such ground breaking technology as Technicolor. In 1935, Cooper produced two move outstanding films, She and Last Days of Pompeii.
In 1939 came the beginning of WW II in Europe, and with the war came the collapse of most European countries. Britain was left standing on its own and struggling to survive. As a military man, Cooper paid attention to the news from the battle fields. Successes of the Royal Air Forces’ Polish 303 Kosciuszko Squadron, at the Battle of Britain, caught his attention. Being so proud of accomplishments of the Polish pilots, he decided to visit them in early 1941. He was particularly touched when he saw the squadron’s insignia, exactly the same as insignia created 20 years earlier by Lt. Elliot Chess.
Immediately, after the Pearl Harbor attack, Cooper re-enlisted with the U.S. Army Air Force, at age of 48. He was directly involved in the preparation for the famous Doolittle Raid. At certain moment Cooper had a plan to liberate American pilots of the Doolittle Raid from Japanese POW camp in China, but his idea was turned down. In April 1942 Cooper was working with General Caleb Haynes to organize the delivery of supplies for famous General Chennault’s AVG -Flying Tigers group and for Chinese army. On few occasions, Cooper was piloting the cargo planes himself in those treacherous flights over the Himalaya’s Hump. He later served as chief of staff for General Claire Chennault’s Chinese Air Task Force. Due to worsening health condition and a disagreement with U.S. Army high command over strategy and tactics in Chinese theater of operation, Cooper was ordered to leave China in Nov 1942.
In May 1943, he was posted to New Guinea as a chief of staff to General Ennis Whitehead of the Fifth Air Force. In his typical fashion Cooper immediately organized his staff into an effective operating unit. As usual, Cooper wasn’t just planning missions. At age of 50, he also participated in 9 recorded combat missions. According to General Whitehead’s statement Colonel Merian Cooper was a key figure in the destruction of Japanese air power in New Guinea, and he was absolutely qualified for the rank of General. On Sept. 2, 1945, Cooper was one of the dignitaries on the deck of U.S.S. Missouri to witness the signing of Japan’s capitulation. In 1950, Cooper received his long-delayed promotion to Brigadier General.
In late 1940’s Merian Cooper and his old friend John Ford established Argosy Picture Company. This partnership and collaboration produced such a classic movies as Three Godfathers (1948), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), Wagon Master (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Searchers (1956). Cooper also became interested and involved in another technical innovation, wide screen Cinerama. It was Cooper who first produced commercially viable demonstration of Cinerama on Broadway in 1952. For his accomplishment in the field of cinematography Merian Cooper was awarded Honorary Oscar for life time achievement in1952. His star was placed on Hollywood Walk of Fame, but sadly his first name was misspelled.
In late 1960’s, Cooper was diagnosed with cancer. After three months of intensive treatment, he was released from hospital, cancer free. During this time, Merian and his wife Dorothy were living in San Diego’s picturesque neighborhood of Coronado. They had three children Mary Caroline, Richard Merian, and Theresa. In1972, Cooper’s cancer returned. The man who cheated death so many times, could not cheat death again. In his final days, he told Dorothy, “Death will be new adventure.” Merian Caldwell Cooper died on April 21, 1973 at Mercy Hospital in San Diego. According to his will, his ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
Merian C. Cooper was more than a remarkable man. Cooper was bigger-than-life character, who lived a life of adventure.
As an American Polish Cooperation Society, it is our privilege to inform you that our organization is in the process of placing a plaque on La Jolla’s Mt. Soledad Memorial to the memory and honor of Merian C. Cooper.
If anyone is interested to read more about Merian C. Cooper, here is a list of references:
* Cotta Vaz, Mark. Living Dangerously: The Adventure of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of King Kong (2005).
* Cisek, Janusz. Kosciuszko, We Are Here! (2002)
* Olson, Lynne & Cloud, Stanley. A Question of Honor, The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of WW II (2003)
* Karolevitz, Robert F. & Fenn, Ross S. Flight of the Eagle (1974)