Merian Cooper, Conquering Hero

With the war in Ukraine dangerously close to involving neighboring Poland, the specter is raised of the forgotten Polish-Soviet War of 1920. In that war, to Poland’s aid came American pilots, most importantly World War I veteran Merian C. Cooper, who created the Kościuszko Squadron and flew with great distinction in the battle against the invading Russians. Most people today know Cooper only as the man who made the movie King Kong.

Born in 1893 in Jacksonville, Florida, Cooper was the son of a prominent attorney. The Cooper line went back to the colonial era in Southeastern Georgia. Rising to prominence during the Revolutionary War was John Cooper, Merian’s great-great grandfather, who served as a colonel alongside Casimir Pulaski, the Polish cavalry commander. After meeting with Ben Franklin in Paris in 1776, Pulaski sailed to America and was soon reorganizing and commanding the Continental Army’s cavalry regiments.

Though his imperious manner caused controversy, the aristocratic Pulaski served with distinction in several battles both before and after spending the winter of 1777–78 with George Washington at Valley Forge. While leading a charge during the Battle of Savannah, in October 1779, Pulaski was grievously wounded by British grapeshot. Col. John Cooper carried Pulaski from the battlefield and, according to family lore, was at Pulaski’s side when he died two days later. Pulaski became a hero to Americans, including to Merian Cooper who was told stories as a young boy of his great-great grandfather and the Polish general.

Cooper’s youthful imagination was also fired by the exploits of his great uncle, Merian R. Cooper, who joined the 2nd Florida Infantry of the Confederate Army at the age of 16, fought heroically, suffered several wounds, and was commissioned as a captain at age 20.

Moreover, the young Cooper was a voracious reader of adventure tales, in particular, Paul Du Chaillu’s Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa, a thrilling account of the author’s hunt for gorillas in the forests of the uncharted Crystal Mountains. Du Chaillu’s description of two native women being carried off by gorillas left a lasting impression on Cooper. It wasn’t by accident that in 1933, Cooper co-wrote, directed, and produced King Kong.

Thirty years prior, at the age of 10, Cooper’s thoughts of adventure turned skyward when the Florida boy read of the Wright brothers’ 12-second flight at Kitty Hawk. He vowed then that one day he’d fly airplanes.

Upon graduating from the Lawrenceville prep school in New Jersey, Cooper received an appointment to the United States Naval Academy. He performed well academically and athletically, but he had trouble controlling his wild nature and received demerits for disciplinary infractions. His fondness for strong drink got him in the brig during December 1914, and the academy began dismissal proceedings. Cooper was only one semester shy of graduation, and he could have contested the proceedings, but he felt that he had brought dishonor upon himself and his family and that it was best for all if he left.

Too embarrassed to return home, Cooper sailed to Europe as a seaman aboard a freighter. He thought of enlisting to fly for Britain or France, but passport problems interfered. He returned to the United States and worked at various jobs, including as a reporter for the Minneapolis Daily News and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He stopped drinking entirely and excelled at his jobs, but he did begin smoking a pipe. In a letter to his father, he said of his pipe, “He soothes many, many a hatred and many a regret, and whenever I have wanted a good stiff drink the old corncob has always stuck by me, and taken the place of John Barleycorn.”

In 1916, Cooper joined the Georgia National Guard and quickly found himself on the Mexican border with Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing. Cooper thought he’d soon be pursuing Pancho Villa deep inside Mexico, but his duties were confined to patrolling the border. After several months and only limited action, Cooper got orders to the Military Aeronautics School in Atlanta.

After a year of rigorous training, Cooper graduated first in his class of 150 cadets. The commandant of the school sent a telegram to Washington recommending Cooper for service overseas, saying, “He is the best man in every respect who has yet entered this school.”

Cooper was in France by October 1917 but was given several months of further training before being assigned to the 20th Aero Squadron. Injuries in a crash landing and months of heavy rains and fog delayed Cooper’s first combat flights until September 1918 during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. He was flying the De Havilland DH-4 Liberty, a powerful and fairly maneuverable plane, but when loaded with a pilot, a bombardier, ordnance, and a full tank of gas, it was considerably slower than the German Fokker D.VII. Moreover, the Liberty’s gas tank was particularly vulnerable to enemy fire, which earned the plane the sobriquet “flaming coffin.”

Cooper flew both bombing and reconnaissance missions. His luck held until a bombing mission in late September during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. His flight was jumped sequentially by two groups of Fokkers. Cooper maneuvered his plane brilliantly and he and his bombardier, Ed Leonard, shot down three Fokkers before his own plane was riddled with bullets and ablaze. Cooper would have bailed out, but Leonard was wounded and only semi-conscious in the rear seat. With badly burned hands and using only his elbows and knees to control the stick, Cooper crash-landed the plane in a field.

By the time Cooper and Leonard had extracted themselves from the wreckage, a German pilot, who was one of those in the air duel, had also landed in the field. As described by Cooper, the handsome and medal-bedecked pilot strode over to the wounded Americans, saluted them, and rendered aid. German infantry soon arrived, and Cooper and Leonard were taken to a field hospital for treatment.

The two of them were listed as missing in action until the Red Cross sent word early in November that they were alive and recovering from their wounds in a German hospital. The Armistice was signed a week later, and Cooper and Leonard were soon repatriated.

Once back in France and now a captain, Cooper volunteered for a humanitarian mission to Poland. The Poles were starving, their condition made even worse by a Russian Bolshevik invasion. WWI may have been over, but the Polish-Soviet War had just begun. Cooper’s organization of truck convoys with tons of food and medical supplies endeared him to the Poles, especially in Eastern Galicia, now part of Ukraine. Cooper longed to join the Poles in fighting the Russian Bolsheviks, who were able to send more than 600,000 troops into Poland after defeating their White Russian foes.

Cooper personally contacted Poland’s head of state, Marshal Józef Piłsudski, asking permission to organize a squadron of American pilots to fight alongside the Poles and repay the debt America owed to Poland for the services of Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kościuszko, another Polish nobleman who served in the Continental Army with distinction. With Piłsudski’s approval, Cooper began recruiting American pilots. The first to join was Col. Cedric Errol Fauntleroy, a tall Mississippian who had flown in Eddie Rickenbacker’s squadron. Cooper wanted the squadron named in honor of Pulaski, but Fauntleroy wanted Kościuszko. Since “Faunt” was the ranking officer, the unit became the Kościuszko Squadron.

By January 1920, the squadron was in action, contributing significantly to turning the tide of battle against the Russians. Cooper was in combat daily, usually flying low-altitude missions against Cossack cavalry. He flew several missions to Kiev, where he had a beautiful Polish girlfriend. In July he was forced to crash-land for the second time in as many months, and this time the Cossacks captured him.

Cooper endured three days of beatings and whippings before arriving at the headquarters of the Cossack cavalry commander, Gen. Semyon Budenny. Cooper thought he would be interrogated and executed but was surprised to learn that Budenny had a fondness for the Kościuszko pilots. A few weeks earlier, they could have killed Budenny while he was riding in a train. However, the Americans saw his wife was with him and decided to fly by without attacking. Budenny offered Cooper a job as a flying instructor for the Bolsheviks, but Cooper would have none of it and was sent to a prison near Moscow.

Malnutrition and disease took prisoners week by week, and for various reasons, they were occasionally lined up against a wall and shot. Cooper was chosen for the wall three times, but each time, his execution was called off. During the spring of 1921, he and two Polish officers slipped away from a work detail in the forest and had the good luck to leap unseen aboard a freight train headed west.

The train took them most of the way to the Latvian border, but then they had to travel on foot, only by night, and only off the beaten path. At one point, Cooper had to cut the throat of a Russian soldier on patrol. Their final obstacle was an unguarded but impenetrable swamp. One of the Polish officers came across a smuggler who guided them through the swamp in return for the officer’s overcoat and Cooper’s shoes.

When Cooper reached Warsaw, he was greeted as a conquering hero. He said all that the Kościuszko Squadron did was nothing more than payback for the contributions of Pulaski and Kościuszko to America’s freedom.

Cooper would become one of Hollywood’s most important figures in its golden age, with six credits for direction, 19 for writing, and 68 for producing. He worked closely with John Ford, producing such classics as Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers.

People often say they don’t make movies like they used to. Maybe that’s because Hollywood doesn’t have men like Merian Cooper anymore.

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