Returning from a Slavic land on a Slavic airline after serving a mission aiding the Catholic Church in Slavic Eastern Europe, I craved a little freedom from Slavdom. So I eschewed the late Slavic pope’s tradition and refrained from kissing the earth after touching down at O’Hare. Instead, I enjoyed a quiet cigarette outside arrivals, alternating lungfuls of Dunhills with lungfuls of the crisp and relatively clean Chicago air. (One doesn’t fully appreciate vehicle-emission standards until choking on the fumes of commie-era Ladas belching pollution with Bolshevik abandon.) After two enlightening months in Ukraine, whose spiritual highs and sinful lows mirror her tumultuous history, it was simply wonderful being home. It wasn’t merely a matter of feelings, either, but based on objective facts—elemental conveniences such as regular tap water. (It only flowed sporadically in my apartment in Lviv, and even the locals warned against drinking it unboiled.)
Other Americans weren’t so lucky. They also journeyed to that same part of the world on behalf of a noble cause, but never returned. While exploring Lviv one dank, icy afternoon in mid-February, I chanced upon the final resting place of Arthur Kelly, Edmund Graves, and T.V. McCallum, from Richmond, Boston, and Detroit, respectively. They rest in a corner of a Polish military cemetery, now located in the independent country of Ukraine: a corner that is America.
Then called Lwow and located in Poland, the western Ukrainian city of Lviv was spared devastation in World War II. But it was the scene of a pivotal battle during the 1918-20 war between the newly reestablished Polish state and the expansionist Soviet Union. If Lwow had been lost, the world today might be terribly different.
A company of American pilots, fresh from the Western Front, volunteered to help the Poles repel the Red Horde. Inducted into the Kosciuszko Squadron of the newly formed Polish air force, they were returning the favor of those Polish heroes, Casimir Pulaski and Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who helped America win her independence.
The prospect of adventure likely sweetened the pot, and the predominance of Scotch-Irish surnames among their ranks suggests that these were men who relished a good fight. The Kosciuszko Squadron attracted men who lived life to the lees. The most famous was Capt. Merian C. Cooper (1893-1973), whose great-great-grandfather, Col. John Cooper, served under Count Kosciuszko in the War for Independence. He was shot down, made a daring escape from a POW camp, and was awarded Poland’s highest military honor. Whether in war or in peace, however, Cooper out-Hemingwayed Hemingway.
A U.S. Naval Academy dropout (in his senior year), Cooper was a lifelong adventurer who began his active military career in 1916, chasing Pancho Villa with the Georgia National Guard, and ended it as chief of staff for the Fifth Air Force’s Bomber Command in the Southwest Pacific in World War II—another war for which he volunteered. A pioneering aviator and author, Cooper also racked up stellar movie credits, enjoying a long career in Hollywood as a screenwriter, actor, producer, and director. He had a big hand in making such classics as King Kong (which he cowrote, codirected, and appeared in) and most of John Ford’s films starring John Wayne. (He and Ford formed a production company in 1947.) Awarded medals for battlefield bravery, Cooper also won an honorary Oscar for similarly bold exploits on the big screen.
But back to the theater of the war.
In 1920, Lwow was attacked by the Red Army, backed up by division-sized cavalry assaults from the so-called Red Cossacks. The citizens prepared the city’s defense, fielding and equipping three regiments of infantry and cavalry. Aided by three additional Polish divisions, one Ukrainian division, the Americans, and a contingent from the French Army, they repelled the Reds after three days of fierce fighting. Among the dead were Capts. Arthur Kelly and T.V. McCallum. (Lt. Edmund Graves, the other American buried beside them, was shot down in an earlier engagement.)
“The American pilots, though exhausted, fight tenaciously,” reported one Polish general.
During the last offensive, their commander attacked enemy formations from the rear, raining machine-gun bullets down on their heads. Without the American pilots’ help, we would long ago have been done for.
Though few, the American aviators gave the Poles a key advantage in one of the last major unmechanized wars. A saber-wielding cavalryman was terrible for an infantryman, but no match for a strafing airplane.
The Battle of Lwow proved decisive because the Red commander, Marshal Semyon Budyonny, doggedly insistent on taking the city, diverted men and materiel from the main Soviet force massed outside of Warsaw. Fatally weakened, the Reds would lose the battle for Warsaw and, in turn, the Polish-Soviet War. (Later, the same Marshal Budyonny presided over two of the biggest routs in military history when the Wehrmacht surrounded the Red Army in the battles of Kiev and Uman. Instead of losing his head, he died of old age in 1973, a “Hero of the Soviet Union.” Being buddies with Stalin had its advantages.) That war, an important but underappreciated historical episode, is recounted in Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe, by Adam Zamoyski.
In 1934, the Poles completed a magnificent marble necropolis for the fallen “Defenders of Lwow,” with striking art-deco-style memorials honoring the Americans and Frenchmen who died there. It overlooks Lviv from a hillside of the famous Lychakovski Cemetery, the sprawling repository of Lviv’s polyglot population through the centuries: Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Russians.
Wandering this fascinating land of the dead—the gravestones, statues, and sepulchers reflecting, often in hauntingly ethereal beauty, the different ethnicities and epochs—breathed life into the histories I had read. Some of the German and Polish monuments had been defaced. I tried unsuccessfully to lift the overturned spire of a German family’s monument, the base of which bears a touching inscription, partially disfigured by hammer: “Schlummere Suess! Nach Allen Sorgen Brach[ten] [I]n Der Sabbathmorgen, / Ruh Nun Aus, Ruh Nun Aus / Selig in Des Vaters Haus!” (“Slumber, sweet one! After all cares, now on the Sabbath’s morning, peace rises! / Rest now, blessed in the Father’s House!”)
Toward the end of World War II, the Red Army seized control of Poland and western Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, the cemetery was desecrated, including the memorial to their American allies; the section commemorating the boy-soldiers (the “Lwow Eaglets”) was razed and converted into a truck depot; and most of the other tombs were bulldozed. “To trample the graves of the enemy is an apparently universal if regrettable human instinct,” wrote John Keegan in a poignant essay about military cemeteries, “There’s Rosemary for Remembrance.”
But after the Evil Empire expired, the pieces were literally picked up and put back together. In 2005, the fully restored cemetery—and the adjacent Ukrainian Galician Army Soldiers’ Memorial—was jointly dedicated by the presidents of Poland and Ukraine who, in the company of American and French diplomatic delegations, publicly patched up old animosities.
On the day I came across this magnificently dignified necropolis, a chill wind swept the silent solemnity of the place. I said a prayer in the restored chapel, empty but for a friendly guard and fresh garlands of flowers surrounding the crucifix and the statue of the Virgin Mary. After signing the guestbook, I opened the glass doors and was happily surprised by a brass plaque. The chapel had been restored through donations from Polish-Americans from Chicago: my home city and, by virtue of great-grandparents who emigrated from the same province as old Lwow, my people.
The ties of historical memory, binding a people to an ancestral land never visited and long-departed kin never known, are an elemental force in human nature. Dual loyalties needn’t compete. In fact, they should compliment each other, advancing what Edmund Burke called “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” A nation of “rugged individuals” is not a nation at all, really.
Regarding the Polish-Soviet War, Ukrainians tend to have bittersweet feelings, tilting toward the bitter. Before training their sights on each other, the Poles and the Soviets crushed the various Ukrainian independence movements and short-lived republics that had sprung up so hopefully in the wake of World War I. From the 15th century until 1991, however, the Ukrainians were a people without a country of their own. Ukraine, “the borderland,” was dashed and divided over time by Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Nazi Germany to the west; Russia to the north; the Mongols to the east.
Still, the Poles’ victory against the Soviets had two big salutary effects. First, Western Europe was spared the first thrust of communist expansion. Lenin believed that the supposedly capitalist-exploited, war-sick masses of Europe would flock to the Soviet banner wherever the Red Army tread. Thanks to the Poles, his belief never was put fully to the test. Second, because it was under Polish suzerainty, western Ukraine enjoyed a 25-year respite from communism. Eastern Ukraine was not so fortunate. Absorbed into the Soviet Union after the Polish-Soviet War, it travailed with the birth pangs of Bolshevism, from the communists’ brutal enforcement of militant atheism to the great famine orchestrated by Stalin in the early 1930’s, which killed upward of seven million Ukrainians.
Today, eastern Ukraine is drastically different from western Ukraine. There the wounds of communism are more hideous, evidenced in festering social ills that afflict the entire country (breakdown of the family, demographic collapse, a fatalistic nihilism). For in the first decades of Bolshevism, the Soviet scythe slashed with amateurish enthusiasm, cutting widely and deeply. As communism matured, it became more of a business than a labor of perverted passion. By the time it came to western Ukraine, it had entered the business phase.
The weekend in mid-March before I left Ukraine, I walked around an outdoor bazaar in Lviv, buying last-minute gifts for family and friends. It began to drizzle. At one stall, a woman sold old photographs, spread upon the ground on a sheet of plastic. Rain drops fell on vintage images from the Polish-Soviet War: cheering troops boarding a train bound for the front; cavalrymen on parade; a bloated horse carcass in the rubble of a bombed-out Lviv street; soldiers behind the lines sitting at a table beneath a forest canopy, drinking bottles of wine. I bought a parcel of pictures before the scenes of destruction were themselves destroyed by the rain. The memories of the conflict they depict remain alive in Ukraine, Poland, and far beyond.
And it was heartening to know that the Americans I met in memory—Captains Kelly and Graves, and Lieutenant McCallum—are honored to this day, their ultimate sacrifice rendered not in vain.