The Beyond Amazing Life of Merian C. Cooper

Now that King Kong is back in action in a new blockbuster, the super-hyped Godzilla vs Kong, with a mammoth budget matching the scale of the two protagonists (some $160 to $200 million), patriots should note who the real hero of the Kong saga is.

It’s not the fictional monster pitted against the rapacious, prehistoric reptile. No, it’s the man who created Kong: aviator, explorer, and film producer Merian C. Cooper.

Cooper (1893-1973) was a bomber pilot in the First World War. He invented a unique artillery-spotting technique—flying close to ground level to draw enemy fire. Shot down in flames behind enemy lines, he greeted the armistice in a prison hospital. The German physicians who repaired his face had done an excellent job of plastic surgery. His hands remained noticeably scarred.

In the aftermath of the Great War, a fearsome, monstrous revolutionary philosophy streamed westward out of Moscow. It was called Bolshevism. Reporting for duty, Cooper requested assignment to Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration and was put in charge of humanitarian efforts in southern Poland.

No armistice was in effect in the former empire of the czars. The Poles, having declared their independence, were battling like David against the Bolshevik Goliath. Women, children, and the elderly manned the barricades in besieged cities. Teenage boys and pre-teens organized a Schoolboy Legion and took their places in the trenches.

This was no mere border conflict. The Bolsheviks were determined to sweep through Poland to spread their revolution from Eastern Europe to the Western democracies. A Southern gentleman, a descendant of the aristocracy of the Old South and heir to a tradition of brazen gallantry, Merian Coldwell Cooper was not made to practice neutrality when women and children were fighting for hearth and home.

He sought out the highest military authorities in Warsaw and proposed the idea of recruiting trained American pilots to assist the Poles in their hour of need, the way Tadeusz Kościuszko and Casimir Pulaski had come to the aid of the American colonists in 1776. The Poles’ necessity had increased beyond the point which any reasonable offer could be refused.

Cooper went off to Paris and assembled the Kościuszko Squadron, a group of fellow American aviators -- ten all told -- who flew for Poland in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-20. The “magnificent ten” dove out of the sky in open-cockpit biplanes against a force of 16,000 Cossack horseman armed with sabers, rifles, and machine guns, and indoctrinated in the Marxist-Leninist ideology.

The Bolsheviks planned a two-pronged attack, with the Cossack cavalry linking up at Warsaw with more than 100,000 Red Army infantry. Cooper and the Kosciuszko Squadron scattered the fierce Cossacks so relentlessly they were eventually forced to retreat. That exposed the flank of the Bolshevik infantry and enabled the Poles to parry and counter the intended knockout blow. His forces in disarray, Lenin sued for peace and resigned himself to building his fanciful utopia within the boundaries of Russia.

Three American aviators perished in the campaign. Cooper himself was shot down, captured by the Bolsheviks, and imprisoned in a Soviet P.O.W. camp in Moscow. The first M.I.A. in the long campaign to contain communism, Cooper escaped six months after the conclusion of the Polish-Soviet War. Returning to Warsaw, he received a hero’s welcome from the Polish government and people. Thousands of Poles attended the ceremonies in Warsaw when Cooper and his fellow squadron members received Poland's highest military honor, the "Virtuti Militari,” the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Cooper’s contribution to the miraculous Polish victory is perhaps the greatest story of American valor never told in motion pictures. After he returned to America, he mounted filmmaking expeditions to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa, made movie history with the original King Kong, and eventually became one of the leading Hollywood producers of the first half of the 20th century. As head of production at RKO in the 1930s, Cooper gave Katharine Hepburn her first big break and teamed Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers. He promoted the three-strip Technicolor process and helped launch Selznick International in partnership with David O. Selznick, and Argosy Pictures in partnership with John Ford.

In 1942, at the height of his cinematic career, he left Hollywood and returned to active duty with the Air Force. Cooper helped plan the Doolittle raid on Japan and became chief of staff to the commander of the Flying Tigers, General Claire Chennault. He retired from the Air Force as a Brigadier General and received an honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Despite that glittering resume, he looked back upon his work with the Kościuszko Squadron as the greatest accomplishment of his eventful life.

The postwar films he made with John Ford and John Wayne (Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, The Searchers) stirred the hearts of my generation and taught us what honor, courage, and determination were all about. His last motion-picture innovation, This Is Cinerama, a documentary showcasing an ultra-wide widescreen process, was released in 1952, during heightened Cold War tensions with Soviet Russia. It concluded with 24 minutes of aerial footage of the grandeur of America. “I ended it in this manner for one -- and only one -- purpose,” Cooper said, “to arouse the innate patriotism of the people of the United States.”

Today, a team of Hollywood outsiders is at last seeking to make a feature film about Cooper’s Kosciuszko Squadron—and for the same reason.

Let’s hope they succeed.

To learn more about the Merian Cooper/Kosciuszko Squadron film project, please visit the website of the Foundation to Illuminate America’s Heroes.

IMAGE: Cooper at the Latvian Border after escaping the Soviet POW camp. Public Domain.