Knight of the Sky

Merian C. Cooper

  • Kazimierz Pulaski
  • Tadeusz Kościuszko
  • James Fenimore Cooper
  • Adam Mickiewicz

In the first half of the 20th century, many Poles went down in history as excellent pilots. These figures fought around the world, broke various records, and won competitions. American volunteers contributed greatly to the development of the Polish air force after the country’s independence in 1918. The most colorful US pilot active at that time in Poland was Merian C. Cooper (1893–1973), an aviator, United States and Polish Air Force officer, adventurer, screenwriter, movie director, and producer. Cooper became one of the founders of the legendary Kościuszko Squadron during the Polish–Bolshevik War (1919-1920). After returning to the US in the 1920s he began his movie career as a member of the Explorers Club, travelling around the world and documenting his adventures. Despite this, Cooper’s most famous film was King Kong. In fact, Cooper appeared at the end of the movie, piloting the plane that finally kills King Kong. In 1952 he was awarded an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement. Eight years later, Cooper received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Cooper inherited an emotional attachment to Poland from his ancestors. His great-great-grandfather, Colonel John Cooper was second-in-command under General Kazimierz Pulaski (1746-1779) during the American Revolution. According to family lore, he personally carried his mortally wounded commander and friend from the battlefield of Savannah to an American warship anchored in the Savannah River estuary. Two days later, Pułaski died in Cooper’s arms and was buried at sea.

Consequently, when Cooper learned that the Poles had launched their fight for independence, he decided to move to Poland. At this time, Cooper was in France as part of the US Air Force following the First World War. He told Marshal Józef Piłsudski, the founding father of independent modern Poland, that he “wanted to act in Poland as Kościuszko and Pułaski had acted in my own country”. He rounded up many US pilots and joined the Polish Air Force. They were assigned to 7th Squadron based near Lviv, which was soon christened the Kościuszko Squadron. One of the American pilots designed the insignia that was painted on each of the planes. It featured the red, four-cornered military cap that Supreme Commander of the Polish National Armed Forces Tadeusz Kościuszko (1746-1817), who became a national hero in Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, and the United States, wore in the uprising of 1794 and motifs from the American flag (stars and stripes). The squadron flew all over the Eastern lands. Cooper was shot down in July 1920 and captured by the Bolsheviks. He escaped from captivity and reached the Polish lines after marching around 700 kilometers through Eastern Europe. An interwar Polish film called Gwiaździsta eskadra (The Starry Squadron) was inspired by Cooper’s adventure. The film was the most expensive Polish film prior to World War II. After the war, all copies of the film in Poland were destroyed by the Soviets.

Poster of King Kong, Source: Wikipedia

Merian C. Cooper was a distant relative of James Fenimore Cooper, a prominent American writer of the first half of the 19th century. His historical romances depicting frontier and Native American life created a unique form of American literature. During a visit to Europe, James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) befriended Adam Mickiewicz, (1798-1855) the most prominent poet in the history of Polish literature. Mickiewicz came from the Eastern Lands of the former Commonwealth and his works were very strongly influenced by its multicultural environment. Mickiewicz was a great admirer of the US, which he called “the land of liberty” and the “Holy Land”. According to James Fenimore’s daughter, her father rode for hours in the countryside during his visit to Rome and “among those that rode with him, there was none, perhaps, whose society gave the author more pleasure than that of distinguished Polish poet Mickiewicz, a man whose appearance, manner, and conversation was full of originality and genius, while the sad fate of his country enlisted Mr. Cooper’s warmest sympathies in his behalf”. James Fenimore Cooper organized an American-Polish assistance committee for the Poles who were fighting for their independence during the November Uprising (1830-1831). Fenimore Cooper’s books were highly popular in the Eastern lands of the former Commonwealth among young readers, including prominent writers such as Czesław Miłosz. Merian C. Cooper shared his relative’s interest in Native American culture. In 1948 he produced the film Fort Apache, which was one of the first movies that presented an authentic and sympathetic view of Native Americans. In his review of the film’s DVD release in 2012, New York Times movie critic Dave Kehr called it “one of the great achievements of classical American cinema, a film of immense complexity that never fails to reveal new shadings with each viewing… among the first pro-Indian Westerns that portrays the Native Americans with sympathy and respect”