The first combat flight of the Polish Air Force was made by Stefan Bastyr exactly 100 years ago. His attack on the Ukrainian forces attempting to capture the Central Station in Lwów on November 5th 1918 was the beginning of what would later become the famous Kościuszko Squadron. It consisted of American volunteers and was orchestrated by Merian C. Cooper, the legendary film director and fighter pilot.
After four years of carnage on a scale never seen before, the Great War came to an end on November 11th 1918, as a delegation of the German Empire signed the armistice in the Forest of Compiégne. But as the guns went silent on the western front, new conflicts had already started in the east.
One of US President Woodrow Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points, the American blueprint for world peace following the end of hostilities in Europe, was the resurrection of an independent Polish state. The ethnocultural mosaic in Central Eastern Europe made it impossible to draw up new borders which could please all parties. As a result, the newly recreated Polish state found itself fighting border skirmishes or outright wars with all its neighbors. The first hostilities were with the West Ukrainian People’s Republic over the city of Lwów on November 1st.
It was also here that the newly created Polish Air Force and the Polish 7th Air Escadrille, which in time would become the famous Kościuszko Squadron, saw its first battles.
The Poles had managed to take possession of some German and Austro-Hungarian planes earlier used in World War 1 but they needed more trained pilots than they had at their disposal. One of the solutions to the problem was to accept the offer by young idealistic American fighter pilots to serve as volunteers over the skies of Poland. The first eight of them arrived in late 1919, among them was 26 year old Merian C Cooper.
Cooper had acquired a taste for adventure as a young boy, dreaming of becoming an explorer after having reading about colonial ventures in the jungles of Central Africa. In 1916, he joined the National Guard on an manhunt, south of the US border, for the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. A year later, he found himself on the battlefront in France, serving as a pilot in the United States Army Air Service. True to form, for a man always seeking adventure, Cooper did not return to the US following the armistice, but moved to Poland and Lwów where he was put in charge of the humanitarian aid efforts, under the auspice of the American Food Administration.
The Polish-Ukrainian War had ended but peace did not return to Poland as a new conflict started with the Soviet Union in the spring of 1919. Cooper quickly realized that air power could give Poland a decisive advantage over the Soviet Union on the highly mobile war theatre in the east. After describing his plans to the Polish general, Tadeusz Jordan-Rozwadowski, Cooper was given an audience with the Polish head of state, Marshal Józef Piłsudski, who after some hesitation allowed him to form a squadron of American fliers.
The adventurer travelled to Paris, looking for American volunteers who had remained in France months after the armistice. There he ran into an old friend, Major Cedric Fauntleroy, who swiftly agreed to fight for Poland. The two men managed to convince another 6 American pilots to travel back to Poland with them, laying the foundation for the Kościuszko Squadron. More volunteers arrived in the coming weeks, bringing the number of Americans up to a total 21, plus a couple of Poles who also the squadron.
Major Fauntleroy, being the highest ranking officers, assumed the role of commander of the Squadron. Cooper was made second in command and the head of one of the squadrons two flights, named after the Polish American Revolutionary War hero, Count Kazimierz Pułaski. Cooper was, to a large degree motivated to come to Poland’s aid because of a desire to repay a debt to the motherland of Count Pułaski, who had fought together with Cooper’s Great Great Grandfather John against the British in the Battle of Savannah. According to family legends, it was John Cooper who carried his close friend, the mortally wounded Count Pulaski from the battlefield.
The Kościuszko Squadron was sent into battle in April 1920 as the Polish Army was on the march toward Kiev. Soon however, a Bolshevik counteroffensive threw the Poles back, and the American fliers made their greatest impact on the war effort in their role as defenders of the the city of Lwów from the communist onslaught. It was here that they came up against, what would become its main adversary for the rest of the war, namely the ferocious Soviet 1st Cavalry Army under the command of Semyon Budyonny, better known as Konarmiya or “horsearmy”. Made up of around 15,000 cossack cavalrymen, well-equipped and highly mobile, it was a unique military formation and the stuff of legend. Moving in columns that could go on for miles, the tens of thousands of horse hooves threw up dust into the air, creating dust clouds visible from far away. It’s cossack soldiers had a reputation for being unusually ferocious and merciless, even by Red Army standards. As the Polish troops retreated, it fell on the Kościuszko Squadron to try to slow its advance. The key tactic deployed would be to fly as low as possible, while strafing the long columns of cossacks.
The Americans were successful and significantly contributed to saving Lwów, by buying time for the Polish Army to deliver its decisive counterattack on the outskirts of Warsaw, in what later became known as the “Battle of Warsaw” or “The Miracle on the Vistula”. Cooper himself ran out of luck on July 13th 1920, being shot down behind enemy lines and taken prisoner. He spent months in a prisoner of war camp. After being subjected to a mock execution, he opted to escape with two other Polish prisoners. They trekked 700 kilometers before reaching safety in Latvia in April 1921, just a couple of weeks after a defeated Soviet Union had no option but to agree to sign a peace treaty with Poland in the Latvian capital city Riga. After receiving Poland’s highest military decoration from Marshal Piłsudski, the Order of Virtuti Militari, Cooper returned to the US and quickly fulfilled his childhood dreams by going on a number of expeditions to exotic destinations. During one of them, he recorded his first film, “Grass”, released in 1925 and considered to be one of the first ethnographic documentary films ever made. It chronicled the hardships of the nomadic Lur people living in Persia as they migrate according to the seasons in search of better pastures.
The film that immortalized him in Hollywood was released in 1933. One night Cooper dreamt about a giant gorilla ravaging New York City. After waking up he transcribed the dream and used it as the basis for his manuscript. “King Kong” was an immediate success and the iconic scene in which Kong climbs the Empire State Building while trying fend of a number of fighter planes remains one of the most famous scenes in movie history. Despite his success in Hollywood, Cooper returned to the military after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Taking part in flying missions in India and China, Cooper rose through the ranks and was present onboard of the USS Missouri, witnessing the representatives of the Japanese Empire signing the Instrument of Surrender. He was promoted to Brigadier General after the war.
After returning to the US following the 1919-1921 Polish-Bolshevik War, Cooper stayed active in Polish veteran circles. He organized a charity concert dedicated to Poland after hearing of Germany’s invasion of the country in 1939. During the Second World War, he made contacts with the fliers of the Kościuszko 303 Squadron based in the UK. The Polish 303 Squadron was a successor unit to Cooper’s original squadron and kept its original badge. It had the highest ratio of enemy aircraft destroyed to their own lost from all of the squadrons that participated in the 1940 Battle of Britain.
Following the end of the Second World War, he helped Polish pilots who had fought with the Allies and couldn’t return to communist controlled Poland, to settle in the US.
Merian Caldwell Cooper, the famous American adventurer, screenwriter, film director, producer and national hero of two nations passed away in San Diego in 1973 at age 79.