Obscure Warsaw mural reveals extraordinary tale of heroism – and King Kong!
Life does like its little challenges – if I thought that writing a travel column during the lockdown era had been difficult, I hadn’t gambled on the latest dastardly trick that the planet would play on me.
Knee surgery last week has meant that the furthest I’ve travelled in the days since has been the ten-metre distance from my bedroom to the bathroom – a journey I now cover in approximately the same time it once took me to reach Gdynia.
Anyhow, whilst that’s left me with a dearth of things to write about this week, it did force my hand to consider one of the more recent times that I had the good fortune to leave my postcode.
That would have been a couple of weekends ago when, during a moment of boredom, I ordered an Uber to Wesola, one of Warsaw’s fringe districts to the city’s far east. Given that I was merely going there to catch the second half of a dungeon level football match, I had expected little, yet this day trip yielded one of the most extraordinary stories I’ve come across in Poland.
You see, approaching the football ground, plastered on the side of a municipal building, I found a mural; depicting a bi-plane swooshing over a cavalry unit beneath, my first instinct had been to dismiss it as just another of those patriotic murals that are so frequent around Poland.
Only till I read the accompanying signboard did it dawn on me that it was dedicated to someone rather special: Merian C. Cooper.
Now to some, he may be known as an adventurer who felt compelled to risk his life for Poland’s independence; to others, he’ll forever be known as the creator of King Kong. Even in a country of unlikely and unexpected heroes, to discover a King Kong link to Poland was something of a ‘WTF’ moment.
Born in Jacksonville, Florida on October 24th, 1893, from the age of six Merian Caldwell Cooper expressed a desire for danger after being inspired by stories from a book titled ‘Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa’.
Soon, though, he proved these weren’t just childhood flights of fancy, but rather a genuine hankering for risky escapades – over the course of his life he would be captured by pirates, narrowly escape being eaten by a tiger, and become one of the darlings of Hollywood.
Thrown out of Naval Academy in 1911 for his “hell-raising” wild partying and insolent advocacy of air power, ‘Coop’ as he was often known lived life on the edge.
Getting a taste for this after joining the unsuccessful hunt for the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa in 1915, he later signed up for America’s nascent air force and came top of his class.
Sent to France at the tail end of WWI, he was twice shot down but survived each time – in one instance, he crash landed so spectacularly that he was presumed dead by his own side and a death certificate was issued. In reality, he had been taken into captivity by the Germans.
Returning to America in December 1918, he turned down a medal for his heroism stating that by accepting such an honour he would be dishonouring his fallen comrades.
Joining the American Relief Administration, he became active in organising aid for Poland and in 1919 found himself returning to Europe.
Although the precise timeline remains murky, most sources agree that it was around this time he met General Tadeusz Rozwadowski. A fierce critic of Bolshevism, Cooper was eager to join Poland’s fight against the Soviet Union and offered his services to Rozwadowski during a visit to Lwów and persuaded him to broker a meeting with Józef Piłsudski.
Initially dubious that Cooper was little more than a mercenary, the American stressed that he would not fight “for a penny more than Polish officers were earning”. On hearing this, Piłsudski reputedly sprang up and shook him by the hand.
Having recruited like-minded stray American pilots in the cabarets and cafes of Paris, Cooper arrived in Warsaw in autumn with his ragbag assortment of airmen.
Due to his rank and experience, Major Cedric Fauntleroy was appointed head of this newly-formed unit, and Cooper his deputy. Yet while many were motivated by the romantic promise of action, for Cooper his service for Poland was equally rooted in a sense of duty.
His great-grandfather, John Cooper, had fought for American independence directly under the command of General Kazimierz Pułaski and had made an oath while stood over the General’s dead body pledging his family would one day repay the debt they felt they owed Poland for its role in securing America’s freedom.
“General Pułaski gave his life for my country,” Cooper is alleged to have told Józef Piłsudski, “which is why my family treats my service to Poland during its own fight for freedom as a duty.”
Naming themselves the Kościuszko Squadron in honour of Tadeusz Koścuizsko, another Pole who had played a key role in the American Revolutionary War, the new recruits excelled in the Polish-Soviet War.
“American airmen, despite being exhausted, fight like mad,” read one battlefield report. “Without the help of the American airmen, we would have gone to hell long ago.”
Despite its inauspicious beginnings (one of the unit’s pilots died in a flight demonstration before any combat was even seen), the unit earned a reputation for their swashbuckling antics. “Bringing into our time something of an 18th century flavour,” gushed a columnist in the New York Times, “they remind of the days when gentlemen lent their swords willingly to a worthy cause.”
Cooper, of course, was at the forefront and was praised directly by Fauntleroy for his skill in battle. “Flying and fighting all day, Merian seems tireless and fearless,” wrote Fauntleroy in one citation. “The fiercer the fight, the more he likes it.”
Battle was indeed fierce. Used for reconnaissance missions, delivering orders and also in combat, the squadron flew 72 sorties alone on August 18th, 1920 as part of the Battle for Lwów.
By this time, however, Cooper was already out-of-action. Shot down on July 13th after a bullet fired from a horseman went through his engine, the American landed behind enemy lines and was immediately surrounded by seething Cossacks.
Imprisoned deep inside Russia, he was struck by typhus and to some degree owed his immediate survival to a Baltimore socialite, Marguerite Harrison, who was working as a journalist in the country.
Recognising him from a Red Cross dance held in Warsaw’s Bristol Hotel, she helped smuggle food to him and other such life-saving items.
Fully-recovered, Cooper escaped jail and trekked over 500 miles to Riga. Finally, having reached the border, he was smuggled over with two fellow Polish escapees in exchange for his coat and shoes.
Poland’s gratitude to Cooper and the unit to which he belonged was more than surface deep and on May 10th, 1921, all of the surviving pilots were decorated personally by Piłsudski with the nation’s highest military honour: the Virtuti Militari.
“A blush came to our faces,” wrote Cooper in later years, “for we felt that we had not failed, and that we had contributed, if only a little, to Poland.”
Yet even after the war, excitement was never far away. Briefly working as a journalist, his work took him to exotic countries and on wild escapades where he encountered gorillas, head-hunters, nomads, pirates, tigers and even Haile Selassie, the future Emperor of Ethiopia.
Back in New York, he found himself walking past a skyscraper one day and saw a plane flying past. “Without any conscious effort,” he recalled, “I immediately thought of a giant gorilla on top of the building.” At a stroke, the idea for King Kong was born.
Writing and co-directing the film, Cooper himself appeared in the film (flying one of the four planes attacking the overgrown ape), and his status in Hollywood was further cemented by his tireless campaigning for technicolour processes.
Recognised for his achievements by the Academy in 1953, he passed away in San Diego in 1973. But despite his later stardom, this did little to erode his passion for Poland and he is known to have kept close ties with the country long after the Polish-Soviet War.
Among other things, he looked after Polish refugees fleeing WWII, organised benefit events and travelled to Britain to meet with the Polish 303 Squadron (which also became known as the Kościsuszko Squadron) and award their commander, Witold Urbanowicz, with his own unit’s former badge.
A hero in the truest and noblest sense, just why Cooper has been remembered in Wesola I have not the foggiest idea – but I’m glad he has been. Moreover, for me at least, this mural lends further proof to my theory that even in the unlikeliest corners of Poland lurk the most fantastical stories waiting to be told…