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Hollywood Goes To War: Merian Cooper

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 11, 2023 3:04 am

Hollywood Goes To War: Merian Cooper

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 11, 2023 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, from the time he was a boy, Merian C. Cooper wanted to be an adventurer, a wish that propelled him into journalism, the National Guard, military aviation, two world wars. Amid these, he became a movie producer and writer, working on some cinematic classics, including King Kong in 1933. He even played one of the pilots in the film. Here again to tell this "Hollywood Goes to War" story is Roger McGrath.

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Here's McGrath. Marion C. Cooper was one of Hollywood's most important figures in its golden age. He rose to great prominence in 1933 when he co-wrote, directed, and produced the blockbuster King Kong.

Before he retired, he had six credits for directing, 19 for writing, and 68 for producing. He worked closely with John Ford, producing such Ford classics as Ford Apache, She Wore Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, Wagon Master, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers. What is generally not known about Marion Cooper is his service as a US Army pilot in World War I and then as the organizer of the Kosciuszko Squadron, a group of American pilots who came to Poland's aid and flew with great distinction in the Polish-Russian War of 1920. Marion Cooper is born in 1893 in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of a prominent attorney.

Cooper's line goes back to the colonial era in southeastern Georgia. Rising to prominence during the Revolutionary War is John Cooper, Marion's great-great-grandfather, who serves as a colonel alongside Kazmier Polaski, the Polish cavalry commander. After a meeting with Ben Franklin in Paris in 1776, Polaski sails to America and is soon reorganizing and commanding the Continental Army's cavalry regiments. Though his imperious manner causes controversy, the aristocratic Polaski serves with distinction in several battles, both before and after spending the winter of 1777 to 1778 with Washington at Valley Forge.

While leading a charge during the Battle of Savannah in May 1779, Polaski is grievously wounded by British grapeshot. Colonel John Cooper carries Polaski from the battlefield and, according to family lore, is at Polaski's side when the cavalry commander dies two days later. Kazmier Polaski becomes a hero to Americans, including Marion Cooper when, as a young boy, he is told stories of his great-great-grandfather and the Polish general. The young boy's imagination is also fired by hearing of the exploits of his great-uncle, Marion R. Cooper, who joins the 2nd Florida Infantry of the Confederate Army at the age of 16, fights heroically, suffers several wounds, and is commissioned as a captain at age 20. Moreover, the young Cooper is a voracious reader of tales of adventure, in particular, Paul du Chalou's, Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa. A thrilling account of Chalou's hunt for gorillas in the forests of the uncharted Crystal Mountains. Chalou's description of two native women being carried off by gorillas leaves a lasting impression on Cooper.

It isn't by accident that in 1933, Cooper co-writes, directs, and produces King Kong. Cooper's thoughts of adventure turned skyward when, at age 10 in 1903, the Florida boy reads of the Wright Brothers' 12-second flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. He vows that one day he will fly airplanes. Upon graduating from the Lawrenceville Prep School in New Jersey, Cooper receives an appointment to the United States Naval Academy. He performs well both academically and athletically, but Cooper has trouble controlling his wild nature and receives demerits for infractions of military discipline.

His fondness for strong drink gets him thrown into the brig during December 1914 and the Academy begins to dismissal proceedings. Cooper is only one semester shy of graduation and he can contest the proceedings, but he feels he has brought dishonor upon himself and his family and thinks it best for all if he leaves. Too embarrassed to return home, Cooper sails to Europe as a seaman aboard a freighter.

He thinks of enlisting to fly for Britain or France, but passport problems interfere. He returns to the United States and works at various jobs, including writing for the Minneapolis Daily News and the St. Louis Post Dispatch. He stops drinking entirely and excels at his jobs, but he does begin smoking a pipe.

In a letter to his father, he says of his pipe, he soothes many many a hatred and many a regret. And whenever I have wanted a good stiff drink, the old corn cob has always stuck by me and taken the place of John Barleycorn. In 1916, Cooper joins the Georgia National Guard and quickly finds himself on the Mexican border with General George Blackjack Pershing. Cooper thinks he will soon be pursuing Pancho Villa deep inside Mexico, but his duties are confined to patrolling the border. After several months and unlimited action, Cooper gets orders to the Military Aeronautics School in Atlanta. After a year of rigorous training, Cooper graduates first in his class of 150 cadets. The commandant of the school sends a telegram to Washington recommending the newly minted pilot, Mirian Cooper, for service overseas, saying, he is the best man in every respect who has yet entered this school. Lieutenant Cooper is in France by October 1917, but is in for several more months of training before being assigned to the 20th Aero Squadron. Injuries and a crash landing and months of heavy rains and fog delay Cooper's first combat flights until September 1918, which occurred during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. Cooper's flying the De Havilland IV Liberty, a powerful and fairly maneuverable plane, but when loaded with a pilot, a bombardier, ordnance, and a full tank of gas, it is considerably slower than the German Fokker D7. Moreover, the Liberty's gas tank is particularly vulnerable to enemy fire, which earns the plane the nickname Flaming Coffin. Lieutenant Cooper flies both bombing and reconnaissance missions.

His luck holds until a bombing mission in late September during the Meuse-Argon Offensive. His flight of De Havillands is jumped by two groups of Fokkers. Cooper maneuvers his plane brilliantly and he and his bombardier N. Leonard shoot down three Fokkers before his own plane is riddled with bullets and set ablaze. Cooper thinks of bailing out, but he decides to stick with the plane because Leonard is wounded and only semi-conscious in the rear seat. And you've been listening to the story of Marion C. Cooper, and he's the man who gave us King Kong and that's in 1933. When people saw this movie, they ran out of the theater. You can still watch it today and it's still a remarkable piece of cinema and also my goodness producing the classic John Ford movies like The Searchers or A Quiet Man or Rio Grande. Always in the lineage of this family, there was war and service. When we come back, more of Marion C. Cooper's story.

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All of that available at And we continue with our American stories. Marian Cooper's airplane is on fire after getting riddled with bullets in a dogfight against two German planes in World War One. He thinks of bailing out but decides to stick with the plane because his bombardier, Ed Leonard, is wounded and only semi-conscious in the rear seat.

Let's return to Roger McGrath. With badly burned hands and using only his elbows and knees to control the stick, Cooper crash lands the plane in a field. By the time Cooper and Leonard extract themselves from the wreckage, a German pilot, who is one of those in the air duel, also lands in the field. As described by Cooper, the handsome and metal-bedecked pilot strides over to the wounded Americans, salutes them, and renders aid. German infantry soon arrive and Cooper and Leonard are taken to a German field hospital for treatment. German doctors save Cooper's hands in Leonard's life. Cooper and Leonard are listed as MIA until the Red Cross sends word early in November that they are live and recovering from their wounds in a German hospital.

The armistice is signed a week later and Cooper and Leonard are soon repatriated. Once back in France and now a captain, Cooper volunteers for a humanitarian mission to Poland. The Poles are starving, their condition made even worse by a Russian Bolshevik invasion. World War One may be over, but the Polish-Russian war is just beginning. Cooper's organization of truck convoys with tons of food and medical supplies endears him to the Poles, especially in East Galicia, now part of Ukraine.

However, he longs to join the Poles in fighting the Russian Bolsheviks, who are able to send more than 700,000 troops into Poland after defeating their white Russian foes. Cooper personally contacts Poland's head of state, Marshal Joseph Politski, asking permission to organize a squadron of American pilots to fight alongside the Poles and repay the American debt owed to Poland for the services of Cashmere Polaski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko, another Polish nobleman who served in the Continental Army with distinction. With Marshal Polaski's approval, Cooper begins recruiting American pilots. The first to join is Colonel Cedric Errol Fauntleroy, a tall Mississippian who flew in Eddie Reicherbacher's famed squadron. Cooper wants a squadron named in the honor of Polaski, but Fauntleroy wants Kosciuszko. Since Fauntleroy is the ranking officer, the unit becomes the Kosciuszko squadron. In addition to Captain Cooper and Colonel Fauntleroy, the founding members of the squadron include Captain A.H. Kelly of Virginia, Captain Ed Corsi of New York, Lieutenant Ed Noble and E.P. Graves of Massachusetts, Lieutenant Carl Clark of Oklahoma, Lieutenant Ken Shrewsbury of Virginia, Lieutenant Elliot Chess of Texas, and Lieutenant George Crawford of Delaware, certainly a cross section of America.

Many more American volunteers will later join the squadron. By January 1920, the squadron is in action, contributing significantly to turning the tide of battle against the Russians. Captain Cooper is in combat whenever weather permits, often flying low altitude missions against the Cossack Cavalry, which is attempting to sweep through eastern Poland and into Warsaw. The American pilots employ tactics they learned in the World War I battles of San Miel and Argonne. First, they would fly over the Cossack columns at 600 feet above the ground and drop their bombs by hand. Then they would dive down to only a few dozen feet above the ground and fire their machine guns at the now fleeing Cossacks. These bombing and strafing attacks are devastating to the Cossack Cavalry, but also take a toll on American pilots.

Flying at such low altitudes, particularly on the strafing runs, means small arms can bring down the plane. Cooper also flies several missions to Kiev, where he has a beautiful Polish girlfriend. He later recalled, the day I flew down the street in Kiev with a wing almost shot off so I could wave to my beautiful luscious blonde and have her blow a kiss at me.

And if that wasn't worth risking your life for, I don't know what is, particularly as I had a date with her that night. On July 13, Cooper is strafing Cossack Cavalry when bullets rip through his gas tank and his engine begins to sputter. He switches to his reserve tank, but no luck. As his plane is gliding to the earth, he watches Cossacks galloping their horses to catch up with him. His dead stick landing is smooth, but then his wheels hit a ditch and the plane ground loops. Cooper is thrown out of the cockpit and hits the ground with a thud.

He struggles to his feet, walks a few steps, then passes out. Cooper regains consciousness with the help of a kick from the boot of a dismounted Cossack. Cooper sees he's surrounded by the notorious Russian cavalryman.

Cooper later says they look like wild dogs jumping after a piece of raw meat. He endures three days of beatings and whippings before arriving at the headquarters of the Cossack Cavalry commander, General Simeon Budenny. Cooper thinks he will be interrogated and executed, but as surprised to learn, Budenny has a fondness for the Costco pilots. A few weeks earlier, the pilots could have killed Budenny while he was riding in a train.

However, the Americans saw his wife was with him and decided to fly by without attacking. Budenny offers Cooper a job as a flying instructor for the Bolsheviks, but Cooper will have none of it and is sent to a prison near Moscow. Now nutrition and disease take the lives of prisoners week by week and for various reasons, prisoners are occasionally lined up against a wall and shot. Cooper is chosen for the wall three times, but each time his execution is called off. During the spring of 1921, he and two of his fellow prisoners, both Polish lieutenants, swear an oath to each other that they will attempt to escape or die trying. Days later, when they are among a group of prisoners taken into a forest to chop wood, Cooper and the Polish officers slip away, moving rapidly through the forest and they have the good fortune to come upon a rail line and leap unseen aboard a freight train headed west.

The train takes them much of the way to the Latvian border, but then it's traveled on foot only by night and only off the beaten path. At one point, Cooper has to cut the throat of a Russian soldier on patrol. When Cooper reaches Warsaw, he's greeted as a conquering hero.

Cooper says all the Kosciusko Squadron did was nothing more than payback for the contributions of Polaski and Kosciusko to America's freedom in the American Revolution. Once back in the United States, Cooper goes to work as a reporter for the New York Times. After six months, though, he's able to join an expedition led by a wealthy explorer from California, Edward Salisbury, that is sailing to far off places in search of adventure.

This is something Cooper has dreamed of since he was a little kid. The expedition takes Cooper to the most remote islands of the Southwest Pacific and to those of the Indian Ocean, islands of head hunting, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. Out of the expedition comes hundreds of photographs and hundreds of feet of film, which is turned into a documentary.

Also coming out of the expedition is a book, The Sea Gypsy, written by Mirian Cooper. The documentary and the book take Salisbury and Cooper to Hollywood. Cooper is soon writing, directing, or producing some of the best movies to ever come out of Hollywood. People often say Hollywood doesn't make movies like they used to. It may be because Hollywood doesn't have men like Mirian Cooper anymore. And a terrific job on the storytelling as always by Greg Hengler and a special thanks to Roger McGrath. We love the Hollywood Goes to War series and my goodness, so many great men served when they didn't have to. There were many other ways they could have gone about helping the effort, war bonds and the like. People like John Ford, Frank Capra, John Houston, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable.

Gable at the height of his career doing this over and over again. The story of Mirian Cooper here on Our American Story. I'm Malcolm Gladwell. I live way out in the country. I drive everywhere and you know what scares me? That feeling of finding myself stuck on the side of the road. But now, all of us can avoid that pain by getting our vehicle the part it needs before that breakdown oh no moment. With eBay guaranteed fit and over 122 million parts and accessories, you can make sure your ride stays running smoothly. For the parts and accessories that fit your vehicle, just look for the green check. Get the right parts, the right fit and the right prices. Let's ride. Eligible items only. Exclusions apply.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-05-11 04:44:43 / 2023-05-11 04:53:41 / 9

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