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One fan knows another
June 20, 2011 - Stephen Browne
"Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile," Irish proverb.
("One beetle knows another," meaning "it takes one to know one." Don't even try to pronounce it. The rule of Irish Gaelic orthography is, you pronounce only the letters that aren't there.)
A commenter on my last post "Shakespeare and me," signed himself in as "Merion Cooper." Knowing absolutely nothing more about him, I deduce he is an old movie buff/film historian.
How could you possibly know that?
Elementary. Come Watson, you know my methods.
Merion C. Cooper (1893-1973) was an American film producer. From 1925 to 1963 he produced 66 movies, of which a significant number have become iconic. Most notably the original version of "King Kong," and including the John Wayne standards "The Quiet Man," and "The Searchers." Though he leaned strongly towards the action genre, he also produced films like the Katherine Hepburn version of "Little Women."
But Cooper never made the movie that might have been the greatest action movie ever - the story of his own life. Provided he could have crammed it into one feature-length film that is.
Where to begin? Resigned from the Naval Academy in his senior year over a disagreement on the importance of air power to the Navy, then joined the National Guard to chase Pancho Villa. Served in the U.S. Army flying corps in WWI, shot down and spent time as a P.O.W.
That would have been enough for a lifetime for most men. But perhaps feeling he missed out on the action, in 1920 he helped form the Kosciusko Squadron, a foreign legion of flyers who volunteered to fight for Poland in the Polish-Soviet War of 1920-21.
If you've never heard of that one, you can't be blamed, I've known Polish children who'd never heard of it. During the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe it got dropped in the memory hole of history. (I remember a conversation on the subject with a Polish academic, when his daughter asked somewhat incredulously, "Daddy, you mean Poland fought a war with Russia and Poland won?")
Seven Americans, none of them of Polish origin, flew for Poland mostly in rattletraps no entirely sane person would trust his life to. On a few occasions pilots flew out on missions and returned with the airplane on a horse-drawn wagon.
Of the seven American pilots, three were killed in action. The new nation of Poland, independent for only three years at the time, built them a tomb in the city of Lvov. When Lvov was ceded to the Soviet Union as part of the Ukrainian SSR after WWII, the Soviets covered it with a garbage dump. After Ukraine became independent they cleared away the garbage and reconsecrated the tomb. In spite of all their troubles, I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Ukraine for that gesture alone.
Flying for Poland Cooper was again shot down and made a P.O.W., this time of the Soviets. He escaped, killing a guard hand-to-hand in the process, and made his way back to Polish lines. He was awarded the Silver Cross of the Order of Virtuti Militari by Marshall Pilsudski (take my word for it, that means something in Poland) and the Cross of Valor.
Is that about a movie's worth of inspiration? There actually was one made in Poland between the wars, "Gwiazdzista eskadra" ("The Starry Squadron") but unfortunately the Soviets destroyed all copies during the occupation.
At the age of 48 he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces with the rank of Lt. Colonel and served in the Pacific Theater. He helped plan the logistics of the Doolittle Tokyo Raid, and even found time to pay a visit to the Kosciusko Squadron which escaped the fall of Poland and reconstituted in Britain as the Polish squadron of the Royal Air Force. He planned and led missions, and at the end stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri to witness the formal surrender of Japan. He retired with the rank of Brigadier General, and went back to making movies.
His reputation in Hollywood probably suffered because of his passionate support of Senator Joseph McCarthy, but then they hadn't seen what he'd seen.
He died of cancer in 1973 at the age of 80. His was a life well-lived to the end, an inspiration to all those who believe life is a high adventure, and a reproach to those who believe adventure is only found in movies.
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