From Polish Pilot to “King Kong” Director: The Story of Merian C. Cooper

Most of us have probably seen clips of the 1933 film version of King Kong. It’s one of the most famous black and white monster movies ever made. In the iconic final act, the giant ape carries a damsel to the top of the Empire State Building as fighter pilots circle overhead, attempting to shoot down the beast.

Today, the scene doesn’t seem all that impressive from a cinematic perspective, but it was the Star Wars of its day. The audience would have gasped not only at the giant gorilla, but also at the fighter planes buzzing around the Empire State Building, shooting at it. After all, war planes were less than twenty years old at the time, being first used during World War I.

The movie’s director, Merian C. Cooper, knew what he was talking about when he created those fighter plane scenes. He had spent his youth as a pilot during the First World War. However, his claim to military fame came largely from founding a Polish-American fighter squadron that helped defend Poland against the Soviet Union during the early 1920s.

Pułaski Reborn

When one learns that an American director from the 1930s with the last name of Cooper risked his life fighting for Poland, the first question is why. After all, Cooper was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and there’s nothing Polish-sounding about his last name. In fact, his family had been in the United States for generations. Why would an American boy like Cooper know or care about a country 4,600 miles away?

The answer lies, perhaps, with Cooper’s family connection to Polish General Kazimierz Pułaski, who had fought and died for America’s independence during the Revolutionary War. Cooper’s great-great grandfather, John Cooper had fought with Pułaski at the Battle of Savannah, during which the latter was fatally wounded. According to Cooper’s family legend, John Cooper carried the dying Pułaski away from the battlefield. If that’s true, then it’s possible that the most famous Polish-American in history died in the arms of Cooper’s ancestor.

Whether that story is myth or fact, it, along with his innate thirst for adventure, likely played a role in Cooper’s decision to help Poland. In poetic fashion, Cooper would be completing a circle of sacrifice–just as a son of Poland had once fought for America, so too would a son of America fight for Poland 140 years later.

Forming the Kościuszko Squadron

Cooper excelled as a pilot almost from the moment he went airborne. He entered pilot school in Atlanta in 1917 and graduated at the top of his class. Shortly after, he shipped off to France to serve in the United States Army Air Service, where he learned to be a bomber pilot. After his plane was shot down in flames in September 1918, Cooper miraculously managed to land and survive.

The war ended in November 1918, but Cooper wasn’t done seeking adventure. He went to Poland to do humanitarian work as a member of the American Food Administration. It’s at this time that he likely fell in love with the fledgling republic.

From 1918-1920, Poland was beginning to recover from more than 120 years of foreign rule. Prior to World War I, Poland had been partitioned by Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. All three occupying powers collapsed after the war, allowing Poland to win its independence with international support.

Trouble wasn’t far, however. Russia, the largest occupying power, had mutated into the Soviet Union and aimed to spread its communist revolution into western Europe. No sooner had Poland regained freedom than that freedom was put to the test.

Correctly suspecting an impending Soviet invasion, Poland launched a preemptive strike against Soviet-controlled Ukraine in what became known as the Kiev Offensive of April 1920. Although the Poles managed to seize the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, their victory was short-lived. The Soviets responded with a powerful counterattack that threatened Poland’s newfound independence.

Cooper was in Poland during these tumultuous times and decided he needed to act to protect his adopted country, perhaps, as mentioned, to repay the sacrifice of General Pułaski. After meeting with Polish general, Tadeusz Jordan-Rozwadowski and the leader of Poland, Marshal Józef Piłsudski, Cooper was given permission to form a fighter squadron of American pilots that would fight for Poland.

In a move analogous to the plot of The Magnificent Seven, Cooper traveled to Paris to recruit American pilots who had hung around after the war. In this case, he recruited eight volunteers and formed the Kościuszko Squadron with Major Cedric Fauntleroy in September 1919. The squadron was named after another Polish-American Revolutionary War hero, Tadeusz Kościuszko.

The Official Emblem of the Kościuszko Squadron. In the middle is a traditional Polish cap (rogatywka) crossed by two scythes representing the weapons wielded by Polish peasants during the Kościuszko Uprising of 1794. The stars and stripes represent the American flag.

Eventually, 21 American pilots joined the squadron, along with some Poles. The extra pilots enabled Cooper to create and take command of a sub-squadron, which was named after General Pułaski. Initially, the squadron primarily flew Albatros D.III fighters. It also made unique use of railroad cars that were specially designed to transport the planes.

After the Poles captured Kiev in April 1919, the Russian First Cavalry Army, under the command of Semyon Budionny, began a massive counterattack that drove them back westward. This series of events eventually culminated in the Polish-Soviet War of 1920 where, ultimately, the Poles defeated the Soviets at the Battle of Warsaw, foiling their plot to spread communism to the west.

Cooper and the Kościuszko Squadron played a key role in reconnaissance and ground attacks against Budionny’s cavalry, providing critical support for Polish troops on the ground. In most engagements, the squadron would fly low against the enemy, raining down machine gun bullets on the scrambling Soviets.

One of the squadron’s proudest moment came in defense of the city of Lwów in August 1920, where the American pilots slowed the Soviet advance, giving the Polish Army time to repulse the Red Army’s assault on Warsaw further west. Later that month, during the Battle of Komarów, the American pilots assisted in the near-destruction of Budionny’s Soviet cavalry.

Cooper himself couldn’t participate in these final acts of the Polish-Soviet War, as his plane was shot down in July 1919. Captured by the Soviets, Cooper spent nine months in a prisoner-of-war camp until he escaped and walked more than 400 miles to Latvia, where he was finally rescued. For his heroic service, Cooper was awarded the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military decoration, by Marshal Piłsudski.

After his service in Poland, Cooper returned to the U.S., where he worked as a journalist for a time before becoming a movie director. The rest is history.

Returning the Favor

By organizing the Kościuszko Squadron and helping defend Poland, Cooper symbolically returned the favor Poland had given America in General Pułaski. The squadron itself continued into the future. During World War II, it was reorganized into the No. 303 Squadron RAF, which became the most successful squadron in the Battle of Britain.

Cooper’s story exemplifies the deep connection the U.S. has had with Poland throughout history. The two countries have long been allies in their fight for freedom and nationhood. His story is also a living testament to the allure Poland has for Americans. Whether one is Polish, or a homegrown American boy like Cooper was, it’s easy to fall in love with Poland.


Uncovering Poland’s Mysterious Krakus Mound


Krakus Mound ViewOn the southern bank of the Vistula River in Krakow lies one of the city’s most ancient mysteries. Anyone could mistake it for a large hill, but it’s not—at least not a naturally-made one. 

Known as Krakus Mound, or Krak Mound, this 52-foot pile of earth has overlooked the city for centuries. It’s Krakow’s much-smaller answer to the pyramids of Egypt, although historians have a far greater understanding of the pyramids. 

Who built Krakus Mound? When was it built? Why was it built? Archaeological digs in and around the mound have uncovered conflicting answers to these questions.  

Theories range from the mound being the burial place of Krakow’s legendary founder, to an ancient Celtic monument.

The Legend 

King Krak
King Krak, the legendary founder of Krakow

The oldest legends behind Krakus Mound state that it is the burial place of King Krak, Krakow’s legendary founder. According to accounts by Poland’s earliest historians, Krak was crowned king by his people after fighting the ancient Gauls in central Europe sometime after the fall of Rome. 

Most famously, King Krak is tied to the legendary slaying of Krakow’s infamous Wawel Dragon, who terrorized the people.  Some versions of the story give Krak’s sons credit for killing the beast, while others claim Krak did it himself (There are still other versions of this story that claim Krak was a mere boy when he slew the dragon and then became king). 

When King Krak died, the legends say Krakow’s inhabitants constructed a mound overlooking the city and buried him in it. Tradition holds this became Krakus Mound. 

Digging up the Mound 

For centuries, Poles wondered if King Krak was truly buried in Krakus Mound. In the 1930s, an archeological expedition decided to find out. 

Excavators from the Polish Academy of Learning dug into the mound in 1934 hoping to find evidence of King Krak’s grave and figure out when it was constructed. 

At the base of the mound, excavators uncovered pottery from the Lusatian people, who inhabited modern-day Poland from roughly 1500 BC to 500 BC. This pottery, and other flintstone tools found at the site, would mean the mound was more than 2,000 years old.  

Krakus Mound Excavation
Excavators dug into Krakus Mound in the 1930s to determine its age and purpose.

However, historians haven’t accepted this date, citing the possibility that the ancient pottery was already inside the earth when it was used to build the mound. Of course, there’s no way to prove or disapprove that. 

Near the top of the mound, a child’s skeleton was discovered, along with traces of a large hearth. The hearth has led historians to believe that the mound could have been used as a cremation burial, which was a common practice by pagans in that part of Europe between the 8th and 10th centuries. This fact challenges the idea of the mound being a tomb. 

Further down in the mound, root fragments of a giant oak tree were found. Experts estimated the tree was 300 years old when it was cut down. They theorized it could have been a “sacred” oak used in worship by Poland’s pagans and was chopped when Poland converted to Christianity during the second half of the 10th century. However, the roots were never officially dated, so this is speculation. 

At the lowest levels of the mound, traces of wooden fences were found, as well as evidence of a large post. The purpose of the fences and posts is unknown, although experts have proposed they were included to stabilize the mound. A large amount of stones was also found deep inside. 

Although excavators uncovered no evidence of a grave holding King Krak, an Avarian belt-fixture was found dating to the 8th century, as were coins depicting Czech prince Boleslaus II from the 10th century. The Avars were a tribe of Central-Asian, Turkic-speaking nomads who moved through Poland in the 7th and 8th centuries in their campaigns against the Franks. These items have led many historians to date the mound to between the 8th and 10th centuries. 

At the end of the day, the excavations failed to yield any certain answers. Historians generally believe the mound was used as a Slavic cremation burial or ceremonial lookout during the early middle ages, but the variety of conflicting archeological finds casts its origins into doubt.

The Celtic Connection 

Popular culture tends to associate the ancient Celts with Britain and Ireland, but they are also known to have settled in southern Poland beginning as early as the fifth century BC.  

Sketching of Krakus Mound from 1860, showing the Rękawka festival, which takes place on the Tuesday after Easter. The wealthy would throw food down the mound at the peasants, who would collect it.

Historians believe the Celts were drawn to the fertile farmland in southern Poland. They brought many technological advances with them, including the potter’s wheel and iron tools, that would set the stage for future civilizations on the Polish lands. 

Some experts theorize that Krakus Mound, as well as Wanda’s mound, which is another ancient mound in the city, served an astronomical purpose for the Celts.

If you stand atop Krakus Mound on May 2 or September 10, you can see the sun rise directly over Wanda’s Mound. If you stand atop Wanda’s Mound on February 6 or November 4, you can see the sun set directly over Krakus Mound. These dates all closely correspond to important Celtic religious observances. 

Some historians have also noted an ancient festival involving Krakus Mound called Rękawka. For centuries, the well-off people of Krakow would gather atop Krakus Mound on the Tuesday after Easter and throw bread, eggs, apples and other types of food at peasants gathered at the base of the hill as a form of charity.

Experts have connected this festival to ancient Slavic and even Celtic practices. It’s possible that when Poland was Christianized, the Church replaced the pagan version of the festival with a Christian one.

Although the evidence linking Krakus Mound with the ancient Celts is circumstantial, it provides a strange coincidence at least, and at most a connection to an ancient culture.

An Enduring Mystery

Krakow View
View of Krakow’s Wawel Castle.

Clearly, no one knows for sure the age or purpose of Krakus Mound, despite a detailed excavation and numerous archeological finds.

The various items discovered, from the Avarian belt-fixture, to the Lusatian pottery, point to conflicting periods of time when the mound could have been constructed. 

No grave was found, although Professor Leszek Paweł Słupecki argues that Krakus Mound is the remnant of a much larger system of mounds, based on Krakow city plans he has studied from the 18th century.  

This opens the possibility that it was part of a “mound cemetery” that has not survived to this day. Furthermore, the mound was not excavated in its entirety, although most historians believe enough of it was explored to rule out there being a grave. 

There is also the matter of the remains of the large hearth atop the mound, which implies the mound was a cremation burial from the early middle ages. Most scholars seem to favor this theory, or the one that argues the mound was ceremonial. 

Short of further research, Krakus Mound will remain an intriguing mystery, as it continues watching over Krakow into the next millennium.



Click to access SMS_02_Slupecki.pdf

Click to access 09_Florek.pdf


Not the Beginning: Putting Polish Independence Day in Context

It’s the 101st anniversary of Poland’s independence, and celebrations are being held around the world in commemoration. This coincides with the 101st anniversary of the end of World War I on November 11, 1918 and Veterans Day in the United States.

The two events are intricately linked. The end of the Great War and collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian monarchies ushered in an age of freedom and independence for many former subjects, including Poland.

But the November 11, 1918 independence date sells Poland short. True, Poland gained its freedom after 123 years of foreign occupation, but it’s important not to forget that Poland had been a powerful, independent kingdom prior to its partitions in the late eighteenth century.

Poland’s Glorious Past

Polish Winged Hussar
A Polish Winged Hussar

Not only had Poland been independent in a distant age before 1918, it had thrived as one of the largest and most powerful states in Europe.

Its origins can be traced to the Dark Ages during the migration of Slavic people into Europe. Sometime in the eighth to ninth centuries, a tribe of the Western Slavs, the Polans, settled the Warta River Basin in the region today known as Greater Poland.

In 966 AD, the Polan ruler, Mieszko I, converted to Christianity in what became known as the Baptism of Poland. This date is traditionally taken to be Poland’s beginning as a state.

Over the next three centuries, Poland’s rulers expanded its territories to include much of modern-day Poland and beyond. Political infighting during the twelfth century and a Mongol invasion in the middle of the thirteenth threatened to destroy the fledgling kingdom, but it survived.

In the fourteenth century, Poland began an intimate relationship with its neighbor Lithuania to form a coalition against the encroaching German Teutonic Knights. In 1410 during the Battle of Grunwald, the German Knights were crushed by the Poles and Lithuanians and eventually became their vassals.

In 1569, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was officially formed. At its peak, this massive state stretched from the Baltic to the Black Seas, spanning 400,000 square miles with a population of 11 million.

During this time, Poland became one of the most advanced states in Europe politically, culturally and scientifically. It was one of the earliest states to experiment with democracy by having its kings elected by the nobility. Granted, these “Golden Liberties” enjoyed by the nobles were not shared with the common people, but Poland’s government was leagues ahead of the royal absolutism prevailing in countries like France and Russia.

Nikolaus Copernicus, the Polish astronomer who formulated the idea of heliocentricity.

Poland was also much more multiethnic and religiously tolerant than its European neighbors at the time. Jews, who had been kicked out of virtually every western country were welcome in Poland.

Culturally, poetry and literature flourished. Jagiellonian University in Krakow was a center of learning and scholarship, producing such luminaries as Nicolaus Copernicus who formulated that the earth revolved around the sun.

Militarily, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a force to behold. The Ottoman Empire learned this the hard way when, during their Siege of Vienna in 1683, they were cut down by legions of Polish Winged Hussars, who drowned them in a sea of white and red.

This Golden Age of Poland, lasting from roughly the fifteenth through the early seventeenth centuries, is forgotten by many thanks to its collapse and subsequent repression by occupiers. Internal corruption and external aggression doomed Poland in the eighteenth century when it was engulfed by Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary.

Polish Independence Day, then, commemorates the hope and national zeal of the Polish people in 1918, a people who still had a faint recollection of Poland’s Golden Age and sought to resurrect it.

A New Chapter

Today, Poland’s near-destruction in World War II somewhat dampens the significance of its independence in 1918. After all, just two decades after regaining freedom, Poland faced not only political repression but the possibility of total extinction, first from the Germans and then from the Soviets. It emerged from those dark times, but the world had largely forgotten about it due to its enemies’ attempts to erase its history and culture.

Many look at November 11, 1918 as Poland’s beginning, not knowing what came before, but that doesn’t do this great nation and people justice. Celebrate Polish Independence Day but do so in context. It was the start of a new chapter in Polish history, not the beginning of the book.

One of the Earliest Airplanes Flew in Poland in 1648

Polish invention airplane
A drawing of Burattini’s “flying dragon.”

Every school kid knows that the Wright brothers built the first successful airplane in 1903 and invented modern aviation. That doesn’t mean they were the first to try. If you happened to be in Warsaw during February 1648 and looked up, you might have seen a cat flying a mechanical dragon.
Wait. What? Let’s back up a little.
At that time, there happened to be an Italian inventor living in Warsaw named Titus Livius Burattini (Latin names were common then). Burattini had been born in Agordo, Italy in 1617 but had come to Poland in his twenties. He spent some time in Krakow before moving to Warsaw in 1646.
Burattini was a scientist and inventor who always had his eyes on the skies. Upon first arriving to Warsaw, he spent his days constructing telescopes and making astronomical observations. He even crafted lenses that fitted the telescope of renowned Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius.
Among Burattini’s interests was the concept of flight. Man had dreamed of flying since ancient times. As early as 400 BC, the Greek scientist Archytas had constructed a primitive mechanical flying device. Of course, no one had yet demonstrated that it was possible to build a machine that could fly people. The Montgolfier brothers would not invent the hot air balloon until the 1780s, and the Wright brothers were more than 200 years away.

The “Flying Dragon”

In 1647, Burattini wrote a treatise entitled “Flight is Not Impossible as Previously Commonly Believed.” In it he presented various theories on how humans could fly, including one that he put into practice.
Burattini conceptualized an ornithopter, which is an airplane that flies by flapping its wings, much like a bird or insect. However, his ornithopter would be shaped like a dragon with several sets of wings: two main wings on each side, four on top and two toward the front (perhaps his inspiration came from Poland’s famous Wawel Dragon). The device would seat a crew of two people, who would alternate operating the wings through a system of levers and springs. The tail would act as a rudder.
This “flying dragon” would be made of wood and whalebone and covered in fabric. It would include a parachute attached to the hull to soften the landing should the wings fail. The hull was even supposed to double as a boat in case the device landed in water.
To demonstrate to Wladyslaw IV, King of Poland, that the project warranted official funding, Burattini built a simplified, roughly 5-foot-long model powered by a system of levers, wheels and springs. In February 1648, Burattini put a cat inside this miniature “flying dragon,” and set it off with the pull of a string. Sources imply that the first test flight occurred without incident, but the device crashed during the second flight (hopefully the cat had some of its nine lives to spare).
A few months after the crash, Burattini built another model, designed for easy disassembly, which he sent to France for study. After that, Burattini seemingly abandoned his dream of building a successful flying machine, or at least the sources are quiet on the matter.
Burattini’s “flying dragon” is a footnote in the history of flight (I couldn’t even find any English-language sources documenting the device). However, it speaks to the talent and ingenuity coming out of Poland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although he wasn’t Polish, Burattini’s experiments were made possible in Poland thanks to a culture of intellectualism and discovery.
Obviously, the “flying dragon” failed in the long run. But, for a brief moment in 1648, the skies of Warsaw were 300 years ahead of their time.


>> Inżynierowie Polsce w XIX I XX Wieku
>> Latający smok i amfibia, czyli jak Władysław IV o księżycu konferował

The Pole Who Would Eat Anything

Charles Domery like set a Polish record for appetiteThe phrase “I’m so hungry I could eat an elephant” doesn’t seem all that over-the-top when you hear the strange story of Charles Domery (aka Charles Domerz), a Polish soldier serving in the Prussian army during the late 18th century.

Details about Domery’s early life are scant, but he was reportedly born in the village of Benche in Prussian-occupied Poland around 1778. One of nine brothers, he shared an unusual trait with all his siblings—an inhuman, insatiable hunger. We don’t know what happened with his brothers, but we do have a record of his disturbing tale.

The outside world first learned of Domery’s frightening appetite when he was thirteen years old serving in the Prussian Army (Prussia controlled part of Poland at that time and enlisted Poles into its military). At the time, Prussia was fighting France in the War of the First Coalition. Starving because of food shortages in the army, Domery defected and entered a French town searching for sustenance. He surrendered to the local French commander who offered him a giant melon to eat. Domery devoured it, rind and all, before enlisting in the French military, which wasn’t ready for its new recruit.

Eating anything that moves

Over the course of his service in France, Domery reportedly ate 174 stray cats in one year because the army rations were not enough for him (I’ll stick with pierogi). Sometimes, he was so hungry that he ate the animals live, leaving only skin and bones. Dogs and rats endured the same fate, according to one of Domery’s comrades. Shockingly, despite preferring to eat the meat raw, Domery did not get sick. On the contrary, his appearance was described as “six feet three inches high, thin [with] a pale complexion, gray eyes and long brown hair.”

catDisgusting as this was, it got worse. Once, when aboard a ship, food was scarce. It got so bad, Domery couldn’t even rely on catching an unlucky stray dog or cat for supper. During a battle, one of his comrade’s legs was shot off. Domery reportedly grabbed the dismembered leg and started munching on it before his shipmates wrested it away.

In 1799, Domery, then serving on the French frigate the Hoche, was captured and imprisoned by the British, who studied him and wrote an official medical account. While imprisoned, Domery fascinated his captors with his appetite and was eventually granted the rations of 10 men. This was not enough. He supplemented his diet by devouring the prison cat and at least 20 rats, in addition to several candles. Whenever a fellow prisoner refused to take his medicine, Domery graciously volunteered to take it for him, not for healing, but as food.

The Experiment

Stunned by what they observed, the British called in two doctors to run tests. At 4:00 a.m. on the morning of these tests, Domery was fed four pounds of raw cow udder, which he finished without issue. About five hours later, he was served five pounds of raw beef, 12 large candles and a bottle of porter. Again, he consumed all this without difficulty. Less than four hours later, he ate another five pounds of raw beef, one pound of candles and three large bottles of porter. No sweat.

The doctors reported that he was healthy throughout all the tests. While most other human beings would have probably been vomiting, Domery was reportedly in a good mood and went out for a smoke.

To this day, no one can explain Domery’s alien appetite. Although there is a medical condition called polyphagia in which sufferers have unusually large appetites, it is not known to be as severe as whatever Domery had. This has caused some experts to speculate whether he suffered from brain damage. Nobody knows what became of Domery after his imprisonment.

Strangely, despite his voracious appetite and ability to consume large quantities of raw and sometimes inedible or diseased objects, Domery hated vegetables.