WW1 Pilot, Adventurer, King Kong Movie Maker Merian C. Cooper Lived An Exciting Life

King Kong

In 1893 Merian Caldwell Cooper made his debut into world in Jacksonville, Florida.  He grew up during the heyday of silent films and spent as much time as possible sitting in movie houses dreaming about the adventures he saw on the silver screen.

At the time he didn’t know it but he would eventually be one of the men who created King Kong but only after a remarkable life of service.

Cooper’s father got him an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy but because he was vocally supporting the use of aircrafts in the military and a bit of a hell raiser, his appointment was revoked.  Not to be deterred, he became a reporter and joined the National Guard’s chase for Pancho Villa.

According to warhistoryonline.com, Cooper’s real desire was to be a fighter pilot.  He learned how to fly at the Military Aeronautics School in Atlanta, Georgia.  He learned how to be a bomber pilot in Issoudun, France in 1917 and then joined the 1st Day Bombardment Group of World War I.

DH.4 Bomber above the clouds in France
DH.4 Bomber above the clouds in France

The next year he was shot down over Germany.  He was injured but taken to a prison camp with medical facilities.  The military was unable to locate him; he was presumed dead and his parents were informed.  After the war he was released and went to France.

In 1919 the American Relief Administration sent him to Poland to help rebuild after the war but now Russia, who had been an ally in the war, had become the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

From 1919 to 1921 the Second Polish Republic was fighting with the Soviets for control of land not assigned to either country in the Treaty of Versailles. Cooper saw another chance to serve and formed a squadron, the Polish 7th Air Escadrille.

Cooper flew a number of missions but was shot down and amazingly, was able to escape on foot.  When he returned, he commanded a different squadron of the city of Lviv in present day Ukraine.

Merian C. Cooper in Polish Air Force uniform, circa 1920
Merian C. Cooper in Polish Air Force uniform, circa 1920

In 1920, Cooper was shot down again and captured by the Soviet army.  After an attempted escape, he was assigned to a labor camp near Moscow for nine months.  Again, he was able to escape and made his way back to Poland some four hundred miles away, mostly on foot.

According to ampoleagle.com, after the war he embarked on a screenwriting career with Ernest Schoedsack and produced several documentaries on what is now known as Iran, Thailand and Africa.

They were all successful but Cooper didn’t care much for the Hollywood atmosphere.  He went on to found Pan American Airways but the movie bug bit him again and he created the screenplay for King Kong.

After the huge success of the movie Cooper remained in Hollywood producing movies and collaborating with greats such as John Ford until 1941 when World War II broke out.

Merian C. Cooper with the pilots of Polish 303 Squadron in England
Merian C. Cooper with the pilots of Polish 303 Squadron in England

He enlisted in the U.S. Army as a colonel in the Army Air Corps.  By the end of the war, he had attained the rank of brigadier general and was present at the ceremony for the surrender of Japan.  He was very active in projects that aided Polish citizens and helped many of his former fellow pilots come to the United States.

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He returned to Hollywood in 1946 and again partnered with John Ford to make outstanding movies such as The Quiet Man and The Searchers.  He earned an Academy Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work.  In 1973 Cooper died in San Diego, California from cancer after a remarkable life.