Merian C. Cooper’s unconventional military career started at the prestigious U.S. Naval Academy in 1912. But thanks to his “general hell-raising and championing air power,” he was ultimately booted out. Undeterred, Cooper sought adventure elsewhere and found it with the Georgia National Guard, helping search for Pancho Villa in 1916.
By 1917, he’d turned down a sweet National Guard commission to go to Military Aeronautics School instead. Cooper graduated top of the class and took off to France in October 1917 to fight in WWI. Fate tested the man’s mettle when a training accident led to a crash landing, a severe concussion—and a case of shock so intense he forgot how to fly.
But no one could keep Cooper out of the cockpit. He returned to flight training and became a bomber, with his plane being shot down over No Man’s Land in September 1918. Presumed dead by his allies, Cooper survived the fireball but was taken POW by the Germans and kept at a hospital until the war ended.
In 1919, Cooper smiled at death once more. Volunteering for the Kościuszko Squadron (a squadron fighting on behalf of Poland during the Polish-Soviet War), he was blasted out of the sky (again!) and taken prisoner for nine months until he escaped from the POW camp. In 1921, Cooper was awarded Poland’s highest military honor—the Virtuti Militari.
A skilled writer, Cooper took an exciting job at The New York Times, traveling far and wide as a journalist. His trips included Africa and the Far East where he met emperors, interviewed princes, and narrowly avoided a pirate attack. Eventually, he signed on to the NYC-based “Explorers Club” and started lecturing extensively before becoming a founding father of Pan American Airways.
As a part-time screenplay writer, Cooper found a measure of success in the film industry. But his scripts took a back seat when he re-enlisted in the Air Force as a Colonel following the outbreak of WWII. His expertise was put to use as a logistics liaison for the Doolittle Raid and he personally led a bombing raid in Hong Kong, as well. Promoted to Brigadier General, Cooper witnessed Japan’s formal surrender aboard the USS Missouri.
In 1973, he lost his battle with cancer, and his ashes were scattered at sea with full military honors.
His passion for service and badass military accomplishments are still remembered today. Meanwhile, his contribution to pop culture is equally unforgettable.
In 1933, while working for PanAm, Cooper directed the film of his own script about a giant pissed-off ape that was captured and taken prisoner by hostile forces but managed to escape (and wreak havoc on NYC).
This iconic 1933 film, King Kong, featured cameos of Cooper himself as one of the pilots trying to shoot down the tragic beast. And we’re all left wondering—how many more of Copper’s own horrific POW experiences shaped Kong’s story arc?