Remembering the American pilots who helped Poland defend Europe
The Seventh Polish Fighter Squadron, also known as the Kosciuszko Squadron, played an important role in the history of the Second Polish Republic during the first years of its existence while also strengthening the bond between Poland and America. The Squadron’s origins date back to 7 November 1918, a few days before Poland officially regained independence. Back then, on the premises of a former Austro-Hungarian airfield in Rakowice near Krakow, the Poles began the formation of their first two air squadrons. These included what would become the Kosciuszko Squadron.
The spring of 1919 was a breakthrough moment in the history of the Seventh Air Squadron. A young American captain named Merian Cooper was visiting Poland at the time as a member of the American Relief Administration, an American humanitarian mission in Europe following World War I. Cooper met with Poland’s General Tadeusz Rozwadowski and presented him with the idea of recruiting a group of American aviators. Cooper saw this as a chance to repay the debt America had owed to Poland since the American War of Independence in the late eighteenth century, when a group of Polish soldiers, including Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Kazimierz Pulaski, had fought for American independence.
Merian C. Cooper was an extremely colorful character who seemed destined to make history. Many years later, he would have an equally glamorous if entirely different career in the movies, making him the only participant of the Polish-Bolshevik War to win an Oscar. Cooper’s greatest cinematic triumph was the 1933 Hollywood blockbuster King Kong, which he wrote, produced and directed. Cooper would eventually receive an honorary Oscar in 1952 for lifetime achievement. He then added a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to his collection of accolades in 1960, and remains the only Hollywood director to hold the highest Polish military decoration for valor, the Virtuti Militari.
In May 1919, Cooper met with Polish Commander-in-Chief Jozef Pilsudski to present his idea. Cooper suggested rounding up a group of passionate American pilots, many of whom were still present in post-war Western Europe, and convincing them to join Poland's fight for sovereignty. Cooper then left for Paris to begin the recruitment process. Once in France, he had a series of meetings with fellow pilots. Eventually, Cooper managed to gather a group of seven volunteers who agreed to serve under Polish command. This group included Major Cedric Fauntleroy, Lieutenant George Crawford, Captain Edward Corsi, Captain Arthur H. Kelly, Lieutenant Kenneth Shrewsbury, Second Lieutenant Edwin Noble, and Lieutenant Carl Clark. The American volunteers arrived in Poland at the end of September 1919. In October, just before leaving for the frontlines, they met with Pilsudski at Belvedere and welcomed another two volunteers: Lieutenant Edmund Graves and Lieutenant Elliot Chess. Shortly after arriving at their new unit, the American pilots familiarized themselves with the equipment they were going to use, including the Albatros D. III (Oef) fighter plane, as well as Polish air operations tactics. By the end of October, Major Cedric Fauntleroy had taken over command of the Seventh Air Squadron.
During the first weeks of service in this unique and multinational squadron, Lieutenant Elliot Chess designed a new emblem. This iconic design featured numerous Polish and American national symbols such as a traditional four-cornered cap (rogatywka), a group of red and white vertical stripes referring to the colors of the American and Polish flags, a pair of crossed scythes and thirteen encircling blue stars representing the original American states. In the final days of 1919, the squadron received a new name in honor of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish hero of the American War of Independence. The idea to rename the squadron enjoyed support among the American pilots who saw it as a way of generating more interest among potential US recruits.
During the first weeks of 1920, crews of the Kosciuszko Squadron mostly conducted patrol flights as the inevitability of conflict with Bolshevik Russia became increasingly clear. Fighting began in February and intensified in April 1920, when Polish forces started their military offensive in Ukraine. Luckily, at that time Bolshevik forces were not prepared to defend against air assaults, making it easier for the Kosciuszko Squadron to perform combat missions. However, the first successes on the battlefield came with a price, when the unit lost a fighter pilot. Losses soon mounted up. During a 26 April air assault on Bolshevik forces, Second Lieutenant Noble was badly hurt. Surprisingly, despite receiving serious wounds, he managed to fly his plane back to the squadron’s airfield unaided. Despite months of treatment and rehabilitation, the young American aviator never regained full physical fitness and had to be relieved of his duties.
By late spring, bolstered by deliveries of Italian Ansaldo A.1 Balilla fighter planes, the squadron conducted its first strikes against the vaunted Bolshevik First Cavalry Army, also known as Budyonny's Cavalry Army. These mounted forces were the pride of the Bolshevik forces and had begun to inflict heavy losses on Polish units, forcing them to retreat and complicating the strategic situation on the front. Towards the end of June, the pilots of the Seventh Squadron withdrew from the front for rest and repairs. During this recuperation period, the squadron welcomed new recruits to replenish their numbers and replace those who had not returned from combat flights. At this point, Captain Cooper took over the command of the squadron from Major Fauntleroy, who took on the leadership of a newly formed air squadron and became commander-in-chief of the Polish Second Army’s aviation.
In the middle of July, the squadron received orders to return to the frontlines. Captain Cooper was destined not to complete the journey. Instead, Bolshevik forces shot him down during his flight to the front, and his fate remained unknown until after the war was over and he managed to escape from Soviet captivity and return to Poland. This marked the end of his involvement in the campaign itself, with Lieutenant Crawford replacing Cooper as commander of the squadron. In August 1920, as the war approached its decisive moments with the Polish victory in the Battle of Warsaw, the Kosciuszko Squadron made history when they helped to fight Budyonny's Cavalry Army to a standstill, buying time for Polish forces on the ground and allowing them to regroup. This was to prove the squadron’s last major contribution to the campaign.
In total, three American pilots died while fighting for Poland during the 1920 conflict. Many more sustained wounds. These American volunteers would go on to gain official recognition for their role in the war, with many receiving the highest Polish military decorations such as the Virtuti Militari and the Cross of Valor. They remain important figures in the Polish-American relationship remembered for helping to stop the spread of Bolshevism.
Author: Michał Jarocki, Altair Air Agency (Poland)