Every month we change the cover image on our various social media platforms for no other reason than we enjoy variety. When the podcast in early 2018, we mainly featured F/A-18s and F-16s—aircraft I’d flown and had readily-available photos of—but it did not take long for equal opportunity to creep in and before long we featured other airplanes, helicopters, even foreign aircraft that are (or once were) our adversaries.
For October 2019 my team provided an image by listener Piotr Soloducha of a Polish Air Force MiG-29 for the month’s feature. The Fulcrum had an interesting design painted on its topside that some in our audience suggested, tongue-in-cheek, was a “target.” It was an intricate design but I gave it no thought, truthfully.
The following month I received a long and detailed email, replete with photographs, from Lukasz Paluszek of Poland. Upon reading the delightful email I asked if I could feature the contents on the podcast website. Lukasz readily agreed and the following, slightly edited article is reproduced with his permission.
I just wanted to write a few words about the seemingly standard aviation photo of the MiG- 29 posted on the FPP YouTube channel. For me it strikes a chord and sends a powerful message.
It is a Polish Air Force aircraft as can be seen by the red-white checkerboard on the vertical stabilizer, but what is so special about the photo and the airplane is the emblem painted on the fuselage. In the low-visibility grey and white it is not especially discernible but the original emblem depicts a red, squarish peasant hat with two crossed scythes overlaid on red and white stripes and blue stars. Sound like the ‘Stars and Stripes?’ Indeed, they are.
So, what is the flag of the United States of America doing on a Soviet-built MiG-29 belonging to the Polish Air Force?
To properly tell the complete story we have to go back 250 years to the end of the 18th century.
After centuries of greatness, Poland had been subjugated by its three mighty neighbors—the Prussian, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian Empires—and thus, literally wiped off maps for the next 150 years. All forms of resistance by the oppressed were brutally stifled and many of those who rebelled against the occupiers fled the county or faced death.
Among those who fled was a young military engineer named Tadeusz Kosciuszko who arrived in North America and later fought in the American Revolution along with other freedom fighters. TK achieved fame by designing fortifications that helped ensure victory in the battle of Saratoga. He also fortified West Point.
After his successes on American soil, TK returned to occupied Poland and organized a rebellion against Russian oppressors. His army comprised regular units as well as peasants who wore their traditional robes instead of uniforms and were armed with the tools of their trade—scythes. The peasants also wore a distinctive red, square-shaped hat.
TK was gravely wounded in battle and was imprisoned. The rebellion failed. Released two years later, TK was a broken man who eventually died in exile in Switzerland.
Stories of the plight of TK and his fellow Polish freedom fighters were passed down American families for generations. By the early 20th century, some 150 years later, a young gentleman named Merian C. Cooper reveled in stories of his great, great grandfather’s struggles during the revolution and the tragic history of Poland. Youthful, rebellious, and seeking adventure, MCC signed up to be a fighter pilot on the European front when the U.S. joined the first World War.
MCC flew bombing missions in France until he was shot down and taken prisoner. Despite spending the remainder of the war in a German prison, his appetite for adventure remained undaunted following repatriation at the end of the war.
Around this time, Poland finally regained independence following 150 years of Prussian, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian occupation. It was short-lived, however, when Russia invaded Poland in 1920 in an effort to spread their communist revolution all over Europe. MCC could not have been happier as he was not only afforded an opportunity to return to combat but the favor to the Polish freedom fighters who fought side by side with his great, great grandfather in the American Revolution.
Poland at that time was a country rising from the ashes; everything had to be organized from scratch—including the army. MCC appeared in front the Polish commander-in-chief offering to create a Polish Air Force. The C-in-C cordially accepted and MCC returned to France to gather seven American friends who all willingly volunteered to help. The group formed the Kosciuszko Squadron, so named as a tribute to TK.
A young lieutenant named Elliot Chess designed the new squadron insignia, crossing two scythes behind a peasant hat (symbolizing the Kosciuszko uprising), placed in front of the American flag. The emblem was painted on every aircraft of the squadron.
The Americans fought like gladiators. MCC was, himself, shot down and captured by the Russians, surviving horrific conditions in a prisoner camp. However, he managed to escape and fled to Poland via Latvia.
Seemingly against all odds, Poland eventually secured victory against Russia. The brave pilots were awarded the highest Polish military distinction, the ‘Virtuti Militari’ cross, and those who perished were buried at the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwow under the Latin inscription Mortui sunt ut liberi vivamus (They died so that we can live free). MCC returned to the U.S. enjoying a very colorful life as an explorer and successful film producer. Among his greatest works is the 1933 film Kong Kong.
A new-formed tradition within the Polish Air Force was for units to pass along their heritage to successors, including traditions and—notably—emblems. Thus, the Kosciuszko Squadron, although repeatedly reformed, re-based, re-equipped, and re-staffed numerous times over the years, always retained the original insignia created by Elliot Chess.
Only two short decades passed peacefully before Poland was once again forced to defend its borders. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded, kicking off what would become the second World War. The 111th Fighter Squadron, successor of MCC’s original squadron, fought the Luftwaffe Messerschmitts and Junkers bombers gallantly but in a losing cause. On September 17, the Soviet Union, then an ally of Germany, struck from behind and soon after Poland soon surrendered. The following years were among the darkest in Poland’s history—marked by death, rape, pillaging, and destruction.
Many Polish airmen fled the burning country and regrouped initially in France, and not long after in the United Kingdom. The Royal Air Force was initially skeptical about the foreign pilots, but when the Battle of Britain broke out and every pilot was needed, the Poles were permitted to form Polish squadrons within the RAF and fly combat missions. Out of over a dozen such squadrons, the most famous was the 303 “Kosciuszko” Squadron. Every Hurricane (and later Spitfire) in this unit sported a red and white checkerboard and Elliot Chess’ well known insignia.
The 303 became the most successful RAF squadron during the Battle of Britain, achieving legendary status. Today, if you search “Spitfire Mk VB” in Google images, you will quickly see a machine with a red-white checkerboard, the Kosciuszko Squadron insignia, and Donald Duck (the Disney character was the call-sign of one the pilots, whose nose resembled a duck’s bill).
During the war, an historic moment took place when a by-then older MCC visited the 303 Squadron in Britain. It was not lost on him—nor the Poles, Brits, and even a handful of American pilots—that regardless of where the fight occurs, or when, the struggle for freedom is often universal. This united them all under the shared motto, “for our freedom and yours.”
Despite having fought in all European theaters, from Narvik to Tobruk, and having taken part in the operations OVERLORD and MARKET GARDEN, by the end of the war the Poles became a bargaining chip between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. Evidently Poland was not meant to be free and was instead thrown into another 50 years of brutal communist rule by the Soviets.
Many Polish soldiers and airmen who returned home were imprisoned or executed. Those who knew the fate awaiting them back remained in exile for the rest of their days. To add insult to injury, when a victory parade was held in London, Polish soldiers were not invited in order not to enrage Stalin, for whom free Poland was history. Polish RAF pilots were eventually invited but declined, instead watched the parade from within the crowds.
Poland finally earned a long-sought reprieve after the Iron Curtain fell in the late 1980s, some 40 years later. The Polish Air Force still flies former-Soviet aircraft, including the MiG-29, but maintains the tradition of the Kosciuszko Squadron insignia on the fuselage to this day.
And since you, Jell-O, intentionally or not, posted the image of a plane displaying the crossed scythes behind a red, square hat in front of the American flag, I felt obliged to write this email. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, this one certainly is.