‘Two-Gun’ Cohen’s other contribution to Israel

He went to the Canadian Ministry of Defense accompanied by Sidney Shulemson, the most highly decorated Canadian Jewish war ace of World War II. He wanted the aircraft for Israel.

Morris Cohen meeting with Chiang Kai-shek (photo credit: COURTESY MICHAEL WALLACE)
Morris Cohen meeting with Chiang Kai-shek
THOSE WHO read my previous article about Morris Cohen (December 11, 2017, page 32) will recall the unique story of a Jewish kid in London’s East End who ran foul of the law, was sent to Reform School, and after discharge at the age of 16 to Canada to “make good.” Involved by chance with the Chinese community of railroad workers, he went to China in 1922, became the bodyguard of the president of China, Chiang Kai-shek, and finished his career as Maj.-Gen. Morris Cohen in China’s pre-Communist Army. He was a unique character; he was also my cousin.
My present story begins in 1966. I had last seen Morris in 1946 before I left England for Army Service as an M.O. (medical officer) in the New Zealand Army. I heard about him from time to time when he visited my parents, and in 1955 he sent me an inscribed copy of his memoirs, with his florid signature in English and his name stamp in Chinese. He’d married an attractive Canadian Jewish woman, Judith Clarke, and divorced; his wife said she had found she’d married China, not Morris.
Fast-forward to 1966. My wife and I had immigrated to Israel in 1961 with our three children and we were still getting established. Life had its tensions. There was no time since the war of Independence of 1948 in which Israel was totally free of terrorism. It was just called a different name. The perpetrators were called fedayeen, but murder was still murder. Fifty-four people on an archeological dig at Ramat Rachel, a kibbutz on the Israel-Jordan border, were killed by the Jordanian Legion. The PLO was formed only in 1964. The initials meant exactly that: Palestine Liberation Organization. This was 13 years before the Six-Day War, and the word “liberation” meant the whole of Israel as it then was. This was years before the “occupation.”
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.” There were times when the borders were quiet. Then they would flare up; shooting, hand grenades, mines. Israel would retaliate, quiet would return, for a while at least.
I was a doctor in the New Zealand Army in Occupied Japan from 1946 to 1948, became a New Zealand citizen and was in practice in Auckland until we came to Israel. I have lived in Jerusalem ever since.
My only contact with Morris in those years was in 1955 when he sent me a copy of the autobiography entitled, “Two-Gun Cohen,” he wrote with Charles Drage, a British Naval officer he had known in China. He signed it and stamped it with his name in Chinese, “Ma Kun,” this being the nearest thing to Morris Cohen in Mandarin.
One day in 1966 the phone rang. A very English voice said, “Is this Dr Sherah? (mispronouncing my name), Dr. Cyril Sherah?” I said this was he.
The voice continued, “Are you related to General Morris Cohen?” When I said I was, I heard Morris’s familiar growl, saying “Hiya Cyril, how are ya?”
I did not know why he was in Israel, but I invited him to lunch the next day. He was still the same old Morris, smartly dressed, good-humored, dominating the room with his presence. He was accompanied by two men from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, one of them the owner of the English voice, who promptly fell asleep. They had been driving him round the country; all exhausted. Except Morris.
What was he doing here? Out of nowhere? That was his usual style.
It seems that he was sent for by David Ben-Gurion, then living in Sde Boker. BG knew him from 1946 when, as head of the Jewish Agency he was trying to promote business with the Dead Sea Potash works, selling phosphates to China. Morris stayed at the King David Hotel. The deal did not come off. But BG remembered him.
We had trouble in 1966 from terrorists in those days called fedayeen (what’s in a name?). They probably came from Jordan, and dropped button mines near schools, especially in the Haifa area. Being plastic, the mines were not detectable by normal anti-mine equipment. The mines were made in China. Children picked them up or stepped on them and lost an arm or a leg. BG wondered if Morris could do something because of his intimate contacts in China.
Morris did not refer to it specifically, but he did tell me quietly that he was going to meet his old friend, Zhou Enlai, in Geneva the following week. Perhaps he quoted Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat Sen’s respect for the Jewish people. Morris knew Zhou since 1924 from the Military Academy of the Nationalist Army at Whampoa, which he’d helped establish. Zhou and Chiang Kai-shek were both cadets. In 1966, Zhou was both premier and foreign secretary of the Republic. He was suave and easy to talk to, as Henry Kissinger found in 1972. He was fluent in French and English, which he’d studied in both places as a young man. He was much more cosmopolitan than Mao, and he could understand other people’s viewpoints.
The mines stopped shortly afterwards. We never experienced them again. Incidentally, no one has ever written about this before. I regret that the conversation did not come around to his meeting with Ben-Gurion, who later asked to borrow Drage’s book, “Two-Gun Cohen,” from me.
Morris (he insisted on my calling him Moishe) spent a couple of hours with us. He felt very proud of Israel. He had been active in pre-State days trying to help the Hagana. In 1948, during the War of Independence he approached the Israeli consul-general in Hong-Kong, Moshe Yuval, asking if Israel needed generals. He was politely turned down. In 1946, he got hold of the plans of the British Naval base at Singapore and offered them to an Etzel group in Tel Aviv. The idea was to get two Italian miniature submarines and blow up British warships. It never happened. Two years later, he obtained the same plans for the harbor of Hong Kong, but no action was taken.
IN 1948, through his network of contacts in Canada he heard about 200 Mosquito aircraft still in crates. He went to the Canadian Ministry of Defense accompanied by Sidney Shulemson, the most highly decorated Canadian Jewish war ace of World War II. He wanted the aircraft for Israel. This plan also never came off; the Canadians were willing, but Israel did not have the infrastructure to absorb them, and maybe not the money to buy them or some of them. It might have been a turning point for Israel, who knows?
During his two hours or so with me, I asked him what he thought of Chiang Kaishek, whom he always thought was not in the same league as Sun. He turned and said, “Cyril, I was invited to appear on a TV program in New York a few weeks ago, and they asked me the same question. I couldn’t say what I really thought, so I looked straight into the camera and said, ‘Tuchas’ (a vulgar Yiddish expression meaning one’s backside), knowing that half the population of New York would understand.”
What did he think of the Chinese Communists, whom he knew from way back? He said Communism was an aberration on the Chinese character. They were individualistic, enterprising in business because they were great gamblers (they financed his poker playing in Edmonton), and the last people in the world to accept group culture. On the other hand, he admired how they had done away with much of the poverty in China and beggars in the streets. He knew Mao, of course, and was the only European on the podium at the celebration of Sun’s centenary. His connection with Sun was always accepted by the Chinese authorities, whatever their political complexion.
He also said there were many similarities between the Chinese and the Jews, both ancient civilizations with long histories and traditions especially in family culture. Sun himself, as was mentioned before, was an admirer of the Zionist movement.
Time came for Morris to leave. He was embarrassed he had forgotten about my children and brought no presents. But he took out a roll of fivers (when the British £5 note was still an impressive note) and handed them out.
I took him downstairs, and he said, “Cyril, are you OK? Are you happy? I said, “Moishe, there’s a lot of things I could do but there’s nothing I’d rather do.” He was a little moist-eyed at that, gave me a big bear hug and walked off to the car. I never saw him again.
He lived on in England at his sister’s house in Manchester. He travelled to and from China, both mainland and Taiwan – one of very few people welcome in both places. He was an agent in England for Rolls-Royce aircraft engines in the company’s dealings with the People’s Republic.
He died suddenly in 1970, aged 83, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery at Salford. Representatives of both Chinas attended.  His tombstone is black granite, engraved in English and Hebrew with an additional stone in Chinese characters, arranged by Mme. Sun through the Chinese Embassy in London. She was still vice president of China. She had never forgotten her friendship with Morris, nor his devotion to her and her husband. It was her last tribute.
Recently, all streets in China named for foreigners were renamed. Except for one. There is still a Cohen Road in Shanghai. He is remembered and respected – in Miaczyn, Canada, China, Manchester and all points between. It had been a long road, from reform school to a respected Chinese general. Morris was unique. If he were alive today, he would kvell (swell with pride) at the level of contact and cooperation between Israel and present-day China.
For sure, he would love to be involved. Knowing him, I am certain that he would be.
The writer, Cyril Sherer, 96, is a retired physician who lives in Jerusalem