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Cohen of China

“The bullet that caught me in the left arm had made me think. Supposing it had been my right arm and I carried my gun that side, I'd not have been able to use it. As soon as we got back to Canton I got me a second gun, another Smith and Wesson revolver, and I packed it handy to my left hand. I practiced drawing and soon found that I was pretty well ambidextrous - one gun came out about as quick as the other.”

Early in the 20th century, when China was struggling against the Japanese, a lone occidental walked the halls of Chinese power for the first time in 4,000 years. He was from Canada, born in the slums of London, the child of devout Polish Jews, and the only foreigner ever to become a member of the Kuo-mintang, China's ruling party.

“Cohen was very proud of his Jewish heritage. He was touched when he saw the Jewish flag carried high about the Betar marchers and, being an uninhibited extrovert, he burst out in loud approval . . . He broke into a broad smile that lit up his face and grey eyes. The transformation was complete. His toughness gave way to warmth, generosity and kindness which were his basic characteristics . . .” – Judith Ben-Eliezer

A chunky and audacious 11 year-old, Morris Cohen had been magnetically drawn to the cardsharps and con men of London’s East End. Arrested in 1900 for picking pockets, he was sent to reform school and then later shipped off to western Canada where he became widely known as a hard-fisted hustler with a weakness for gambling and women. When Cohen stumbled into the armed robbery of a Chinese gambling den, he sprang to the defense of the Chinese owner, an act that was unheard of at the time, as anti-Chinese feelings were running strong and deep. This selfless act gained Cohen the respect of the downtrodden Chinese community.

As a result, Morris Cohen was introduced to the famous leader Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the man who would become the George Washington of China. They discussed how the Chinese and Jewish nations had each contributed much to the civilization of the world and of how the Chinese people experienced untold sufferings as Jewish people did. Warmed by their conversation, Dr. Sun asked Cohen to become his aide decamps and soon promoted him to the rank of colonel in the Chinese army, where he proved to be remarkably good at procuring weapons and smuggling them into China to aid in the fight against corrupt feudal lords. Armed night and day with two holstered pistols, one on his hip, the other slung about his shoulder, he became known throughout the land as "Two-Gun Cohen.”

When Sun Yat-sen died in 1925, his successor, Chiang Kai-Shek, promoted Cohen to the rank of General and named him Chief of Chinese Intelligence. From 1930 onward, Cohen's counterintelligence unit was focused on two major threats to China’s fragile government: (1.) the Chinese Communist Party, which had been organized in 1921 and had been growing in power ever since, and (2.) the Japanese, who had thousands of spies in China's coastal cities, all preparing for the day when Japan would invade China. Cohen’s reputation for integrity and loyalty was so profound that he alone was trusted to protect the government’s gold bullion.

In 1943, Cohen slipped into Hong Kong from Shanghai in an attempt to rescue Mme. Sun who had been overseeing charitable, medical and welfare programs for the people there. She was now in danger from the Japanese who had conquered the island. The Japanese authorities arrested Cohen immediately upon his arrival and interned him in a concentration camp, which he miraculously survived. Years later, when questioned about the foolhardy Hong Kong rescue attempt, Cohen explained: “I felt this might be the last service I could do for Dr. Sun.”

When Cohen died in 1970 at the age of 81 and was buried in the Blakely Jewish Cemetery of Manchester, England, the venerable Mme. Sun personally engraved a Chinese blessing on the tall, black tombstone of her husband’s loyal friend, one of the most unusual and colorful adventurers of the twentieth century.

~ Roy H. Williams

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Invisible Heroes is a collection of more than 100 biographical stories written by Roy H. Williams, the Wizard of Ads. You can read a few of these stories in the archives of this web page, but most of them are inaccessible because they're soon to be published in a book.

We create our heroes from our hopes and dreams. And then they create us in their own image. Heroes raise the bar we jump and hold high the standards we live by. They're the embodiment of all we're striving to be.

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