General Morris (Two-Gun) Cohen

Morris (Moishe) Cohen

by Dr Cyril Sherer

Note: This personal recollection, edited for space and clarity, is by a cousin of General Morris (Two Gun) Cohen, Dr Cyril Sherer

I was eight years old in 1929 when I first heard his name. My mother had been busy since morning, frying fish and making a large pile of latkes. I was told, “The Chinese General is coming”. I wasn’t sure what that meant. I only knew we weren’t Chinese, so something was different. I remember a large man with a large head, and I remember being patted on the head with a large hand. The fish and latkes disappeared quickly.

Two years later he was back. This time I understood more. I was told that my father’s cousin was a General in the Chinese Army, and that he was thus a Very Important Person. I remember him sitting in the front room talking on the telephone to someone he called “Sir John”, confirming an order for hundreds of trucks for China, and he spoke about millions of pounds.

Morris Abraham Cohen’s story begins in Radzenow in the province of Miaczyn, Poland. He was born in 1887 and brought to England in 1889, which he later gave as his birth date for reasons to be seen. His father, Yosef Leib, was a tailor. There were many siblings. Morris was a big child and soon got into trouble.

Enrolled at the Jews Free School, he played truant. By the time he was ten he was a petty thief, pickpocket, even a prizefighter under the name of “Cockney Cohen” which is where he got his broken nose. He smashed windows in order to drum up business for an itinerant glazier and before long was brought before the Juvenile Court, where he claimed to be two years younger in order to get a lighter sentence. He was sent to a Jewish Borstal1 run by one Israel Ellis, something of a reformer. He (Cohen) said afterwards it was the best thing that ever happened to him.

He stayed for five years. The curriculum was simple, including military drill and discipline, which was useful to him later on in China. He also learned to recite long passages from Shakespeare, also useful. He left there in 1905 to return to a family that didn’t know what to do with him.

They decided to send him to Canada, to his father’s friend from Miaczyn, Abie Hyams, who had a farm in Saskatchewan. Morris left with a trunk full of clothes and five gold sovereigns. But Abie didn’t want him and sent him to a neighbor, who taught him how to shoot a pistol with either hand, also how to deal cards from anywhere except the top. Morris was a good pupil.

He spent the next few years as a gambler, which was how he made his first contact with the Chinese. There were tens of thousands of them working as cheap labor building the railways.

He usually, though not always kept clear of the police. But an opportunity came when he rescued a Chinese man who was being mugged – a very unusual thing for a white man to do. His name spread throughout the Chinese community in Edmonton. As a result he became an arbitrator for disputes, and was enrolled as a Commissioner for Oaths for the Chinese laborers. His name reached Dr Sun Yat Sen, leader of the Chinese Revolutionary Movement, and later the First President of China, who was in Canada to raise funds for his Movement.

According to Morris he was taken on as a bodyguard for Sun and purchaser of armaments for the revolutionaries in China. It was rumored that the man he rescued was Dr Sun himself. But even if it not true, it didn’t do Morris’ reputation any harm.

Sun returned to China and Morris became a real estate salesman during a land boom in Western Canada. As a result he legally acquired a small fortune, and went to England to visit his family. While there he bought them a new house in Tredegar Square. Then he returned to Canada, where he staid in various businesses (some legal) until World War One broke out and he became Sergeant Cohen in the Canadian Engineers.

Morris with his parents

As luck would have it, China entered the war; her contribution being thousands of coolies sent to France to build railways! Morris said he knew a little Chinese, which was more than anyone else. So, he spent the duration in charge of the coolies, increasing his Chinese connections. Then he went AWOL, lost his sergeant’s stripes and pay, and returned to his real estate business in Canada.

But the boom had ended. So Morris spent the next two years doing an occasional deal, but mostly playing poker, and staying one step ahead of the law. Meantime he kept in close contact with the local Chinese community in Edmonton, representing them in their dealings with the authorities. He became a member of Dr Sun’s party, and a member of a Tong, in both cases the only non-Chinese to do so. A tong is a kind of secret society. Meanwhile he stayed in touch with Dr Sun.

In 1922 an opportunity came, when the Northern Construction Company wanted to build a railway in China and they needed a contact man. Morris fit the bill perfectly and sailed there, where he soon made contact with Sun, who engaged him as his bodyguard. The railway deal didn’t come off but Morris was now an official in China. Given the rank of Colonel, he then trained Sun’s bodyguards.

He was also involved in setting up the first Military Academy in China at a place called Whampoa. It was about this time that he first met Chou en Lai, who later became Mao Zedung’s Foreign Minister. Morris was also instrumental in getting rid of the Russian Communist emissary who he didn’t trust.

Morris’ period of power in China lasted all through the 1930’s and early 1940’s. Despite his rough background he was intensely loyal to Sun, who he regarded as a father figure. His honesty, loyalty and integrity might have surprised those who knew him in his earlier life.

He carried out many delicate missions for Sun, until his death in 1925. Then Morris he did the same for Sun’s wife Quinling, one of the three famous Soong sisters. She remained his close friend for the rest of his life.

The sisters, whose father started life as a Protestant Missionary, were educated in America. Another one was the wife of Chiang Kai Shek, as the third wife of the richest man in China. Their brother, T.V. Soong, was very influential in government and a long-time associate of Morris.

In the 1930’s he became a purchasing agent for Chinese armaments, and in 1935 was promoted to the rank of General.

While he earned 4-5% on each deal, he was never able to keep any money, because he gave lavish parties in Canton and Shanghai. His hostess was a beautiful Chinese actress named Butterfly Wu.

When the Japanese invaded in 1941 Morris was in Hong Kong. They wanted him captured after he had exposed their use of poison gas in Manchuria in 1936. He might have escaped, but stayed behind to take care of Mme Sun. He was interned in Stanley Camp where he was badly beaten. Repatriated to Canada in 1942 in a special deal, he had lost seventy pounds.

After the war he visited England frequently to see his family and mine, and always came loaded with presents like nylon stockings, cigarettes, cigars, whiskey, chocolates – things which were unavailable in post-war England.

He and I met often in my parent’s home in Manchester where I was a Resident at one of the hospitals. My father was his favorite cousin and my mother a good cook and Morris loved to eat.

He also talked a lot about China, and had married, meantime, to an attractive Jewish woman in Montreal, Judith Clarke. But the marriage didn’t last long because Morris was never home.

An older Morris Cohen

As another cousin of Morris’, Muriel Cowan2 tells it, “In 1945 he was summoned to the UN Conference in San Francisco. This was while violence was building up in Palestine. Meanwhile the five member UN Security Council was due to vote on whether the question to apportion it into two states – one Jewish and one Arab – should be put before the General Assembly. A single veto and the resolution would be dead.

It was known that the USA, the Soviet Union and France would vote for, and Britain would abstain. But the decision of the Republic of China was unknown. Meanwhile the Arab world was bringing pressure on China to veto the resolution. Zionist leaders, desperate to present their position to the Chinese delegates, were rebuffed. That’s when Rabbi Israel Goldstein, an astute member of the Zionist group, made a quick phone call to Montreal, bringing Morris to San Francisco for an emergency meeting. When he was told that the leader of the Chinese UN delegation was General Wu, Morris was amused because it was he who had made Wu a General. When he met with General Wu the next day, he showed him the newspaper article Dr Sun wrote in 1924 supporting the Zionist movement. Then the rest was history. China abstained”.

Now we return to his cousin, Dr Cyril Sherer who had emigrated from New Zealand in 1961:

I had been a doctor in New Zealand army in occupied in Japan from 1946-1948 (that’s another story in itself). Then I became a New Zealand citizen and was in practice in Auckland till we left for Israel where I’ve lived ever since.

My only contact with Morris in those years was in 1955 when he sent me a copy of the autobiography he had written 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.

Cohen’s Bio

Then one day in 1966 the phone rang. A very English voice said, “Is this Dr Sherah? (mispronouncing my name) Dr Cyril Sherah? I said “yes”, and then the voice said, “Are you related to General Morris Cohen?” When I said I was, I heard Morris’ familiar growl saying, “Hiya Cyril, how are ya?” I didn’t know why he was in Israel, but invited him to lunch the next day.

He was still the same old Morris, smartly dressed, good humored, and dominating the room with his presence. But what was he doing here? Out of nowhere? Which was his usual style. He hated publicity, but it seems that he was sent for by Ben Gurion, who knew him from 1946, when as the head of the Jewish Agency, he was trying to promote a business that was selling Phosphates to China. While the deal didn’t come off, Ben Gurion remembered him.

At the time we were having trouble with terrorists (called Fedayeen in those days). They dropped plastic button mines near schools especially in the Haifa area, and these mines were made in China. Kids picked them up or stepped on them and lost an arm or a leg because they were very hard to detect. Ben Gurion asked if Morris could do something about it because of his intimate contacts in China.

Not referring to it specifically, Morris did tell me quietly that he was going to meet his old friend Chou en Lai in Geneva the following week. Perhaps he quoted Dr Sun’s respect for the Jewish people because the mines stopped shortly afterwards. We never experienced them again. 

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 Haganah, and later in the War of Independence. In 1948 he approached the Israel Consul-General in Hong-Kong, Moshe Yuval, asking if Israel needed Generals. He was politely turned down.

At one time he got hold of the plans of the British Naval base at Singapore and offered them to the Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary group that operated in the then British Mandate of Palestine. The idea was to get hold of two Italian miniature submarines and blow up British warships. It never happened.

Another time, he heard about 200 British Mosquito bomber aircraft still in crates in Canada. He went to the Canadian Ministry of Defense accompanied by Sidney Shulemson, the most highly decorated Canadian Jewish war ace of World War Two. He wanted the planes for Israel. But this plan also never came off; the Canadians were willing, but Israel didn’t have the infrastructure to absorb them, and possibly the money to buy them. 

He talked with me and my wife for about two hours. I asked him what he thought of Chiang Kai Shek, whom he always thought wasn’t in the same league as Dr 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”, knowing the half the population of New York would understand”.

When the time came for Morris to leave 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 noting 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.

Then living at his sister’s house in Manchester, England, he travelled often to and from both Mainland China and Taiwan – one of the few people welcome in both places. He was the English agent for Rolls-Royce aircraft engines at the time.

He died suddenly in 1970 at age 83, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Salford. Representatives from both Mainland China and the Government of Taiwan attended. His tombstone is black granite. One side engraved in English and Hebrew, the other in Chinese characters.

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1. British historical a custodial institution for youthful offenders.

2. Muriel Cowan, nee Viner, is a Los Angeles artist. She was born in London and, was evacuated with regularity to Wales during the WWII blitzes. Two-Gun Cohen was her Grandmother’s first cousin. Ironically, Muriel is married to Ian Cowan – formerly Cohen. His father owned “Cohen’s Newsstand” but changed the name to “Cowan” to avoid persecution by the Nazis and harm to his family.

4 thoughts on “General Morris (Two-Gun) Cohen”

  1. Found this article very interesting and appreciate the time you must have spent putting it together. A piece of history that gave me more insight into what and who played a part! Thank you vey much!!

    • Two Gun Cohen came to me through Leslie Zurla, who you now know from our last meeting. She’s a friend of one of Cohen’s relatives, and gave me a hard copy of his story. You’re welcome to borrow it, if interested.

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