‘ Cooler King’
Daughter of war hero and architect shares story
In 1963, Steve McQueen brought to life the character of the Cooler King in the film “The Great Escape,” which retold the account of a mass escape from Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Germany, 20 years earlier. The Cooler King, an accomplished forger and escape artist, was based on none other
than Hot Springs native Irven Granger McDaniel.
“It’s the greatest story ever told,” said Diana Hampo, McDaniel’s daughter. “It’s one of those stories that has its place and time in history and it shouldn’t be forgotten.”
McDaniel, who was best known in Hot Springs for his architecture, designed with his father the Vapors, Belvedere Country Club, First United Methodist Church, City Hall, Horner Hall, and The Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, “just to name a few.”
“I joke a lot of times that they designed everything in town,” Hampo said. “My dad and my grandfather both have buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, which is really cool for a father and son.”
But to understand his architecture, she said, one has to know the full story of the war hero.
In the early 1940s, prior to the United States’ involvement in World War II, McDaniel was a student at Hot Springs High School and taking flying lessons. He was 17 years old.
“Even though America wasn’t involved yet, he decided he needed to save the world,” Hampo said. “And with that, he forged his birth certificate and went to Canada to enlist in the effort. They needed pilots, so they sent him to England to the Royal Air Force.”
McDaniel enlisted in the R. A. F. on July 4, 1941, just five months before Pearl Harbor, and was a captain of a Short Stirling Bomber, a four- engine plane with a crew of nine men, including himself.
“Keep in mind, he’s 17,” she said. “That just amazes me.”
According to an article in The Sentinel- Record in 1942, after several successful flights, McDaniel was “cited with other members of his crew by King George of England for his courage and skill in carrying out raids across the channel.”
A week later, Hampo said her father’s story took a turn for the worse.
“His plane was shot down over Germany, but he was sure that he could make it home,” she said. “But when he realized he couldn’t, he had to crash in the North Sea. He was thrown through the windshield and was able to get two of his crew out.”
McDaniel later recounted the story of the crash in an interview with The Sentinel- Record, saying six of the crew were killed by a German Messerschmitt.
“The front gunner, mid- upper gunner and I were the only of our crew to succeed in getting into the dinghy,” McDaniel said in the article, explaining that they floated for four days and nights “subsisting on one malt tablet a day and a very small amount of water, before being picked up by a Danish fisherman.”
The fisherman could not take the men to England for fear of putting his family in jeopardy, so McDaniel and his men were turned over to the Germans in Denmark.
While this would seem to be the end for any other story, McDaniel had other plans.
“He had written a letter to his mother on Whittington Avenue, and the one thing he asked the fisherman to do after turning him over to the Nazis was to make sure that letter got to his mother,” she said.
The letter, she said, was witty and full of warmth and faith, though in it he apologized for letting his family down.
The letter says that he thought he could take his crew home on three engines, and tried to get his crew to crash positions before the crash.
“Honest mom, I want you all to know I tried to save my crew,” he wrote.
Not being able to save more of his crew was something that always tortured McDaniel.
“He told her he was going to be ‘ just fine’ in POW camp and that he was planning to use the time to learn architecture,” she said. “Where he got the idea that he would be able to learn architecture in POW camp, I’ll never know.”
The letter arrived to the home on Whittington two weeks later with no postmark and no stamp. By some work of “the underground” his letter made it to his mother, Hampo said. On Aug. 17, 1942, he was imprisoned by the German government.
“Because he’s a man of good faith, he was somehow put in the camp with an architecture professor from the University of Warsaw,” she said.
Over the course of McDaniel’s time in the camps, Hampo said he escaped several times.
“His job was to escape, and every time they would catch him, they put him in the cooler — or solitary confinement,” she said. “It was a small, concrete cell with no lights. He was there so many times, that’s where he got the nickname the Cooler King. For fans of Steve McQueen, this is their favorite part of the story.”
Spending a lot of time in solitary confinement made McDaniel creative in his ways of passing the time.
“He said in one interview that he practiced yoga while in the cooler and you think ‘ In the 1940s?’ I mean, who practiced yoga in the ’ 40s?” she said. “But in doing that, he would remember the math theorems from his textbooks and if he concentrated long enough, he could remember the exact pages and the captions under the diagrams. He said he could remember entire books and would re- read them, page by page.”
According to Hampo, her father was a man who never lost faith in the future, mankind or his ability to change the world, something that was reflected through his entire life.
“Anyone who met him knew he was blessed and magical, and that was evidenced at an early age,” she said. “He and my mother met and fell in love in third grade at Jones School. They wrote letters back and forth the entire time he was ‘ saving the world.’”
Hampo said half the letters were sweet and loving, while the other half were the two “bickering back and forth about his mustache.”
In his attempts to escape, McDaniel worked in the forgery department, forging documents and paperwork those escaping would need to get past guards, Hampo said.
In four of his attempts to escape, he made it outside the camp. In 1943, he successfully escaped and made his way to the Russian border.
“He came home to Hot Springs after that, and when he got here he sat for his architecture licensure and without his high school diploma, he made the highest score in the state’s history,” Hampo said.
For McDaniel, his experiences in WWII were his inspiration for some of his most famous buildings in Hot Springs — he looked for details people wouldn’t normally think of.
“Take the old field house at Hot Springs High School with its near- perfect acoustics,” she said. “That field house was designed after a French airplane hangar, and it looks like it.”
When Hampo’s father died in the mid- 1970s, her mother, Ann Stell McDaniel, was passionate about offering original artwork, drawing plans and letters to the actual building owners as part of their architectural legacy, a tradition her daughter has carried on.
“When we can’t find the owners or they don’t really want them, we have placed drawings and blueprints at the ( Garland County) Historical Society,” she said. “Architecture can have a tremendous impact on a community. My father’s work was so strong and elegant, I’m proud every time I get to talk to folks about his work.”
Recently, Hampo found several drawings and design documents for the Congregation House of Israel. On Thursday, she presented president Mary Klompus and Sue Koppel of the Congregation board with some of these items, as he designed the current building.
Through giving back these designs, Hampo hopes when people learn about his vision, passion and unwavering faith and heroics, they will find a new appreciation for his designs, giving her father the recognition he deserves.
“My hope is that someday Hot Springs comes to appreciate the beautiful buildings of its past. Not just his, but all of them. We have some of the most beautiful architecture here.
“He belongs on the Arkansas Walk of Fame. He’s a war hero and his story is one that needs to be preserved,” she said.
GIVING BACK: Diana Hampo, center, talks with Congregation House of Israel Board President Mary Klompus, left, and board member Sue Koppel on Thursday about the design documents her father created when working on the congregation’s current building.
COOLER KING: Irven Granger McDaniel was best known in Hot Springs for his architecture, having designed many well- known buildings around town, but his time as a German POW earned him the nickname the “Cooler King,” which later inspired Steve McQueen’s...