Alois "Al" Kopp was a pharmacist's mate on the USS Houston in 1942 when it was torpedoed and sank in the South Pacific. Almost two-thirds of the ship's crew of more than 1,000 perished, but Kopp survived and endured 44 months of misery in Japanese prison camps.
"He said, 'Survival is all about how you face each day,' " said Tom Reddy, Kopp's son-in-law.
Kopp, a Minnetonka resident, died in late January at age 98.
Born on a farm in North Dakota to German immigrant parents, Kopp set out in the 1930s to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal jobs program. Kopp spent 14 months in the CCC, traveling around California and other Western states helping to build parks.
In 1937, he joined the U.S. Navy on his way to becoming a decorated veteran.
Interested in becoming a doctor, Kopp went to the Navy's dental, hospital corps and pharmacology schools.
For shipboard duty, he chose the USS Houston, a heavy cruiser and the flagship of the Navy's Asiatic Fleet.
On the night of Feb. 28, 1942, the Houston and the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth were sailing through a strait between two Indonesian islands when they encountered a flotilla of Japanese vessels.
Under heavy fire, the Perth went down first.
Then the order came to abandon the Houston. Kopp jumped into the sea and watched his vessel slip underwater.
After clinging to debris for nine hours, and caked in oil from the wreck, Kopp and other survivors were pulled from the water at gunpoint by Japanese troops, according to an interview Kopp did with Thomas Saylor, a history professor at Concordia University in St. Paul and author of a book on American prisoners in World War II.
Kopp was shuffled to several prison camps in Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia, all with a common denominator: brutality, hunger, disease and death.
With his medical knowledge, he helped keep himself and others alive.
Kopp successfully amputated a fellow prisoner's ulcerous toes with a dull blade and regularly used a pair of pliers for makeshift dentistry.
He won the nickname "Doc."
Kopp was beaten by guards twice, once for not saluting. He was one of thousands of slave laborers forced by the Japanese to build the Burma Railroad, known as the "Death Railway." He hit his low point when he was dumped into a church in Burma to tend to 22 seriously wounded prisoners — all of whom died.
"I almost talked myself into just quitting," Kopp told Saylor. But he didn't want to give in to the Japanese, didn't want to "give in to adversity."
Kopp carried on until he was liberated by U.S. troops from a prison camp in Saigon after the war ended.
Luck played a big role in his survival, he told Saylor. So did faith in God. "You just had to believe."
Kopp left the Navy in 1947, a year after he got married. He and his wife, Helen, adopted a baby girl in 1958, and after living in North Dakota for awhile, they moved to the Twin Cities.
Kopp was a salesman for much of his life, selling agricultural implements and even massage chairs at the State Fair.
He worked well into his 70s, and in his later years spoke at area schools about his war experience.
Kopp was preceded in death by his wife and nine siblings. He is survived by a daughter, Lisa Kopp, and her husband, Tom Reddy; a sister, Tina Geiss; and four grandchildren.
Services have been held.
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