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Alois Kopp, POW

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Alois (Al) Kopp was born at Raleigh, North Dakota, on this date in 1918. During the 1930s, jobs were hard to come by so in 1937, Al joined the Navy, becoming a Pharmacists Mate on the heavy cruiser, USS Houston.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, America was suddenly at war. On February 28th, 1942 the Houston was sailing with the Australian Cruiser, HMS Perth, through the Indonesian Islands near Java when they encountered a fleet of Japanese warships. The Perth was hit first and sunk. The Houston was also hit, and began sinking. When the abandon ship order was given. Kopp jumped in the water and watched the Houston slip beneath the waves.

Kopp clung to debris for over nine hours before being pulled aboard a Japanese boat and taken prisoner. He ended up being shuffled between several POW camps in Japanese occupied southeast Asia.

The camps had much in common ⁠— brutality, hunger, disease and death. Kopp used his limited medical knowledge to keep himself and others alive, earning the nickname “Doc” after he had to amputate a fellow prisoner’s gangrene toes.

Kopp ended up as one of the thousands of prisoners building the Burma railway, also known as the railway of death. At one of the camps, Al was lying on the floor visiting with another prisoner. "Where you from?" he asked.

"North Dakota," came the reply.

"The hell you are! I’m from North Dakota too! What town?"

"Oh, you’ve never heard of it, a small town called Selfridge."

"Heard of it! I lived just down the road in Raleigh! We played basketball against you guys!"

The fellow’s name was Delwone Bigger. He served as a fireman on the Houston.

Al Kopp was finally liberated near Saigon at the end of the war. When he finally made it home, he found out that his younger brother Richard had joined the army and was sent to England for the invasion of Europe. He ended up facing the German counter attack called The Battle of the Bulge. As Al had sat in a Japanese POW camp, his brother, Richard, on the other side of the world had also been captured and taken to a German POW camp!

Brother Richard passed away in 2008; Alois in 2017.

Dakota Datebook by Scott Nelson

Alois Kopp obituary. Crew list of the USS Houston. Book:
Long Hard Road, American POWs during WWII by Tomas Saylor. Alois Kopp
interview transcript, Oral History Project World War II Years, 1941 –
1946 – Al Kopp

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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