Early Life

From Prewar Sailor to a Prisoner of War

Life in POW Camps

Becoming a Pharmacist Mate and Postwar Career

Start of the War and Loss of the USS Houston (CA-20)

Being Captured

Arriving in Burma and Survival

Working on the Railroad of Death

Saigon, Friendships and Survival

Returning Home

Postwar

Reflections

Annotation

Alois Kopp was born on a farm in May 1918 near Raleigh in Grant County, North Dakota. Times were good right after World War 1. The family was poor but never knew they were. They had plenty to eat from the farm livestock, potatoes, and their garden. Times were hard during the Depression, but Kopp has good memories of those years. His parents immigrated from Germany and Kopp grew up speaking German. He had five brothers and five sisters. They were a loving family. The children all attended a small country school in nearby Raleigh. Kopp did well and graduated high school. No jobs were available. President Roosevelt [Annotator's Note: Franklin D. Roosevelt] was a great leader. He tried to help the common man by instituting the Civilian Conservation Corps. It put people to work on domestic projects. The experience taught Kopp military type discipline. He stayed in the organization for 14 months before the Navy started recruiting. Kopp decided to enlist in the Navy.

Annotation

Alois Kopp enlisted in the Navy in September 1937 despite the fact he could not swim. He learned fast. He volunteered to work for the doctor because he liked inside work. He joined the VA [Annotator's Note: Veteran's Administration] program in order to fast track becoming a doctor. His records of pre-med studies were lost at Santo Tomas after those documents were burned by the Japanese when they captured the Philippines and used the university as a prisoner camp for civilians. The training did help him in the prisoner of war camp after he was captured following the sinking of his ship [Annotator's Note: USS Houston (CA-30)]. Any records of his training aboard the Houston went down with the ship. Kopp's parents had fully committed to being Americans when they entered the United States. All contact with relatives in Germany was lost by the time the war was brewing in Europe. Kopp disconnected himself from his German heritage during the war because the Nazis were bad. The Germans were good at following those Nazi leaders. Kopp's parents were glad they were no longer in Germany. Their relatives back in Europe moved out of Germany into Russia. Kopp heard about Pearl Harbor while he was aboard the Houston in Manila Bay. His ship was the flagship of the US Asiatic fleet. The Japanese Navy was larger than both the United States and British fleets. The crewmen of the Asiatic fleet thought of themselves as sacrificial lambs. The Japanese were conquering more and more land while fewer assets were being provided to American forces in the Philippines region. The enemy sunk the whole American fleet there including the flagship, Houston. The ship and its crewmen disappeared. Only the Japanese knew where they were. Kopp's younger brother was captured by the Germans during that fighting. He stayed three years in prison camp. Starvation was rampant in Kopp's POW [Annotator's Note: prisoner of war] camp and there was no medication to fight the horrible diseases. When the Japanese found out that Kopp had medical training, he was placed inside in what was laughingly referred to as sick bay. There was nothing with which to treat the sick or wounded. What was given to the medics was in woefully short supply. It was a bad race war. The Japanese were barbarians. They beat to death a prize fighter who dared to defend himself against their physical abuse. The men had nothing. Kopp lived in the same pair of boxer shorts that he was wearing when the Houston went down. That was his only clothes for 44 months. Life was austere in the camp with hardly any food, no clothes issues, or furniture. The Japanese guards were very cruel. Kopp personally witnessed the severe enemy cruelty twice. One of the beatings was for trying to get food from natives. Radios were forbidden. The POWs managed to build one but were executed after it was discovered.

Annotation

Alois Kopp was aboard the USS Houston (CA-30) defending Java when the ship was sunk. He survived and was taken prisoner by the Japanese. As a POW [Annotator's Note: prisoner of war], he became part of the forced labor to build a railroad across Burma to aid the Japanese in capturing India. There was little equipment to construct the railroad. Countless natives died in the process. Records were kept by the Allied troops of those who died so those numbers were more available for the war crimes trials. Hygiene was negligible for prisoners of war. Disease was rampant and deadly. Kopp did not bathe for 44 months except in streams containing excrement. POWs would even drink the polluted water. The camp doctor starved himself to death because of his inability to help anyone. Kopp weighed near 200 pounds entering the camp. He was luckily in good shape. He left the camp and the "Death Railway" after 18 months and was directed to Japan by order of the Emperor Hirohito who was a war criminal. The Emperor ordered that all POWs would be killed if Japan was invaded. En route to Japan, American forces sunk the Japanese ship Kopp was on. It was near Saigon or what is now Ho Chi Minh City. It was obvious to the POWs that the war with the Axis Powers was going in the Allies' favor. A prisoner could be killed if he had a newspaper that indicated the course of the war. After VJ-Day [Annotator's Note: Victory Over Japan Day, 15 August 1945], the Japanese were still treating their captives as war prisoners. American leaflets were dropped over Saigon saying the war was over but the Japanese were still shooting at them. Food was dropped for the POWs. The prisoners were anxious about what the guards would do to them. After an American tank broke down the gates and startled the inexperienced Japanese camp guards, it was apparent the guards were all cowards. They were merely brushed aside. The next day, the POWs were on the way to Calcutta, India. Kopp weighed 102 pounds. He had been eating duck eggs prior to being weighed after liberation so his weight was actually below that at one time. Some men only weighed 67 pounds or so. It had been a miserable time but Kopp never really blamed the United States for it. It was due to the freedom we enjoy. The country was split even though war seemed inevitable before Pearl Harbor. It is similar to today. After Pearl Harbor was bombed, the country was united and everyone went to work whether military or civilian, male or female.

Annotation

Alois Kopp was in Pocatello, Idaho in the Civilian Conservation Camp when the Navy recruited him. He was sent to San Diego and trained as a Pharmacist's Mate. It was great training. He learned to be a good dental technician, x-ray technician, and operating room technician. He had to cover many medical conditions. When the POW [Annotator's Note: prisoner of war] camp doctor died, Kopp assumed that role for about three months. He successfully performed oral surgery without the benefit of any pain killers or antibiotics. Medications were sometimes provided by Japanese officers who were afraid of being killed or kicked out of the military for having venereal disease. The enemy officers provided medications to Kopp in exchange for surreptitious treatment of their VD. Kopp got slapped around for making the suggestion of trade, but he also managed to get the medications and save some lives with it. While in prewar United States, Kopp was trained in medicine in San Diego, Washington, D.C. and then San Francisco for a total of about 18 months. He took more courses in pre-med training including surgical instructions. He would have been a doctor had his documents not been lost [Annotator's Note: During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines and the sinking of his ship, USS Houston (CA-30)]. He was told after his discharge that he had to start as if he had experienced no training, but, at 26 years of age, it was too late in life for him to do so. After all, he had been doing operations in the jungle while a POW. After his stateside training, Kopp had opted to serve on a ship because it would allow him to go to medical school while on liberty. When he saw medicine would not be his career after the war, he went into marketing and eventually had his own business selling medical equipment and supplies.

Annotation

Alois Kopp volunteered to go on the USS Houston (CA-30) in 1939 for deployment overseas. The ship was stationed in Hawaii for nine months. The Houston was flagship of the Asiatic Fleet and a proud ship. The crew was recognized for their abilities by a large "E" on the stack. The "E" stood for efficiency. The ship was transferred to Manila Bay in the Philippines. Months were spent on war preparations and maneuvers. The ship was in the Philippines, south of Luzon, when Pearl Harbor was hit. Japanese spies were everywhere in the Philippines and in America. The Houston tried to bring supplies to MacArthur [Annotator's Note: US Army General Douglas MacArthur] on Corregidor. The ship was bombed everyday but was hit only once. About 40 people were killed from the explosion. While the Houston was being attacked, training took over. Even during its sinking, fear came on only afterwards. Kopp did not like seeing people getting hurt. The Java Sea battle lasted three days. It was a rough time. The few ships in the Allied fleet kept getting fewer until only the Australian Perth [Annotator's Note: HMAS Perth (D-29)] and the Houston were left. That made any other ships sighted Japanese and, therefore, targets. About half the 1,100 man complement on the Houston was lost when the ship was sunk. Only 360 men came back to the United States. When the Houston was sunk, it was very late at night and dark. Star shells were bursting above. Kopp could see the damage they had done on burning enemy ships. After three days of fighting, he was tired and hungry. He was optimistic as he went into the water. He hoped the Japanese would treat him alright, but they were beasts. The conning tower of the Houston was hit. The captain was mortally wounded. When Kopp tried to go forward to treat him, a round exploded in front of him. He and his assistant decided to go aft and get off the ship. The Houston went down bow first. The propellers were turning and both men managed to pass between the blades before hitting the water. Kopp quickly disposed of his medical bag around his neck as it was pulling him deeper. He bounced up like a cork. He was relieved to get a breath of air. Kopp prayed for both of them. They were in the water for nine hours before being picked up by the Japanese.

Annotation

Alois Kopp was in the water for nine hours before being picked up by Japanese [Annotator’s Note: After his ship, the USS Houston (CA-30), was sunk by the Japanese off the coast of Java on 1 March 1942]. The Japanese held machine guns on them while tossing them into their boat. One of his captors gave Kopp a cigarette. That would prove to be the only enemy kindness he experienced following his capture. Reaching the sandy beach, the survivors were all covered with oil. The tropical sun was terrible on the oily skin. No water or food was provided until late at night at an old English prison. The POWs [Annotator's Note: prisoner of war] were provided one rice ball and two cups of water a day as punishment for sinking the Emperor's ships. That was the excuse of the uneducated, bush men who served as guards for the POWs. The first night, 20 men were put in a cubicle intended for four men. Half the prisoners slept while the others stood because space was so limited. Men died quickly so after 28 days, there was room for all to sleep. Food and treatment were terrible. Kopp managed to get something to eat from the natives. The POWs were promised a better location prior to being transferred to the "Death Railway" [Annotator's Note: the Japanese railroad being constructed across Burma]. The American POWs were brought to Singapore where vast numbers of British POWs were held after the fall of that bastion. Warehouses contained food for the POWs, and the British shared their rations with the newly arrived Americans. They ate not only rice but American canned foods for a few days. That saved many lives. The British POWs had their whole kit, and they shared clothes with the American ship survivors. Kopp got an old shirt and a US Army soldier named Bill Biffle [Annotator's Note: unsure of spelling] gave Kopp a used toothbrush. Kopp used it for 44 months of captivity and saved his teeth. Kopp acted as a medic among other doctors after being captured. He saved many Dutch lives while in the Burma camp. A Dutch doctor helped Kopp identify medicines that could be obtained from native plants. The Dutchman even suggested eating maggots found in the rice because they provided protein. Kopp even ate them. Kopp was in Singapore with the British POWs from October 1942 to January 1943. They were waiting on ship transport to the "Death Railway" in Burma. They were transported by Hell Ships to their destination. His ship had horse manure on the deck of the hold from the animals that were transported before the POWs boarded the vessel. They had to lay and sleep on the excrement. It was hot in the holds. There was no water for two or three days until they reached Burma. An American plane flew over the harbor and sunk the Hell Ship. The POWs had to swim to shore but they were happy because the bomb had landed on a group of Japanese soldiers on the ship. Kopp felt lucky to escape death on a second ship he was on that was sunk.

Annotation

Alois Kopp escaped from a sinking Hell Ship and swam to the beach on Burma only to be recaptured by the Japanese. The POWs [Annotator's Note: prisoner of war] were brought to a camp that had just been the prison for 1,500 British POWs who had contracted cholera and died while there. Lime was spread all over the camp to prevent furtherance of the disease. The men stayed in bamboo huts with thatched roofs in the camp and afterward. The roof never prevented the rain from coming in. Men would have mud on their feet when they went to relieve themselves during the night. There were slit trenches for waste. The Allies knew about sanitation but the natives and the Japanese did not. Livable hygiene was non-existent. Bugs and resulting diseases were prevalent. Native doctors helped the Allied doctors discover means in nature to survive disease and illness. Eating maggots became acceptable practice in order to survive. Kopp has a strong belief in God and angels helping him survive. He has spoken to university students about his experiences and his faith in God. Kopp was impressed with the knowledge of those students.

Annotation

Alois Kopp was a pharmacist's mate aboard the USS Houston (CA-30) prior to its sinking. He was captured by the Japanese and eventually served as a medic on the "Death Railway" in Burma. He reveals his experiences in the camps where he was imprisoned. The lack of sanitary and hygienic conditions was horrific and brought on diseases. His mistreatment by the Japanese guards was harsh and like that imposed on many POWs [Annotator's Note: prisoner of war]. He can laugh now at some of the conditions when he looks at them in retrospect.

Annotation

Alois Kopp saw conditions improve when he and other POWs from Burma were brought to Saigon. The local Vietnamese hated the Japanese and loved the POWs [Annotator's Note: prisoner of war]. Food availability was better. Kopp even gained a little weight. While Kopp was in the various camps, he made friends. They bonded and shared what they had. Kopp even ate dog at one time. It proved to be very tough meat. At times during his POW years, he would almost give up but then talk himself out of it. Entering the cholera camp where 1,500 British died tried his strength. His faith carried him through. He never gave up although he would have a good cry to release his pent up emotions. Some of the POWs were too willing to give up. Faith helped him, but what also helped were the men who knew how to scrounge to survive, as well as, farm youngsters who had grown up being very resourceful. Establishing friendships was important in aiding in a POW's survival.

Annotation

Alois Kopp and his fellow POWs [Annotator's Note: prisoners of war] left Saigon on a boozy flight to Calcutta. The POWs enjoyed the K-rations that were available on the flight. When the former prisoners reached Calcutta, they were emaciated with beards and long hair and only fragments of clothes. Food was plentiful when they arrived, but they were too full of the rations given to them on the flight. The new arrivals were deloused. After they were cleaned up, the POWs were a bit startled by their appearance. The men were anxious to return home, but they were informed that they had to stay in the hospital to be checked out physically and mentally. The Red Cross played a key role in communicating the former POWs' status back to family at home. Kopp's family did not know his status for a long time after he was captured by the Japanese. They did know that he was alive after he was allowed to write one brief letter to them. Kopp's folks received a telegram sent by the Red Cross after his liberation. The communique informed them that their son was alright. Meanwhile, Kopp found a means to shortcut the mandatory hospital stay and fly back to North Dakota. He was glad to get there. His mother had worried about him. She broke down when she was reunited with her son. His father was more stoic due to his German background. Kopp is a good history student. He knows that living in the United States is the best thing that happened to him.

Annotation

Alois Kopp returned from the war in a mood to celebrate. He ate and drank far too much and was advised by his father to settle down or his life would not be headed down a good path. Kopp was and continues to be plagued by nightmares about his POW [Annotator's Note: prisoner of war] experiences. The primary dream centers around his father trying to rescue him from his captivity. Kopp warns his father that the Japanese would kill him if he tried. Kopp has hated the Japanese through the years. Some POWs have eased their attitudes toward the Japanese, but Kopp has not. He will never forget and, even as a Christian, has a difficult time forgiving the Japanese for what they did. Because of POW camp life, Kopp cannot stomach the idea of eating rice ever again.

Annotation

Alois Kopp was pleased that the two atomic bombs were dropped. They saved lives in the long run. Both Allied and Japanese military as well as Japanese civilian deaths would have been much greater had they not been dropped. There were Japanese spies in Hawaii and the West Coast. The internment camps were not very good, but there were spies in the population. Internment was done as a preventative measure. In war, a sudden act like Pearl Harbor can result in that type of reaction. Kopp is not a warmonger. In fact, he did not approve of the Vietnam War. The most memorable occurrence for Kopp during the war was his liberation from the POW camp. Kopp went into the military to try to become a doctor. Kopp knows he saved lives during the war. That made him a better person. The war made him a more patient person and aided his tolerance of others. He tries to be good to people, even those he never met before. Kopp lauds Eleanor Roosevelt for her beauty inside rather than her outside appearance. The war made Kopp a better human and citizen. It taught him the benefit of living in the United States. The country and Kopp's generation saved the world from Armageddon. The Japanese told the POWs [Annotator's Note: prisoner of war] that they would eventually rule the world and treat their subjects cruelly. The National WWII Museum is important to teach patriotism to the busy younger generation. Hitler, Tojo and the Emperor [Annotator’s Note: Adolf Hitler, Hideki Tojo and Emperor Hirohito] were bad men and the world had to be saved from them. They were ungodly people. The United States is great because of its Christian background. Lessons related to attitudes in prewar United States are valuable. Kopp met a niece of a good friend who went down with the USS Houston (CA-30). He was able to share stories with her. Kopp had lost his rosary to a Japanese guard so his friend's niece sent him her mother's rosary. Kopp remembers fresh bread with butter from his mother's oven as being the best thing he ate after his return home.

All oral histories featured on this site are available to license. The videos will be delivered via mail as Hi Definition video on DVD/DVDs or via file transfer. You may receive the oral history in its entirety but will be free to use only the specific clips that you requested. Please contact the Museum at digitalcollections@nationalww2museum.org if you are interested in licensing this content. Please allow up to four weeks for file delivery or delivery of the DVD to your postal address.