Alex Sopka grew up on the rough streets of Pittsburgh’s Northside, the son of Russian immigrants. His father’s path towards American citizenship was to fight in WW I, where gas destroyed his lungs.
Like many young men, the news of Pearl Harbor inspired Al to action but the government drafted him first–for good measure. After an unhappy stint with an Army artillery unit, Al anxiously volunteered for infamous Airborne duty as fighting against the Germans heated up in late 1944-1945.
The idea of jumping out of planes to fight the enemy seems glamorous, but only in Hollywood movies. Once on the ground, if a paratrooper survives the fall, he then becomes a regular infantryman dangerously engaging the enemy nearby. “Don’t shoot ’em until you’re up close,” they were instructed.
Of course, the scared, young lads of Al Sopka’s unit carried out their orders as best they could. It was tough going; kill or be killed. Well into his 90s, Al Sopka still dreams about the horror.
On October 6, 2012, we had a wonderful opportunity to sit down and chat with Alex Sopka in the grand Gettysburg Room of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
We were delighted that Mr. Sopka brought with him several photographs that day. It’s always a delightful privilege that we may look back through the years at the images of young sailors and soldiers–forever so youthful and carefree in those now faded and fragile old photographs.
Veterans’ scrapbooks, like their stories and memories, are often so frail from age and use that we have to gingerly plumb through them with the utmost care. Still, they are for us and future generations amazing portals into the past. Time machines.
Alex was our first oral history interview on a sun filled Saturday morning. A hint of Fall was in the air and the eventual changing of the seasons had begun. It was a gentle reminder that, as it is with so many of the elderly participants we’ve come to know through our project, the golden days of Summer eventually draw to an end.
Thank you for your stories and your service to our nation, Mr. Sopka.