Albert Cupka, who died March 22 at age 89, wasn't afraid of much.
He flew bombers in World War II, became a POW after being shot down, then settled into a career as a Minneapolis firefighter with perennially singed eyebrows from forays into burning buildings to search for people. He was a pretty good baseball and softball pitcher, getting paid to play in city leagues after the war until his arm gave out.
A local boy who played basketball and baseball at Minneapolis South High School, Cupka spent his entire life in Minneapolis except for the last year and his wartime service. But it was some stint. He flew B-24 bombers behind the German lines at the age of 19, somewhat to his disappointment because he wanted to be a fighter pilot, said his son, Jeffrey Cupka of Brooklyn Park.
But bombers were dangerous enough. The military promised bomber pilots they'd be relieved from further duty if they flew 25 combat missions. But as Cupka approached 25 missions, the military raised the number to 50. He crash-landed two bombers at an Allied airfield, one because his landing gear failed and a second because it had sustained too much battle damage. Would-be rescuers waited at a safe distance until they were sure the bombers wouldn't explode from their pancake-landings, Jeff Cupka recalled his father saying.
In 1944, on his 29th bomber mission, Cupka and his crew were shot down over German-occupied Budapest, Hungary. The crew bailed out safely, but the fatally wounded plane circled erratically, drawing attention to their parachutes. Cupka was captured and shipped to an Italian prisoner of war camp, where he spent a year. In April 1945, the Italian guards mysteriously disappeared from the camp, and two weeks later the prisoners saw Russian tanks and knew that U.S. allies had come to rescue them.
Jeff Cupka said it took him years to learn those war stories because his father was the quiet, reflective type who didn't talk much about his experiences.
When the war was over, Albert Cupka turned down opportunities to become a commercial pilot because he was uncertain the new commercial airlines would be successful, Jeff Cupka recalled his father saying. Instead, the elder Cupka searched for a stable job with good benefits so he could raise a family. He settled on the Minneapolis Fire Department, where he worked for 35 years.
"He'd come home from a fire with his eyebrows singed off and coughing from smoke inhalation," Jeff Cupka recalled. "His buddies on the fire department would tell how my dad had crawled back into a burning house, feeling around on the floor in the smoke for someone who was still in there.
"I always said he was like Superman: He could fly and he rescued people," Jeff Cupka said. "He made the world a better, safer place for us all."
Cupka is survived by his wife, Alice, and five children, Debra, Patricia, Jeffrey, Rebecca and Jonathan.
Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553