Submariner recalls service with United States Navy
Editor’s note: This is the 12th article in The Inter-Mountain’s Unsung Heroes series, which will feature veterans in our area and share first-hand accounts of their military service. The series will publish each Monday through Veterans Day. To suggest an Unsung Hero, call 304-636-2121, ext. 120.
ELKINS –Military service became a family tradition for a West Virginia native who followed his father’s footsteps and joined the U.S. Navy, eventually serving on a submarine with his brother and traveling all over the world.
Harold J. Becker, who goes by the nickname “H.,” was born and raised in Wheeling. He said his father, the late Harold W. Becker, served on a destroyer in the South Pacific during World War II.
“My father was in the Navy … and growing up, I’d always thought about joining the military,” Becker said.
After graduating from high school in 1978 and working a little while, Becker said he decided to enlist after hearing about a cousin’s experiences in the submarine service.
“Sub force is all volunteer. … It takes a special breed to actually be on submarines, because if things go bad, it can be deadly,” Becker said.
Even a minor mechanical problem or small fire could quickly escalate into a life-or-death situation on a submarine, where there are no lifeboats and no easy way to escape.
He said that’s part of the reason everyone working on a sub receives lengthy training in order to become qualified on a submarine — a process that can take anywhere from 12 to 24 months.
“You have to have a basic knowledge of every system on board,” Becker said, “in case you have to fight a fire back in that area.”
He said those serving together on a sub also can become very close.
“It is a dangerous thing. Most people would not want to go down on a steel tube hundreds of feet underwater,” he said. “You really have to count on your shipmates to know their jobs. … Their lives are in your hands, and your life is in their hands.”
Becker’s first long-term assignment was on board the USS Gudgeon SS567, a post-WWII diesel electric sub based in San Diego, California. He said the sub was known as “The Galloping Ghost of the West Coast,” and it was in operation for the United States from 1952 until it was decommission in September 1983. The sub was leased to and then purchased by Turkey, and continued being used by that government until February 2004.
“That was quite a long time for a submarine,” Becker said, noting he was part of the decommissioning crew.
While he worked on the USS Gudgeon, his duties included everything from preservation work, such as painting the exterior and performing preventive maintenance on the anchor, to standing watch at sea and working in the torpedo room.
He and other crew members traveled to ports along California, Washington and Alaska, as well as Canada to Mexico.
“Because of her age, we didn’t travel as much,” Becker said about the submarine. “We pretty much stuck along the West Coast.”
After the USS Gudgeon was decommissioned, Becker’s next assignment was in Charleston, South Carolina, aboard the USS Sand Lance SSN-660. He said it was a newer, faster submarine, and it had a nuclear reactor.
Becker became the leading petty officer in charge of the USS Sand Lance’s torpedo division, which included 24 torpedoes, two cruise missiles and other types of weapons and equipment. He also became one of only two E5-level nuclear weapon handling supervisors along the East Coast, as well as a conventional weapons handling supervisor and small arms petty officer.
During his time with the USS Sand Lance, Becker was joined by his younger brother, the late John P. Becker, who joined the Navy in 1983.
“They sent him to the Sand Lance and I was his supervisor,” H. Becker said of his brother. “It was interesting; it was fun. We had a lot of good times. We helped each other a lot.”
Becker said in particular, his brother helped him with monthly small arms inventories.
“You had to count every single bullet. … You had to count every single thing you had on board.”
He explained submarines like the USS Sand Lance would be loaded with supplies and food, to allow for lengthy missions. They have huge freezers, he added, with about 300 5-gallon containers of ice cream and other excellent food.
“They took care of the submariners. They fed us well,” he said.
Becker said his longest stretch underwater was three months, and it took place during a six-month deployment in the Mediterranean Sea. He said they traveled to Sardinia, Italy, to get supplies, and also made stops in French ports.
Other than that, the crew was mostly at sea, performing surveillance missions, training exercises and other military work.
“On a nuclear submarine, once you leave port, you submerge and basically stay submerged,” he said.
One unique experience Becker shared was when the crew surfaced and everyone was allowed to go swimming in the Bermuda Triangle, as they took turns watching out for sharks.
“We had a swim call, and we were right there in the Bermuda Triangle,” he said. “Not many people can say they went swimming in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. … We went through that thing all the time, and I never saw anything weird.”
Becker later rotated to shore duty and continued his service with the Naval Submarine Torpedo Facility in Yorktown, Virginia. He said his time with the Navy lasted eight years and nine months, ending after he went through a divorce and became a single parent.
“I was originally planning to make it a 20-year career, but it doesn’t always turn out the way you hoped,” Becker said.
He said he received custody of his eldest daughter, Sheena, and decided to move back to his hometown of Wheeling. Becker worked for the City of Wheeling Water Department from 1989 to 2003, and then he served as an officer at Huttonsville Correctional Center for 13 years. He has since transferred to become the center’s maintenance supervisor.
He and his wife, Joyce, moved to the Belington area to be closer to relatives in Barbour County. In addition to Sheena Becker, their children include Alexandra “Allie” Becker and John A. Becker, as well as one grandchild, 2-year-old Mason.
The military tradition continues for the Becker family, as John A. Becker is currently serving in the U.S. Air Force and is stationed in Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany.
H. Becker said he and his wife plan to visit Germany next month to see their son.
Overall, he said he had a great experience in the Navy.
“I truly enjoyed it and loved what I did,” he said of his time in the service.