Fresh out of high school, Albert Becker left his family to work at a newspaper in Lawton, Oklahoma. He wasn’t much more than an Iowa farm boy when, at 19, he decided to leave that newspaper to join the Navy and serve in World War II.
“I saw I was going to get drafted — I just knew I would. So I went home from Oklahoma and I joined the Navy,” Becker, now 89, explained. “I was born and raised in Charles City, Iowa. That’s where I come from.”
Becker went on to become a father of two kids, a grandfather and great grandfather. He got a job at IBM, where he worked for three decades before retiring. The couple had lived in their home in Gardiner for 61 years.
Since January 2013, Cathy and Albert Becker have been living in Woodland Pond senior living center in New Paltz. In late April, Becker went with the group Hudson Valley Honor Flight with other veterans to visit the National World War II Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery. Honor Flight is a group with branches throughout the country that flies World War II veterans to Washington, DC — both to honor them for their service and to let them see the WWII Memorial, completed in 2004.
Blown up by a U-boat
Becker left Iowa on a bus with about 30 other young recruits his age, heading for the Great Lakes Naval Training Center — on Lake Michigan, halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee — for boot camp. He got assigned to the Navy Armed Guard, training to become a gunner protecting merchant ships hauling ammunition and supplies to the warfront.
Almost right out of training in 1943, the young sailor shipped out of Brooklyn on a ship called the SS City of Flint, heading to Casablanca in northern Africa.
“It was a real old doggy ship, that I wouldn’t be surprised if Columbus was on it,” Becker joked.
Built back in 1920, just after World War I, the City of Flint was an old steam ship that had encountered the Germans in 1939 — just months before the U.S. officially got involved in the war. Eventually, it was returned by the Norwegians and retrofitted by the U.S. at the Baltimore shipyards. When Becker got aboard the ship, it was hauling a cargo of airplane, jeep and tank parts, ammo crates, gasoline in large drums and telegraph poles.
“The harbor at New York at that time was just full of ships preparing to go,” he remembered.
They joined a large convoy — between 35 to 50 ships — headed for Morocco. When the group hit a storm in the Atlantic, the commodore ordered the merchant mariners to fall back. Becker’s ship was a little older — retrofitted but a little slower than the other vessels — and it was bleeding cargo that enemies could easily spot. “He says, ‘You’re leaving a deck cargo of telephone poles. That’s a trail for the submarines to follow.’ So naturally, we lost the convoy intentionally.”
Becker’s shipmates intended to rejoin the formation once they could secure the cargo and throw the Germans off their trail. “We pulled out. We fixed up the telegraph poles. After we got that squared away, we took off,” he said. “We were doing fine. We were making good headway. We sailed two days alone. On the second day, we’d just secured for the night. Myself and a lot of my buddies were on gun watch.”
A German sub, a U-boat, had found them. But the crew on the City of Flint didn’t know about it until it was too late. “We got a call over the intercom that they’d spotted a torpedo coming. Well, they no more told us that the torpedo was coming and a torpedo hit us. I think that ship is still coming down. It just blew sky high.”
The torpedo had blown the bridge completely off and the bow was sinking. On the aft gun at the rear of the ship, Becker had to decide quickly how to survive.
“It was going down,” he said. “There was gasoline fires, and debris flying, and you have it. We were on the after gun, and we decided we’d better get off the ship. ‘We’ being me and my gun crew. So we all split up and got off the ship, got down in the water.”
Nearby, the Nazi submarine still lurked, shelling anything seen moving above the surface of the water.
“To get out of there — because the water was on fire, and so full of debris, you couldn’t go nowhere — so myself and a buddy of mine went back aboard the ship, crawled up a rope and we got a raft down so we’d have something to be on.”
A lifeboat emerged through the smoke and chaos, picking up Becker and his friend. They ditched the raft and joined nine other men on the lifeboat.
“We had two oars in the boat. And we took turns two at a time rowing that boat the whole night long — just to get away from there. We managed to escape the area,” he said.
They knew that three other lifeboats had escaped, but they were nowhere to be seen. “Evidently, they went one way, and we went another way just to get away from the ship.”