Sven Becker: human torpedo and other life stories

We enjoy finding people in each port with interesting stories. Sven Becker was one of these.

Pulling into a box berth in a strong cross-wind in Süderstapel, on the Eider River in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, we were assisted by a strong man on the dock, who was quite friendly and spoke good English. We invited him aboard for a beer.

He mentioned that he had moved to the area from Hamburg due to respiratory problems, which had disappeared since his arrival here.

He found our American flag to be a novelty and was eager to have his picture taken with it. His sister had lived in Minneapolis and other members of his family had lived in other countries but he did not travel. “Why is that?” we asked. He volunteered that he is claustrophobic, and cannot tolerate being contained (especially in a tube-shaped container like an airplane), due to almost drowning in a submarine accident.

That was an irresistible lead, which we followed.

The story was this: When he was a young man in the military, training as a Ranger, he was given the choice of a long cruise aboard the original Gorch Fock, the German square rigged training ship, or a shorter period of special training aboard a submarine. He was not eager to leave his girl friend while on a long cruise so he opted for the submarine. As a Ranger, he was involved in special operations as a SCUBA-diving specialist. This involved leaving the submerged submarine through a torpedo tube: he entered the empty tube from inside the submarine; the tube was then closed and flooded; and the outer door opened so that he could exit and undertake his mission.

Returning from one such operation, he entered the tube from the outside. His comrades closed the outer door but then apparently forgot that he was in the tube and failed to empty the tube and open the inner door. By the time they realized their error, he had used up his air, inhaled water and was unconscious. Realizing their error, they opened the inner door, allowing the water in the tube to enter the submarine, pulled him out and rendered medical assistance. He obviously survived, but with lung problems and claustrophobia.

(Observing his girth, I asked how big a torpedo tube is: he replied that they are large but he was also smaller then.)

During sightseeing and lunch the next day and a visit to his house, he related other phases of his life: he had trained to be a teacher but his father, a dentist, persuaded him to go to dental school and then take over his father’s practice. He did that but, when his first patient opened his mouth, he decided that he could not do that for the rest of his life. He then joined a car rental company, eventually retiring as assistant to the Geschäftsführer.  He built a meter-long scale model of the SS United States from paper cut out by hand with scissors, and wrote two books (a copy of one of which he presented to us with an inscription).