MAUMEE - Peter Petersen's life has taken him strange places: from life on a farm to the belly of a German U-boat during World War II, to national television and even a trip to the Oval Office.
|Peter Petersen talking about “My life as a German Sailor in WWII” at the Maumee Library. (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
Petersen, Toledo, shared his experiences recently during a lecture at the Maumee Library, sponsored by the Wolcott House Museum Guild.
Born in 1923 in Germany, just south of the Danish border, Petersen was raised on a farm and was just 16 when World War II started. After getting out of high school, he volunteered for service in 1942, going into the German navy.
"The navy was a natural for me, to join," he said, noting the proximity of his boyhood home to the sea, and his fascination with ships. Of course, there was also a more practical component to his choice: Petersen had no desire to join the infantry and risk occupying a frigid foxhole on the cold and dangerous Russian Front.
"That wasn't really what I was looking forward to," he explained, "so I thought the navy was a good thing to enlist."
While attending basic training in occupied Holland, Petersen learned the navy was looking for volunteers to sail on submarines or "u-boats" - short for the German word "untersee", meaning "undersea" in English.
Petersen jumped at the chance.
"Submarines, at that time, had a good reputation," he said, but potential submariners had to pass a number of tests to qualify.
"A sub is a very, very interesting ship. There are all kinds of systems on her."
After finishing his training, Petersen shipped out in his sub, numbered U-518.
"The first morning at sea, I was deadly seasick," he recalled. Petersen served three four-month tours on the sub, during which the craft sank 10 Allied vessels, and damaged two. On one occasion, the crew met up with a Japanese submarine in the middle of the Atlantic to deliver supplies and drop off two crewmen who were to serve with the Japanese.
On another mission, U-518 dropped two men off the coast of Canada to serve as spies. Those men were later caught in the United States after one of them turned himself in to the FBI during a trip to New York. The other spy, identified as "Erik" by Petersen, was put in prison and sentenced to hang, but his sentence was commuted by Pres. Harry Truman. He later moved to South America.
"Generally, it is assumed no foreign soldier set foot on Canadian soil during World War II," said Petersen. "Not quite true."
While submariners generally had better food, higher pay, and a strong sense of esprit de corps - "the camaraderie of the crew, I depended with my life on you to do your job well," he said - the job was a dangerous one. At one point, U-518 was pinned down by nine Allied destroyers and was repeatedly depth-charged for 36 hours.
"There, there was nothing you could do but sitting and wait," he said.
"I thought to myself, if I ever get out of this alive, small problems in my life would never bother me."
The sub and the crew survived, and after his third cruise Petersen's skills were good enough for him to train as a chief engineer. He left U-518 for the last time: on its next mission, the sub was lost with all hands. No one knows what happened to the ship - one of more than 40 German subs to share the same ignominious fate.
"Good grades can save your life," he said of his luck in getting off the boat in time.
As the war ended, Petersen and others in the military were captured by Allied forces and put into prisoner of war camps. He was released after three months to work on a farm.
In 1948, he met Irma Lutz, a Toledoan on a trip to visit family on an adjoining farm. The two fell in love and Petersen came over to the United States two years later. They married in 1953 - on the national television program "Bride and Groom," which his fiance applied for them to appear on. Petersen became an American citizen in 1956.
The couple later adopted their only daughter, Karen Lumm, who was named Miss Teenage America in 1975 - bringing the family to Washington, D.C., to meet Pres. Gerald Ford in the Oval Office.
Petersen still has two brothers and three sisters living in Germany and still loves the sea - he and his wife have taken dozens of cruises during their 60 years of marriage.