By Mel Barger from Mature Living, September 2000


Speaking recently at a Navy League luncheon, 77-year-old Peter "Pete" Petersen had no trouble finding common ground with the war veterans in his audience. He is a decorated submariner from World War II who survived numerous depth charge attacks and one terrible experience when his boat was held down for 36 hours while enemy destroyers circled overhead. But Lady Luck was with Petersen. When the sub surfaced to abandon ship, the destroyers were disappearing over the horizon. Luck smiled on him again when he was transferred off his boat just before it was lost on its final patrol.

Despite his outstanding wartime service, Pete is not likely to be called to Washington, D.C., any time soon for special commendation. That's because he served on a U-boat in the German Navy. The U.S. Navy veterans he now meets at various military functions would have been his enemies in that 1942-1945 period when U-boats fought a continuing, but losing, battle in the Atlantic.

But Pete does have special standing today as one of the few living survivors of U-boat service, which had extremely high casualty rates. The statistics tell a grim story. Of 40,000 U-boat sailors who went to sea, 30,000 never came back. Germany built 859 U-boats; 648 were lost, and 429 of these had no survivors. (By contrast, the U.S. lost 51 submarines and 3,500 men during the war.)

Pete was not only lucky in war but also in love. After the war, he returned to the farm in northern Germany where he had grown up. Trained as a mechanic, he found a job repairing tractors and helped his parents run the farm. In 1948, a young Toledo woman named Irma Lutz was visiting her German relatives on an adjoining farm. Pete was named her guide for the visit. This not-unpleasant duty blossomed into romance and led to his emigration to the U.S. in 1950. He found employment in Toledo, soon was even able to buy a car, and he and Irma became engaged. And even their wedding ceremony was a stroke of luck. Irma sent their names into a national TV program called Bride and Groom, which featured on-the-air weddings. They were chosen and their 1953 wedding was televised to the entire country with all expenses paid. Getting married on TV was a good start, because they recently celebrated their forty-seventh wedding anniversary. (They have one daughter, Karen Lumm, who Was Miss Teenage America at Whitmer High School in 1975.)

Pete, who became an American citizen in 1956, has been an outstanding member of the community. Starting as a laborer in a window frame factory at ninety cents per hour, he later joined United Technologies and was safety director when he retired after 28 years with the firm. For the past 22 years, he has conducted the German-American Hour for WCWA every Sunday morning. He is a past president of the American Turners, which is part of the German-American Festival society. Additionally, he has been president of the International Institute, which he still serves as a board member. He is also a past president of the International Park Board and is still a board member. He was president of the downtown Republican club, and has served on the Toledo Parks Committee. He is currently on the Civilian Police Review Board. In the meantime, Irma, a BGSU graduate, was a teacher at Start High School and, in retirement still serves as a substitute teacher. They are able to travel frequently, and have been back to Germany many times in addition to tours of other countries.

All this is a giant leap from Pete's early days in Germany, when he faced the certainty of being conscripted in a conflict that would leave his native country almost totally devastated. Born in 1923, he grew up in a tiny village called Hattstedt, close to the North Sea in Schleswig Holstein. He served an apprenticeship as a mechanic, and then entered the German Navy in September, 1942.

Though it's been said that German sailors were arbitrarily assigned to U-boats, Pete says that it was voluntary, just as in the U.S. Navy. In fact, it was considered a special honor to qualify for U-boats, and many applicants were turned down. He was selected and took special training at a base on the Baltic Sea, and later had other training before being assigned to the U-518. Having had civilian training as a mechanic in civilian life, he served in the engine room and was then transferred to the control room. The U-518 operated out of Lorient, France,a special submarine base on the Bay of Biscay with special bunkers of reinforced concrete to protect the boats in port. This base was used in the famous movie, Das Boot, which Pete says is a realistic portrayal of life on a German sub.

Pete had made three patrols of about four months each when he was reassigned to shore duty with the expectation of being trained for advancement to commissioned officer status. But by this time, it was early in 1945, and Germany had all but lost the war. The U-518 went out on a final patrol under her 23-year-old skipper, Hans-Werner Offermann, and was sunk by two U.S. destroyers. There were no survivors or even any surface evidence of a kill. After Germany surrendered, Pete spent some time as a prisoner of war, but was finally allowed to return home.

Many years later, Pete and Irma reviewed his World War II experience by visiting U-505 at the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry. The U-505, a sister sub to Pete's U-518, was captured by a U.S. task force in the closing months of World War II and was later moved to Chicago. During their tour of the boat, Pete happened to mention that he had served on a sub identical to U-505. He was immediately recruited as an advisor to the exhibit. It turned out that he was also able to identify an assortment of submarine parts that had baffled the people at the museum.

Pete considers himself lucky to serve as an advisor to the U-505, since it's one of only four German U-boats still in existence. But he's been lucky most of his life, maybe because he also has the ability and knowledge to create much of his own luck.