Pete Petersen is 91 years old. He looks 60. He has many stories to tell and he tells them engagingly. What is his secret? “Tomatoes and the love of a good woman,” he says.
Last week he told me about being on a German U-boat. His was sunk by a U.S. destroyer. But he wasn’t on it.
He had been ordered to leave his boat (submarines are called boats, I learned) and go to officer’s candidate school. He didn’t really want to go. But that order saved his life.
There were 40,000 men on U-boats during World War II. Some 30,000 perished.
Pete told me, several times in fact, that he had a lucky life.
After the war, he met a girl visiting her grandparents on the farm next door. She was American. Pete was asked to be her guide in Germany.
He accepted the job, though he spoke no English and she spoke no German. Her name was Irma, and, eventually, sponsored by her mother, Pete came to the United States and he married that American girl.
When he came, Pete wondered how he would be received. Barely five years before he’d been trying to kill Americans and they had been trying to kill him.
Pete Petersen, left, talks to USS Toledo Commander Mike Majewski while touring the National Museum of Great Lakes in Toledo.
“I never had the smallest problem,” he said, “not the hint of one.”
He built a great life in Toledo; had good jobs. Irma taught school. He even ran for City Council, doing well on his first try, but not well enough to win.
“When I came here, I thought, stay the hell away from politics. Politics will get you killed. But I couldn’t. And it was great fun.”
After a day of campaigning, Democrats and Republicans drank beer together. He was a Republican.
How come? “I made a list of pros and cons, as I saw them, for each party. When I finished, I thought I had to be a Republican.”
He and Irma and their daughter Karen even met Jerry Ford at the White House. The president spent 10 minutes with them and walked them out.
Irma asked him if he liked his job. The president said he did.
Pete served on the Toledo parks board, and later got involved with vets groups, who wanted to hear his U-boat stories. He also got involved with preservation of the Col. James Schoonmaker (aka the Willis Boyer) and he is still involved today.
I met Pete Petersen aboard the Schoonmaker with the captain and five crewmen of the USS Toledo — here on a command visit to their boat’s namesake city.
The captain, Cmdr. Mike Majewski, is a Toledo native. He and his family live in Connecticut, where the Toledo’s homeport is. But he has a daughter at UT and another who hopes to go to UT.
Commander Majewski went to Start High School, where Irma Petersen was one of his teachers. How’s that for the circle of life?
The Toledo is a nuclear powered attack submarine. The men aboard are out for seven months at a time. They can’t tell their families where they are going. The commander's wife has the job, unpaid, of taking care of the spouses left behind and holding them together as an extended family.
I was given the opportunity to meet the commander, as I did his predecessor, Commander Sam Geiger, last year. I also got a chance to talk a bit with crew members, each with highly specialized responsibilities, though trained and expected to cover for each other.
I am too old to be easily awed or impressed. But these are enormously impressive young Americans — giving their lives for you and me. If they don’t humble and inspire you, your senses are dead.
They choose the hard, unique life of submariners, just as firemen choose their hard and mostly not well understood lives. Interestingly, the men from the Toledo spent a night with a Toledo Fire and Rescue crew while here. From both sides came the comment, “Man, I could not do what you do.”
Pete Petersen smiled. U-boat is a shortening of unterseeboot — any boat that is submerged. Pete grew up near a little town called Husum, on the North Sea. He always loved the sea and he and Irma have taken 51 cruises, the most recent this past February. But living in close quarters under the sea, as a warrior? It takes a special kind of person.
What does Pete make of these young lads, some less than a third his age? “Again, what a lucky life. I am lucky to meet these guys.” Luck flows in two directions.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.