June 6, 2012

D-Day brothers in arms reunited as Togus roommates

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

TOGUS — Nearly 70 years ago, Army soldiers Leon Audet and Almo Nickerson served side-by-side on D-Day at Utah Beach in Normandy.

click image to enlarge

U.S. Troops wade through water and Nazi gunfire during the D-Day landing in Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. Among them were Leon Audet, left, and Almo Nickerson, who are now roomates at VA Maine Healthcare System, known locally as Togus.(National Archives/MCT)

SECOND WORLD WAR 6 MCT

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Army veterans Leon Audet, left, and Almo Nickerson served side-by-side on D-Day at Utah Beach in Normandy and are now roommates at Togus veterans hospital.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Related headlines

15 things you might not know about D-Day

• The “D” in D-Day doesn’t stand for anything — it’s just a designation for whichever day a military operation begins.
• D-Day planners used holiday postcards of Normandy to help fill in details.
• Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for D-Day with the words, “OK, let’s go”
• British Lt. Den Brotheridge, shot shortly after midnight while storming a machine-gun nest on Pegasus Bridge, was the first Allied soldier killed by enemy fire on D-Day.
• One hundred of 355 glider pilots ferrying British troops to Normandy before the beach landings were killed or wounded.
• A dog used to listen for enemy movements required rescue when its parachute snagged on a tree.
• Midget subs, which surfaced near the coast to flash colored lights as beacons, guided the invasion fleet to Normandy.
• D-Day involved 4,126 landing craft.
• British and Canadian troops used tanks fitted with revolving flails to clear beach minefields.
• German Gen. Erwin Rommel was the first to describe D-Day as “the longest day of the century.”
• A Bible in his breast pocket saved the life of U.S. Staff Sgt. Lou Havard when it stopped a bullet.
• All but two of the 29 amphibious tanks deployed by U.S. forces on D-Day sank.
• Hollywood director John Ford led a camera crew on Omaha Beach filming newsreel footage.
• More than 156,000 Allied troops landed at Normandy on D-Day; total Allied casualties are estimated at 10,000 for the day, with 2,500 dead (Total German casualties are not known,
but estimates range from 4,000 to 9,000).
• Twenty-seven war cemeteries hold the remains of more than 110,000 dead from both sides during the Battle of Normandy that followed D-Day
MCT News Service

Audet, of Winslow, was later wounded and left for dead. Nickerson, of Hallowell, was taken as a prisoner of war.

Both managed to survive, return home, marry and start families.

Now, as they struggle with the pain of old war wounds and dementia, the two have been reunited as roommates at VA Maine Healthcare System-Togus. They are two of 25 veterans who live at Patriots Place, a nursing home dementia unit on the sprawling campus of the historic treatment center east of Augusta.

Their reunion began just more than two months ago, when Audet moved to the hospital. Staff learned of their shared service and decided the two would find comfort in a familiar presence in the next bed, at supper and while participating in activities, said Jodi Hardwick, a social worker on the unit.

During a recent interview, the men sat side by side on a couch: Audet, 93, wearing a Portland Sea Dogs ballcap and Nickerson, 90, wearing a black hat with the words “Veteran of W.W.II, 1941-1945.”

These days, recalling the events of the invasion are difficult. Nickerson suffers from aphasia, an inability to speak that’s further related to his dementia. Audet does a little better, but says that his wife is the one who keeps track of most of the details.

Fortunately, the men also told their story in 2004 to the Kennebec Journal, describing the rough seas during the June 6, 1944, landing on the beach, the men who died before even making it to shore and the time Nickerson thought Audet died on the battlefield.

The men were two of the 160,000 Allied troops who landed on the beach to fight Nazi Germany. Of those, 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded.

Several weeks after they landed on the beach, Audet walked ahead of other troops as a scout looking for enemy guns. As he crossed a field, Audet turned to signal that the coast was clear. When he turned again, he was hit by a German bullet that ripped a hole in the front of his helmet. He was knocked unconscious, and despite Nickerson’s attempts to wake him, he laid still.

Sometime later, Audet woke up and rejoined the other troops, injured but not fatally. Today, he can point to the shrapnel in his head near his right eye.

Paul Manson of Winslow, who’s known Audet for about 20 years and Nickerson for about seven, said the men don’t often talk about their time at war. After asking questions through the years, he’s been able to tease out details of their service.

A Vietnam veteran and Winslow city councilor, Manson visited recently to try to help them retell their story.

“They are pretty humble about it,” he said. “They never wanted to bring it up.”

Nickerson was captured by the Germans, becoming a prisoner of war until his camp was liberated by the Russians, according to Manson.

It wasn’t until years after the war ended that Nickerson learned that Audet not only survived, but was back living in central Maine. The men ran into each other at a dance hall on Lake Cobbossee in Winthrop, caught up on old times, then lost track of each other for another 20 years, until their paths crossed on a Vassalboro golf course.

Now they and another man share room 311 at the nursing home.

Audet and Nickerson are decorated war heroes. Nickerson trained at Fort Dix and in the New Jersey swamps to prepare for battle, he said in an interview in an undated news story.

(Continued on page 2)

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