TOGUS — Nearly 70 years ago, Army soldiers Leon Audet and Almo Nickerson served side-by-side on D-Day at Utah Beach in Normandy.
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.
“I was just 22 years old, and coming from a small town in Maine, we were all apprehensive of what lay ahead for us,” he said. “I remember the first thing was that I wanted to get out of the water and on to land as soon as possible. We were well trained and we all had a lot of confidence, but we were all scared.”
In 2005, Audet received a special Normandy badge from French Consul General Francois Gauthier in Boston. In that 2005 story, he recalled another injury he sustained during the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944.
“I was in charge of a machine gun section,” he said. “My crew was riding on top of a tank and I was walking alongside the tank. There were hedgerows on my left and the tank on my right and a mortar shell came in. It landed not too far in front of me and just peppered me, all over my body and cut a nerve in my knee and I had to be evacuated.”
Today, both men walk unaided except for the steadying arm of a friend or nursing home staffer.
Manson said both men should be kept in everyone’s prayers on this D-Day anniversary.
“Show them respect and honor for what they are: two amazing U.S. Army veterans,” Manson said.
Susan Cover — 621-5643