WWII veteran celebrates 100th birthday

Submitted photo
Aymer Nelson kneels beside the grave of his captain, Thomas P. Moundres of Illinois, in the American Cemetery in France on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994.

 

By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
jennie.zeitler@ecm-inc.com

As Veterans Day is celebrated Nov. 11, the nation reflects on the service of veterans of many wars and expresses gratitude for their sacrifices.

Aymer Nelson, World War II veteran of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, looks back this year not only on his wartime experiences but on 100 years of life.

Aymer was born in Duluth, Nov. 24, 1912. He visited family members in Upsala for several summers while growing up, working in partnership with Martin Erickson raising turkeys.

“It was a cousin of my dad’s, Martin and Amy Erickson,” Aymer said. “That’s how I met Verna Nilson (Aymer’s future wife), who lived across the road.”

While living in Duluth, Aymer worked first for a hotel, then making steel for several companies.

He also owned a half-share in three different airplanes. The first two were open-cockpit biplanes, where a pilot needed to wear goggles and a flight suit. The third plane was a Piper Cub. The planes were sold in the 1930s.

Once World War II started, Aymer tried to enlist in the Navy. “The quota from my town was full,” he said, “so that didn’t work.”

He was drafted in 1942, into a new part of the Army — a chemical warfare unit. “But nobody was using chemicals at that time, so we fired heavy guns,” he said. “Instead of using gas, powder was used, and it was very accurate with heavy shells. It looked like showers of burning phosphorus.”

Aymer was then sent to Blackstone, Va., for amphibious landing training. His next assignment was to England in the fall of 1943, to prepare for
D-Day — June 6, 1944 — the invasion of Normandy from across the English Channel.

“I went in at Omaha Beach on Day 2,” Aymer said. “I was driving an ammunition truck, which a crane lifted off a barge and put on the beach. The mortars we used were so good; every infantry unit wanted us with them.”

Quite a few men were lost that day, including Aymer’s captain, Thomas Moundres.

“There was quite a bit of confusion; part of our company landed on another beach,” he said. “They soon got that straightened out.”

Beyond the beaches was hedgerow country. “There were no fences, just tight hedgerows where the other guys could hide,” Aymer said. “They could have a tank hidden behind one.”

Aymer’s unit had very slow gains, going east toward Berlin. He recalls Gen. George Patton’s army joining his unit with support.

While moving across the German countryside, the American soldiers lived in German houses. The residents just had to leave.

“One house we got to, there was an elderly lady inside with bread in the oven,” he said. “She shook her finger at us, but we knew she understood that we had good intentions. She went to the neighbors for jam, and served us her freshly baked bread.”

The soldiers soon realized that the woman they called “Mama” had given up her only food, and they made sure to leave her many canned goods to make up for the bread.

Every time they took a new farm, everyone made a beeline for the chicken coop. “That was gold,” said Aymer. “We could easily have gotten $1 for one egg.”

On Victory in Europe (VE) Day, May 8, 1945, Aymer was in Steyr, Austria.

“The greatest thing we ever saw were lights in people’s windows at night,” he said. “Cars were going through the street with their lights on — what a thrill it was to see that.”

From the time he had arrived in Europe, there had been blackouts every night.

“Everything everywhere was black. We drove thousands of miles in blackout,” he said. “Even when lighting a cigarette, we had better hide the flash from the match. Once we got to Germany, we knew that if we saw a light flash we better shoot at it.”

Aymer was never wounded during his years of service, despite close calls.

“I had so many close calls, I can’t believe them all,” he said. “There were snipers in those little towns. The rule was, don’t give a sniper a chance; shoot him right away.”

When the war ended, Aymer was sent home via a troop ship which landed in Massachusetts. He was then loaded onto a train bound for Camp McCoy, Wis., where he received his discharge papers.

“The Army got rid of us fast. We were moved quickly from boat to train and then to bus,” he said.

When he arrived in Duluth on a Greyhound bus it was midnight, so Aymer went to the hotel where he used to work for the night. He walked home the next morning.

His Upsala gal, Verna Nilson, was waiting for his return. They were married Aug. 17, 1946. Their daughter, Fay, was born in Duluth.

Aymer went right back to his old job as security guard for a steel company, but he knew that wasn’t where he wanted to be anymore.

His war experiences led to some changes in Aymer’s life. “After the extreme battle conditions, I had different ideas of life,” he said. “I had always worked inside in some sort of industry, but wanted to be outside. I started thinking about running a small resort somewhere, but I couldn’t raise the cash to make a purchase.”

In about 1950, Aymer heard from Amy Erickson in Upsala, offering him first chance to buy her land.

“She wanted to build a new house before cold weather hit,” Aymer said. “My wife was all in favor, since her parents lived right across the road.”

“Our daughter was just a little tot when we moved to the farm,” he said. Their son, Tom, was born in Upsala.

Aymer had no experience farming. He didn’t know a thing about raising animals or planting crops.

“Verna knew about gardening; she always had beautiful good-sized gardens,” he said. “I had a lot of help from neighbors like my brother-in-law, Roger Nilson.”

Aymer and Nilson lived a mile and a quarter apart. They bought some machinery together, and when each was finished with one piece, they traded work.

“We worked out a schedule,” Aymer said. “When I got through with one, he was ready for it.”

The years farming were very satisfying for Aymer. “It’s hard to say what I enjoyed the most,” he said. “It’s all different things put together, and you come up with something good.”

Aymer still owns the farm, which is rented out. He continued to live on the farm after Verna’s death in 2004, even driving until he was 98. He recently moved to Mercy Manor in Albany.

He finds that when he is out in public walking down the street wearing his World War II veteran cap or his U.S. Army cap, people notice.

“People stop me and say, ‘Thank you for what you did — we’re glad you came back,’” Aymer said.

He will be celebrating his 100th birthday this month at a gathering of family and friends in Bowlus.

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