TURNER — Henry Poisson cherished his encounters with U.S. Gen. George S. Patton in Europe during World War II.
A sergeant in the 150th Combat Engineer Battalion, Poisson led a team of soldiers who built bridges, prepared assault crossings and cleared and laid down land mines.
“We’d clear some mines and Patton would come over and talk to you,” Poisson said. “He loved his buck sergeants. We would talk for about half an hour or more. I really liked him.”
It is no surprise that Patton would gravitate to successful sergeants like Poisson, an engineer who could get the job done. His unit built numerous bridges across Europe for Patton’s fast-moving Army, including the first bridge that allowed U.S. soldiers to cross the Rhine River in Germany.
Poisson was awarded two Silver Star Medals and a Bronze Star Medal. He also received one of England’s highest military honors for rescuing 20 wounded soldiers while under enemy fire.
The honors continue 70 years after the end of World War II. Hundreds are expected to be on hand this weekend to honor Poisson and 26 other Maine veterans and thank them for their dedication and service.
Honor Flight Maine is sending the 27 veterans, accompanied by one guardian apiece, on an all-expenses-paid trip to tour the monuments in Washington, D.C. The group is leaving Saturday morning and will return to the Portland International Jetport on Sunday at 11:15 a.m. for a huge celebration.
This is Poisson’s first trip to Washington, D.C.
“It’s going to be quite an event,” he said.
The group will board a motor coach bus in Baltimore for the trip to the World War II Memorial in the nation’s capital. Other expected stops include the Korean and Vietnam memorials and Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
All money for the trip was raised by volunteers from Honor Flight Maine, the local chapter of the national organization, which began in Ohio in 2005.
This is the second trip to Washington this year by the Maine group and the fourth since its founding in March 2014.
“They are so humbled,” said Laurie Sidelinger, director of the local chapter. “They see that they are not forgotten. And there’s always a surprise waiting for them.”
Honor Flight’s goal is to take veterans to Washington to see the memorials built in their honor before they die. According to Sidelinger, 5,000 World War II veterans live in Maine. Nationally, more than 500 die on average every day.
Six of the 27 veterans on this trip live in the area. In addition to Poisson, they include Ralph Gould and James Shearer of Auburn, Harold “Pop” Gilbert and Richard Bubier of Lewiston and Raymond Sylvester of New Gloucester.
At age 92, Poisson is as robust as ever. The Turner resident still walks a mile every morning, following a career in construction. In addition to building banks throughout the Northeast, he helped build the International Paper mill in Jay.
He enlisted in 1943 and trained at Fort Devens in Massachusetts before his unit was sent to Oxford, England, to continue training. Poisson said they arrived in Normandy, France, on July 5, 1944, one month after D-Day.
On Sept. 9, 1944, Allied troops were attempting to cross the Moselle River in France at night in the face of German tanks, mortars and machine guns. Poisson piloted the first supply boat to reach the Allied infantry on the opposite shore. He jumped into the cold water and, fighting the swift currents, he pushed the small boat filled with four wounded soldiers back to safety. He repeated the trip five times.
“I was alone, but I had the walking wounded,” Poisson said. “At least they could work. They were shot. But to save your life, you do a lot of things you don’t think you can do.
“And the water was cold. I still don’t see how I made so many trips,” he said.
That feat earned Poisson the British Military Medal and made him the most decorated soldier in the 150th Combat Engineer Battalion, according to the group’s website. The medal is issued for bravery in the field.
The citation, approved by both Patton and British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, says, “Sergeant Poisson’s devotion beyond all call of duty and determination to accomplish the mission reflect the highest credit upon himself and the military service.”
He didn’t even know about the medal until receiving a letter from the British Embassy a year after the war.
In addition to building bridges and clearing mines, the engineers were responsible for maintaining the roads for the tanks and infantry. Poisson recalled the struggles to keep the roads clear of snow during the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans’ last major offensive.
By the end of the war, Poisson was with Patton’s Third Army in Czechoslovakia. He fondly remembers getting a pass after the war to revisit a young girl in Monroe, France, who thought of him as a brother and had brought him coffee while he was guarding a bridge in town two years earlier.
Poisson, who also went to Korea to train troops during that war, believes he is one of two members of his battalion who are still alive. The 150th held reunions for 63 years before stopping a few years ago because of its dwindling numbers.
Poisson said he is looking forward to spending time this weekend with other World War II veterans and sharing memories.
“That will be glorious,” Poisson said. “I’ll be proud to be there, because a lot of boys won’t be there.”