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“Walking History” – a conversation with Louie Barineau on his centennial

pt. I – 100 years young: Louie Barineau celebrates centennial

The winds of change never cease to blow – sometimes gently, a soft breeze barely noticed; and other times violently, as unforgiving storms of war, economic hardship and hard, bitter change.

Gadsden County’s Louie Barineau has felt both in his 100 years. From the soft, whispering breezes that rustled the leaves of his shade tobacco fields to the howling gales of a near-apocalyptic world war, Barineau has experienced weather both fair and frightening.

Yet 100 years after he was born on a small south Georgia farm – July 28, 1918 – Louie Barineau still retains an undeniable spark – an enthusiastic, downright youthful vigor that defies his miles. 

The lines on his face mirror the hundreds – nay, thousands – of furrows he plowed from behind a mule on his Gadsden County farm, but his memory is razor sharp – full of vivid, extraordinarily detailed images of a history so few can recall with such precision and energy. 

As Louie’s daughter-in-law Carol says, Mr. Barineau didn’t just live through history, “he’s walking history” – brimming with the kinds of stories only a centenarian could recount. 

Happy birthday to Lou

Louie Barineau turned 100 this past Saturday, and friends and family – hundreds of them, young and old alike – gathered to wish him well at one of his all-time favorite haunts, the Havana Golf and Country Club. Seated on a delightfully unfashionable, well-worn recliner – a fitting throne for a man whose humility stands in stark contrast to the incredible achievement-filled life he’s actually lived – the elder Barineau glows with a seemingly eternal smile, as throngs gather ’round him, making merry in his honor. 

Asked how it feels to be 100, Barineau replies with his typical lighthearted wit: “Not too much different than 99.” 

“I’m just so thankful I made it this far,” Barineau adds, once the laughter from onlookers subsides. 

Gratitude is a common theme in Barineau’s recollections, and it’s nothing short of infectious. There’s no doubt Barineau has seen some hard times – struggles that would try the spirits of even the most positive among us – but you can’t hear it in his voice. 

There’s an undeniable smile behind every word he forms in his charming low country drawl. Between Barineau’s kind, gentle spirit and vivid storytelling, one can’t help but hang onto his every word like an eager disciple hearkening to the teachings of his guru. 

From enrapturing tales of B-24 bombers flying right raids over Nazi-occupied North Africa and Southern Europe, to tender, downright heart-wrenching memories of a young Attapulgus girl who – though now deceased – is clearly still the love of his life, Mr. Barineau’s life is an epic poem that rivals even the most storied works by Homer and Sophocles. 

Barineau’s own “Odyssey” begins just over the state line in South Georgia, about three miles from his current residence…

pt. II – “Walking History” – a conversation with a Gadsden County legend on his centennial

“I was born and raised on a farm my great-grandfather purchased, when he moved his family down here from South Carolina,” Barineau says. “My dad was a farmer, my mother was a schoolteacher, and we all lived down there on the old home place.”

Barineau’s mother taught at the old Attapulgus School, situated in the sleepy farming hamlet of – you guessed it – Attapulgus, Ga., after which a fine, highly absorbent, mineral-rich clay is named. 

“Attapulgite,” as the unique clay is known, was discovered in the Americas near Quincy in 1893. By the mid-20th century, attapulgite – one of the so-called “fuller’s earth” clays – had brought Attapulgus and the sparsely populated communities surrounding it a degree of prosperity via plentiful mining jobs.

But as fate would have it, Barineau came of age at an earlier, more austere time. It was the height of the Great Depression, and the local mining industry was still in its infancy, supplying comparatively few jobs, most of which fetched only meager wages.

A young, wide-eyed Louie Barineau graduated high school in 1935 – from the very same school where his mother was an educator.

Times were tough. And lean. As it was for most rural Americans of the era, college was little more than a pipe dream Barineau – but not for lack of qualifications.

If 100-year-old Mr. Barineau’s winsome demeanor and keen mind are any indication of the charisma and acumen of his younger self, then the 18-year-old high school graduate was almost certainly amply equipped to excel in any institution of higher learning, studying any field of his choosing.

But poverty – then, as it does now – has a way of carving out a more pragmatic path for those who live in its shadow. In depression-era South Georgia/North Florida, more-often-than-not the stomach demanded more heed than the brain. Keeping bellies full required work. Hard work. And it wasn’t always easy to come by. 

“I worked with Dad on the farm,” Barineau recalls. “Then, in the wintertime, if I could find a job, I would get some work to keep going.” 

To today’s more privileged brand of youth – having been spared the life-or-death struggles faced by the “Greatest Generation,” to which Mr. Barineau belongs, both by birthdate and by virtue of the extraordinary, selfless life he’s led – Barineau’s words may seem on paper to be somber reflections of despair and regret. But to hear the man speak them reveals a different sentiment, entirely. 

Bitterness and disappointment seem foreign, downright alien to Mr. Barineau. His upbeat, ever-grateful attitude suggests a life of privilege and wealth – not poverty, hardship and sacrifice. Like his neighbors and all but a few lucky families in 1930s rural America, Barineau’s upbringing was modest at best – with respect to vain, material affluence, anyway. Even a successful career in shade tobacco cultivation later in life failed to bestow fortune and mega-prosperity on the bright, hard-working Barineau. 

But when it comes to matters of the heart – love of family and friends, faith, integrity and virtue – Louie Barineau is among the “richest” men in Gadsden County, according to well-wishers at his recent centennial birthday celebration.

Mr. Barineau recalls his life as a young man with fondness and pride – and for good reason. The old man has much to be proud of. His story epitomizes what made his generation the “greatest.” By an almost superhuman mettle and good, old fashioned brow sweat, Barineau didn’t just survive the Great Depression – he and men like him (and women too!) delivered America from those dark days, only to be faced with even darker days ahead – some of the bleakest, most harrowing days the world has ever known, in fact.

Desirable Openings

Like that of so many young men of his time, Barineau’s grit and courage would be tested once again in the decade that followed the height of the Great Depression. And once more, Barineau would prove his strength, bravery, cunning and worth.

“In 1940, the Germans were acting up, so President Roosevelt initiated the draft…and I had a low draft number,” Barineau says, chuckling at his luck. The ever-shrewd Mr. Barineau quickly took action to shore up his less-than-lucky hand, however.

“I was fortunate enough to see a recruiting sergeant one time, and I told him, ‘If you have any desirable openings in the Army Air Corps, please let me know,’” Barineau recalls. 

This time, lady luck was on Barineau’s side, as two weeks after his meeting with the recruiter, he was appointed to what he considered among the most “desirable” of  all “openings” – airman in the fledgling Air Corps at MacDill Field in Tampa. 

“I just figured certainly we had to do our part; I wasn’t gonna shirk my duties, but I wanted some say-so in it. I didn’t want none of that ‘walking Army’ if I could help it. I’d rather take my chances in the air,” Barineau says, genuinely, but with a hint of lighthearted jest.

Why not stretch his sea legs – on a Navy warship or carrier? Why not march with the famed hard-fighting Marines? Or execute ground missions with the Army infantry? Why the Air Corps? 

To anyone who was once a little boy, running in circles in the backyard with arms outstretched like wings, blowing raspberries to simulate the sounds of a turboprop, the answer should be obvious. There are few machines as bewitching and just plain cool as the airplane – especially in Barineau’s day, before passenger jet contrails criss-crossed the skies at any given moment and manned flight was still very much a “feat” and anything but routine. 

“Back in those days, whenever a plane would come over, which wasn’t very often, I don’t care where I was working; I’d stop and watch that plane just as long as I could see it,” Barineau recalls, a gleeful, boyish grin stretched wide across his face. “And I wondered, ‘what would it feel like to be up there?’”

Barineau would soon find out. 

Guns and Roses Radios: “Welcome to the Jungle Desert”

The 100-year-old Barineau recalls the day he enlisted in the Army Air Corps without hesitation – as if he was recollecting the lunch he ate just hours earlier. It was clearly a momentous day – a pivotal moment that would shape this southern son-of-a-farmer’s life more dramatically than perhaps any other single day, with few exceptions.

Though in early 1941 much of the nation still clung to the delusional hope that America could stay out of “Europe’s war,” this was no peacetime enlistment.

America’s British allies had been embroiled in what would become history’s deadliest war by far for two years, already. Much of Europe, including allied France, had already fallen victim to the seemingly unstoppable Nazi war machine and its feared, devastatingly potent blitzkrieg. 

The writing was on the wall. And the walls came tumbling down on Dec. 7, when warplanes from Nazi-allied Japan unleashed hell and death on the American Naval outpost at Pearl Harbor. 

Lethal and catastrophic, though it was, the frighteningly quick, unexpected attack on Pearl Harbor proved but a grim foreshadowing of the horrors to come in the Second World War – a haunting preview of the living nightmare from which hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians were unable to wake.

But young Airman Louie Barineau never wavered, never paused to entertain such fears. He had a job to do, a duty to fulfill. End of discussion.

Barineau’s “job” was two-fold: radio operator and top turret gunner. His “office”: the legendary B-24 Liberator heavy bomber. His “jobsite”: North Africa – home of some of WWII’s most harrowing battles; also the notorious stomping grounds of one of Germany’s most effective, deadliest commanders: the “Desert Fox,” i.e. Edwin Rommel. 

Prior to “shipping out”  Barineau reported to Las Vegas for gunnery school and Scottfield, Illl. for radio school.
In Vegas, Barineau was given a taste of firing the machine guns with which he’d be expected to fend off enemy fighters threatening his B-24. And a “taste” was about the extent of it.

”We had ample ground fire, with different guns, machine guns and all, but the only aerial target we had, they mounted a .30 caliber machine gun in the back cockpit of an AT6. Another plane would fly by towing a sleeve way out behind him, and you fired at that sleeve. But what was so bad about it, they only gave us one chance to fire,” Barineau recalls.

Asked how he performed on his sole aerial gunnery training flight, Barineau responds with a humility-betraying grin in his voice, “I reckon I must’ve done alright.”

Lifelong friendship born in radio school

In radio school, Barineau met a fellow airman who would become one of his closest life-long friends: Doug Williams. 

“[Doug] was from MacDill just like me, but he was in a different squadron. We got to be friends there, and we have been friends ever since. It’s been really, really remarkable,” Barineau says.

Williams, who lives in a South Carolina assisted living facility,  surprised Barineau by showing up unannounced at his recent centennial birthday bash.

“You talk about being shocked,” Barineau says of the unexpected visit by his old friend. “It had been five years since our last reunion in Savannah. I had no idea there’d be any chance he’d be able to come. But boy, when he walked in; it’s something I’ll never forget.”

“…a special project, and it will be dangerous.”

“After Pearl Harbor, things changed in a hurry,” Barineau continues. “America was in no shape to fight a war, and they rushed us through everything.”

Barineau first reported to Shreveport, La., and the 44th bomb group. Shortly thereafter, he received orders to report to Ft. Myers, Fla., and the 98th bomb group. Then, soon after that, things changed yet again.

“Not long after I arrived in Ft. Myers, I was called in by one of the head officers, and he said, ‘You have been selected for a special project, and it will be dangerous,’” Barineau recalls. “He said, ‘You’ve got a choice; you can stay with the 98th bomb group, but if you want, you’re qualified to go.’”

The so-called “special project” would be the first American bombing raid over Europe of World War II – dubbed the “Halverson Project” or “HALPRO.” 

With the enemy in both Europe and Asia, Allied forces needed a global reach, and air power was key to this unprecedented challenge, Allied strategists reasoned. One plan focused on establishing American air forces in the China-Burma-India theater of operations. Carrying out the scheme was the 10th Air Force, which included a group of 23 B-24 Liberator bombers, commanded by Col. Harry Halverson. The big, powerful and largely untested warplanes and the pioneering, highly ambitious missions they were earmarked for were entrusted to elite, hand-picked crews – the “cream of the crop,” said a famous military historian. One of the crews included an unassuming South Georgia-born radio operator named Louie Barineau.

Originally HALPRO planned to fly from Florida to Brazil and then on to Africa, and by stages to Chekiang, China. But by mid-May 1942, a Japanese offensive foiled any plans of reaching Chekiang.

Alternative plans had to be drawn up for America’s 23 B-24 heavy bombers, so Air Corps planners shifted HALPRO’s focus to attacking German petroleum plants in Ploesti, Romania. From Egypt, the B-24 had the range to make such a raid possible, but the American war effort was still in its early stages, and this type of strategic bombing was untried, untested, downright unimagined. But military leadership hoped that by attacking key resources such as petroleum or ball bearing production plants, they could cripple enemy manufacturing and military operations.

HALPRO departed the United States on May 22, 1942 for Khartoum, Sudan, then flew on to northeast Egypt. Shortly thereafter, HALPRO crews executed the first American air attack over Europe, all the while maintaining secrecy and independence of command.

“When we left Ft. Myers, they didn’t tell us where we were headed. We went across the Atlantic to the Gold Coast of Africa, and from there to Khartoum, Sudan. When we got there, we got orders to stop for further orders. At that time, the Germans were making good progress through the desert to get to the Suez Canal and all the Middle East oil,” Barineau recalls.

“We were originally headed to China to bomb Tokyo, Japan. But they changed the orders to try to help the English get the Germans stopped. So our first base was in Fayette, Egypt. At that time the English had permanent bases everywhere – ‘the sun never set on the British Empire,’ they used to say back then.” 

300 combat hours

Barineau’s missions were myriad. Totaling 25, they ranged from night raids over Crete to excursions into British Palestine. 

Barineau was one of the lucky ones. He flew his 300 combat hours without losing life or limb. But that’s not to say he didn’t experience his share of close calls. On every raid, Barineau’s B-24 was pummeled by anti-aircraft fire. Axis fighters would often haunt their flight paths, as well. 

“It was interesting, I’ll tell you that,” Barineau quips. 

Once, Barineau even had to bail out of his aircraft in mid-air. On a night flight, Barineau’s plane clipped a fragmentation bomb suspended from a German barrage balloon, damaging the plane’s landing gear and one of the engines.

“How we didn’t catch fire, we’ll never know. I reckon it just wasn’t our time,” Barineau says.

The damaged B-24 limped back to base. With its landing gear out of commission, the pilots would be forced to attempt a dangerous belly landing. This type of landing resulted in another B-24 catching fire on the runway just weeks earlier, killing several crew members.

In light of the danger, the pilots of Barineau’s B-24 gave the crew a choice: ride it out or jump. 

“I asked [the pilot], ‘What you think I ought to do?’ He said, ‘Barineau, you’re married, maybe you better jump,’” Barineau recalls. And, jump, he did – from 3,000 feet, over a field near the base. 

“They always told us, ‘Count to eight before you pull that ripcord, so you’re out of that prop wash and all.’ Those chutes were small, and you had no control whatsoever. Whenever [the pilot] said, ‘Go,’ I did my best to do what they told me,” Barineau says.

“Boy, when I pulled that ripcord and saw that parachute blossom overhead, boy, that’s a wonderful feeling.” 

On the moonlit night, Barineau drifted down, and by pure chance landed just feet from the barracks building where he bunked. One of his crewmates, the bombardier, didn’t fare so well, however, ending up miles from base, forced to wait more than 24 hours before he was recovered by base personnel.

A long-awaited homecoming

“It was a long time before we knew when we’d get to come home. We thought we’d have to stay over there until the war was over,” Barineau recalls. “But finally they said once we get our 300 combat hours, we could go home.”

Barineau reached the all-important 300-hour mark in 1943 and departed for home on Easter Sunday of that same year. 

He accomplished much in his time overseas. The missions he flew helped shorten the duration of the war, and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroic service. 

But home was always beckoning. There waited a young lady Barineau had longed to see again since his plane lifted off the runway at Ft. Myers years earlier – his beloved wife, Aneta, known to Louie – and everyone else close to her – as, simply, “Neta.”

“Actually, her name was A-neta Thomas, but whenever we went to school, I don’t know why, but they just called her Neta, and that was on the school record – just N-e-t-a, and that’s all I ever knew. But lo and behold, whenever we decided to marry, and we had to have the birth certificate, she found out her name was really Aneta,” Barineau says, chuckling. “And we named our daughter Aneta Louise.”

Asked if he was happy to be home following his overseas service, Barineau responds, “Very happy.”

“The thing about it is, you know I told you about Attapulgus High School; well, from the sixth grade on, my wife and I were in the same class; we graduated together, and later on we courted until I went into the service. Of course, then I wasn’t in any position, financially, to take on a wife. But when I was in Ft. Myers, I knew it wouldn’t be too long before I would have to go. So she consented to marry me,” Barineau recalls with a gentle fondness.

“My mother and her came down to Ft. Myers and we were married on the weekend. At that time, she [wife Nita] was teaching school in Attapulgus, too. And I was fortunate enough to spend the weekend with them, and they returned back to Attapulgus; and shortly after that, school was out and Nita came back.”

That last morning on May the fourth, I kissed her goodbye at the hotel, knowing I couldn’t tell her where we was going, ‘cos we didn’t even know. But, anyway, you know I was so happy to get back home.”

Barineau’s daughter, Aneta, was born while he was overseas, and when he stepped off the train in Quincy upon his return, there on the platform was his wife, Neta, holding little Aneta in her arms.

“She gave her [Aneta] to me to hold for the first time, so you can imagine how I felt,” Barineau recalls, beaming with pride so palpable, you’d think he became a new father just yesterday. 

Life’s cooler in the shade

Barineau was honorably discharged from the Army Air Corps Sept. 15, 1945. The war was over, but tough times still lay ahead. 

“Everything shut down during the war, so jobs were scarce,” Barineau recalls.

Barineau managed to find employment at his uncle’s lumber business, and there he worked for the next eight years. In the 1950s, the storied North Florida/South Georgia shade tobacco district was at its apex, and the Barineau boys decided to give the then-thriving commercial crop a go. 

“My uncle asked me, ‘If we get into [the shade tobacco business], now, will you take it over?’” I consented, and they had the tobacco barns built; I came over and took over the shades and all of that to get ready for the first crop. That was in 1955,” Barineau says.

From 1955 to 1973, Barineau grew an impressive 18 crops of shade tobacco on his Gadsden County farm – the same farm where he currently resides.

“I had 28 acres one year, and 33 acres the next. And that’s the way we operated for years, until finally things got to be so expensive, and they gave all of our know-how to Central America. It got to be so expensive, it was such a big, big gamble, so I saw the handwriting on the wall. I got out in ’73, and the last crop grown in Gadsden County was in ’76,” Barineau recalls.

Barineau’s shade tobacco knowledge is legendary, and thanks to recordings commissioned by the Havana Heritage Society’s Shade Tobacco Museum, it stands to be preserved for generations to come. 

Life back in the sun

Barineau continued to farm various crops until 1980.

“Then I hung it up,” Barineau said. 

Even in retirement, Barineau’s life has remained rich. An avid golfer, Barineau was one of the first members and an initial stockholder in The Havana Golf and Country Club. The club has been one of Barineau’s favorite haunts over the years, and, fittingly, the clubhouse was the site of his 100th birthday celebration, Saturday, July 28, 2018.

The centennial bash drew throngs of friends, family  and well-wishers – more than 300, in fact – a testament to the special place Barineau holds in the heart of the Havana/Gadsden County community. 

With staunchest objectivity, it’s near-impossible to deny: Barineau is an extraordinary human being with a fascinating life story. But for all the exciting adventures upon which he’s embarked, Barineau seems to speak most fondly about simple, quiet times with family and friends. He even credits loved ones with his extraordinary longevity.

“I was fortunate enough that Neta and I was together, just lacking one month and seven days from being together for 70 years,” Barineau recalls. “And had I not been lucky enough to get her, I certainly wouldn’t be here no hundred years.”

By Brian Dekle