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East Rockaway veteran recalls Air Force days


George Richard Baroni was stationed with the U.S. Air Force in the Philippines when he was asked to serve as an honor guard for President Dwight Eisenhower when he visited in 1960.

It was a humid, 92-degree day. Baroni, dressed in full uniform, stood waiting for the president. “We were at attention when Eisenhower walked by us,” he recalled. “He looked right at me and said, ‘A little warm, huh?’”

Shortly before Veterans Day on Monday, Baroni, 79, told the Herald that moments like that stand out for him when he thinks about his service. He was born and raised in Lynbrook, one of four children of Dorothy and Matthew Baroni. He had two older siblings, Robert and Carol, and a younger brother, William.

In 1958, when George was a senior in high school, his family moved to East Rockaway. After graduation, he worked several jobs to help his parents pay the rent, but he said he was looking for something more fulfilling to do with his life. He and five of his friends thought about joining the Navy, he said, but he decided to enlist in the Air Force on Aug. 14, 1958.

Baroni spent seven weeks in basic training at the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. While there, he began learning how to use a Teletype machine, which sent and received typed messages through various communications channels. “I took typing in my last year at East Rockaway High because the girls were there,” he said with a laugh, “so that began my love life and, actually, my career.”

Baroni was soon stationed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. Because there were no jets back then, he needed three days to travel there in a Lockheed Constellation, a four-engine propeller plane, from New York to California, California to Hawaii, then Guam and the Philippines.

Baroni landed in the Philippines in the middle of “Operation Dice Cup,” a mission to test the capabilities of the Teletype system and intercept encoded messages for the Pacific Air Command. Having sworn an oath of secrecy, he declined to say what type of messages. He was there for two years and earned a stripe. He was then sent to Siegelbach, Germany, the U.S. Air Force’s communications center in Europe, Baroni said.

In Germany, he was assigned to Ramstein Air Base, which did not allow visitors. While there, he received clearance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to become a crypto operator, intercepting encrypted messages. He thrived while in Germany and was eventually named Airman of the Month in a group of 150 operatives. Baroni said he was stationed there during the Bay of Pigs invasion and Cuban missile crisis, noting that it was a tumultuous time.

“You would work for eight hours, sleep for four, and then the rest of it you were on guard duty two hours at a time,” Baroni said. “It was a tense time.”

Baroni said he often heard tanks roaring through the base as missions intensified to close the entrance to Berlin. “We had tanks sitting there and ready to go,” he said. “To see the tanks rumble was very scary. I thought, ‘I’m an Air Force guy, I’m supposed to be up in the air.’”

Baroni spent three years in Germany, mostly working on the Teletype machine and reading messages from parts as far away as the West Coast of the U.S. to the Philippines. He remained in the Air Force until Aug. 14 1964, when he was honorably discharged. He said he saw many interesting things when operating the Teletype machine, but was unable to share most of them.

“There’s a thing called honor,” Baroni said. “When you take the oath of office, you promise never to put out any information you ever learned in crypto, so I really can’t go into anything I saw or did, but I had five years of constant terror, though I enjoyed every minute of it.”

On Veterans Day, Baroni said, he planned to be in Massachusetts alongside the Cold War Veterans and U.S. Air Force Veterans groups. “It’s nice to bond with people who experienced the same era that I did,” he said.

After the Air Force, Baroni worked for many companies, including as a consultant for Trans World Airlines and IBM. When he turned 25, he met his future wife, Patricia, in Long Beach, whom he was married to for 52 years before her death in 2017. He said he now cherishes spending time with his two daughters, Jill, 50, and Lisa, 47; his grandchildren, Amanda, 27, Shannon, 20, Isaiah, 13; and his great-granddaughter, Ariana, 1.

Baroni said he is proud of his time in the Air Force, even if it was hard at times. “Having the events and stress levels were like a roller coaster,” he said. “I came back unwounded, but very patriotic, and I am to this day. I proudly represent the Air Force whenever I can.”