Bienvenu is closing shop, heading for the slopes

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 23, 1998

By DEBORAH CORRAO / L’Observateur / September 23, 1998

Milton Bienvenu might describe himself as an accidental hero. But at 77,he’s not about to rest on his laurels. As he closes one chapter in his life,he’s looking forward to the future with the same enthusiasm and energy that have colored his past.

After 58 years as owner of the LaPlace Lumber Company on Main Street in what is known now as “old LaPlace,” Bienvenu is closing up shop and beginning a new chapter.

Bienvenu and his father opened LaPlace Lumber in 1940 while he was still a student of architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans. It was justfour years later as Bienvenu was leaving Tulane University with a degree in architecture and the United States had entered World War II that he was commissioned into the service and sent to mine warfare school. Weekslater he found himself serving as executive officer on a minesweeper off the coast of France.

“One evening,” Bienvenu recalls, “I had deck duty from midnight to 4 a.m.with a young seaman named Louis Annunciata. I asked him what he thoughtabout the war and he began crying, telling me how much he loved and missed his mother and three sisters he had left behind.”Early the next morning, just after the two had retired for the night, the ship was hit by a mine.

Bienvenu says he was trying to get off the ship when the deck cracked.

He could see Annunciata’s face coming up through the deck with water all around him. Bienvenu tried to open the deck more to rescue the seamen butwas unsuccessful. Bienven stayed with Annunciata until the ship sank taking the young seaman with it. It took only 63 seconds.Bienvenu says he still relives that night in his dreams.

“I’ll always remember that guy,” he says. “I never did see his parents orhis sisters. I wish I could have told them how their son and brother lovedthem. They were told he was missing in action. He wasn’t missing. I knowwhere he is. He’s still right there at the bottom of the sea along with thatship.”The strange events of that night didn’t end there. Bienvenu found himselffloating in the ocean along with the nine men out of 36 who had survived the hit when they were rescued by another minesweeper nearby.

Within hours the rescue ship was hit by another mine. Bienvenu againsurvived – one of 14 who lived through both explosions.

As senior surviving officer, Bienvenu decided it would be best if he got his men to England for better medical care and reassignment. His plan was tostow away on an LST leaving the beach in the early morning hours of the next day. The maneuver was successful, but Bienvenu and his men, huddledtogether in the side of the ship, began hearing German commands and the sounds of marching. They were sharing space with German prisoners-of-war who were being transported to England. Coming out of hiding, Bienvenuand the other survivors told their stories to the executive officer. Whenthe port commander in England discovered Bienvenu was the senior surviving officer on the minesweeper, he was flown immediately to Washington, D.C. to strike the ship off the records.”To get to the United States, I had to go to London. The buzz bombs hadjust started coming over the city. I spent that night on the top of the hotelwatching buzz bombs.”Bienvenu says he was treated like a king. After striking his ship off therecords he was interviewed extensively by naval archivists for an historical record of the events of the night the two minesweepers went down.

“They asked me how we could prevent so many casualties in minesweeper explosions. I told them most of the deaths were caused from head injuriesbecause all of the men wore steel helmets that flew off when a ship was hit. I suggested they use those old-fashioned leather football helmets thatstrapped on. After the war, I was watching a newsreel aboutminesweepers in the Sea of Japan. All of the men were wearing thosefootball helmets.”Bienvenu says he was not given credit for his idea but feels like he’s made a difference by saving the lives of other sailors.

Bienvenu was awarded the Purple Heart by President Harry Truman and a commendation for bravery for his attempt to save Louis Annunciata’s life.

He ended his active naval duty with a tour in the British West Indies.

Bienvenu returned to LaPlace Lumber at a time when there was just Airline Highway and a relatively few homes.

He was just in time for a big building boom.

“Men were coming home from the war and getting GI loans. We werebuilding houses like crazy,” he says.

During the post-war years he also met his wife Janet in Bay St. Louis andstarted building his family and his business.

Through the years Bienvenu has gone through a few setbacks, including tornados during Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and 20 years later during Hurricane Andrew that Bienvenu says hit his lumber yard in exactly the same spot, destroying his entire stock of building materials both times.

But he says, despite the setbacks, his business continued to grow because he did things other companies wouldn’t do.

“We cut lumber, plywood and glass to size. We stock things that biggercompanies don’t want to fool with. That’s how we built our reputation,” hesays.

Today Bienvenu and his wife have three grown children and three grandchildren. His children have worked off and on at LaPlace Lumber, butBienvenu says none of them are interested in running the company full- time. He’s looking for someone to buy his building while clearing out hisinventory with a 50 percent off sale.

Most of the building materials have been sold off and shelves of hardware are being emptied.

But he plans to take home the yellowed newspaper articles and photographs he keeps near his desk, souvenirs of his adventures during World War II that he loves to share with the longtime customers that come in to look for a bargain or just to tell him goodbye.

“We’ve had the same customers for so many years,” Bienvenu says. “I’veseen so many of my older customers die. That’s the sad part. Now theirkids come in and tell remind how I built their parents’ home.”Wilfred Mitchell, who has assisted Bienvenu at the lumber yard, is also retiring. Mitchell says he plans to go fishing. But Bienvenu says he’s goingskiing.

Bienvenu developed his passion for snow skiing at the age of 60 while on vacation in Lake Tahoe. He says he and his family were watching otherskiers. Some of the family members decided to take lessons. Bienvenuchose to take his chances on the slopes.

“I went on up to the top,” he recalls. “I didn’t know how to ski. I didn’teven know how to get off a lift. But I’ve got the knack. I used to do a lot ofwater skiing. I felt good about it.”Bienvenu has skied all over the United States. In early December he’s goingback to Lake Tahoe. But he says his favorite spot is Whistler outside ofVancouver, British Columbia, now famous as a training ground for Olympic skiers.

“Look at the view of it from the air,” he says, showing a photograph of the mountain. “When I’m skiing, I feel like I’m 35 years old. I feel youngagain.”Bienvenu says he hopes a new entrepreneur will buy his business and continue the revitalization of Main Street.

Meanwhile, he says, his life will be filled with his grandchildren, which include 3-year-old twin boys, the celebration of the 40th anniversary next February of the LaPlace Volunteer Department, where he’s served since it started up in 1959, and, yes, skiing.

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