FRANK DE VERE LATTA
OUR FAMILY HERO
By John M. Latta, Branch 29, Millbrae, California
I have been intending to write you for some time regarding my cousin, Commander Frank D. Latta USN, Commanding Officer of the WWII submarine USS LAGARTO. All of the publicity surrounding the recent discovery of the sunken wreck of LAGARTO in the Gulf of Siam has finally moved me to do so.
I was four years old, almost five, when the LAGARTO was lost. Seeing my mother crying at the phone upon learning the news is one of my earliest childhood recollections. Our being somewhat a Navy family, Frank De Vere Latta has been my hero ever since. And a hero he was. He was the recipient of both the Navy Cross (second for valor only to the Congressional Medal of Honor) and the Silver Star for his accomplishments as a submarine commander in WWII. I have since met several of his fellow skippers who knew him well (more on that below). He was universally popular with both him men and his contemporaries, and his wartime records does great credit to us all.
An addition to our family lore, I learned a lot about Frank from the history books and from conversations with those others who knew him. Among the many stories about him, I was told that he had a very unique mode of transportation when ashore. It seems that Frank owned a motorcycle, somewhat a rarity in those days, which he used to get around the various naval bases when in port. Then, when the boat was ready to depart, he had one of the machinists dismantle the bike and stow it aboard. Now, have you ever seen the inside of one of those boats? There was no room for anything but torpedoes, food and fuel! There were not even enough bunks for all of the crew. So where did he put it? Without exception, every one of the submariners I met from that era could not imagine. But he had a place, and he was known throughout the submarine service for that motorcycle.
Frank led all of the other sub skippers during the war in the number of "special missions" he conducted as a skipper; that is, the landing of supplies and Marine raiders on enemy held Pacific islands. Remember those John Wayne movies, surfacing in the dead of night and launching all those blackened faces into rubber boats, then coming back a few nights later to hopefully exchange flashlight signals and recover the survivors with their crucial intelligence? Well, that was Frank. Early in the war, he commanded the submarine NARWHAL which, along with only one other American boat, was large enough to accommodate a Marine detachment with all its gear. One of his (presumably understated) log entries during this period read, "These special missions are trying." Perhaps in response, Frank named the boat's four powerful diesel engines "Matthew," "Mark," "Luke," and "John."
LAGARTO was lost with all hands on her second war patrol in May of 1945 while on what was certainly an extremely hazardous mission. In order for a submarine of the day to successfully out-maneuver the enemy, it needed to be operating in very deep water. LAGARTO was attacked in water that was not even as deep as the boat was long. The divers who recently discovered the wreck found that one of her outer torpedo doors was open, indicating that she had just fired on the enemy when the fatal blow was delivered. So she went down fighting, as we all would expect.
My Dad moved away from Iowa, where he and Frank were raised, after graduation from college in the early 1930s. He lost track of Frank as his naval career progressed. We did not know for sure if he had ever married, so we had no knowledge of his family, and as the years went by he faded from memory. Except for mine; he always remained my hero.
The 1960s brought Vietnam to the country and a draft notice to me. Partly remembering Frank and our naval legacy, I applied for acceptance into Naval Officer Candidate School. I distinctly remember standing in the office of a commander who was interviewing me for admission and looking at a picture on his wall of NARWHAL. After receiving my commission as an Ensign, I served in a destroyer in the Pacific, traversing the same waters as Frank had some twenty-five years earlier. I soon completed my formal connection with the Navy but it never left my blood.
When I moved to the San Francisco area in the mid-1990s, I was invited to join the Board of Trustees of the San Francisco Maritime Museum Association. This association owned, restored and operates to this day the WWII submarine PAMPANITO as a museum and living memorial to the fifty-two U.S. Submarines lost in the war. PAMPANITO is a sister ship of the LAGARTO. Given my connection wit things naval, and the submarine service in particular, I was soon asked to serve on the associations' PAMPANITO Committee. I will never forget my first meeting. Among those sitting around that table was a distinguished-looking, well-spoken gentleman named Ben Jarvis. As a result of my having joined the meeting late we had not met then, so I took the opportunity to introduce myself later in the parking lot. "Hi, I'm John Latta," I said, only to watch as all color drained completely from his face. After recovering somewhat, he explained his shock, and then it was my turn to be completely stunned.
Ben Jarvis had skippered the submarine BAYA late in the war, and had not only known Frank Latta well, but considered him a mentor. Most startling of all to me, however, was the fact that he was certainly the last person, apart from the crew of LAGARTO, to see my cousin alive. LAGARTO joined up with BAYA on May 2, 1945, in the Gulf of Siam. The two boats rendezvoused on the morning of May 3, and cruising side-by-side the two skippers discussed the tactical situation across the quiet water between them without even the aid of megaphones. It was decided that LAGARTO would conduct an attack on the convoy later that same day while BAYA would proceed ahead to establish a position in advance of the approaching enemy. Then the boats parted for the last time. The next morning, BAYA was unable to establish contact with her sister, and LAGARTO was never heard from again.
After the war, Japanese naval records revealed that the minelayer HATSUTAKA, one of the convoy's escorts, had conducted a depth charge attack that same day on an American submarine in the location where LAGARTO was operating and where she would eventually be found some sixty years later, almost to the day. Captain Ben Jarvis, himself a highly decorated submarine officer, also told me the rest of the story. Frank had left a widow, Holly Woodward Latta, and two young sons, Michael and Patrick. Patrick had recently died, but Ben thought Michael lived nearby. Thus I discovered a cousin I never knew existed.
About two weeks later, I met with a somewhat skeptical Michael Latta to compare notes and establish whether or not we really were related. He did not know very much about the Latta family at all, his only connection with it having met his end when Mike was very young. But he brought stuff. We both brought stuff. And out of all this combined clutter, Mike produced a picture. He confessed that he did not know who any of the men in the picture were; his mother had only told him they were his family. But I knew who they were! The central character was my great grandfather, John P. Latta, a Civil War veteran, on the occasion of his and my great grandmother's 50th wedding anniversary in 1915. I recognized him because some of my own photos were taken that same day. Frank's grandfather, James Selkirk Latta, was also there as was my own, Frederick Garfield Latta. And also there, playing on the lawn in the lower right hand corner of Mike's photo, at aged 3, was my father, John Selzer Latta.
Following up on this remarkable series of events, Mike and I located Frank's half-brother, Douglas R. Latta, who lives in Newport, Oregon, and is a regular reader of The Latta Genealogy Newsletter. Today, Mike Latta is happily enjoying his retirement off the Pacific coast of Mexico aboard his sailboat, NARWHAL.
A small world indeed.