Maj. Gen. Bill and 1st Lt. Tommie Latta, U.S. Army, Retired, USMA '38, Harvard Business School, '50 MBA
An Address Presented at the All-Academy Ball in December, 2004.
(Edited for this Newsletter)
Contributed by William B. Latta, Jr., Branch 31, Boise, Idaho, firstname.lastname@example.org
Seventy years ago, the white haired gentleman seated before you in his dress blues, Maj. Gen. Bill Latta, West Point Class of 1938, was just like you. But the times were very different. As you embark in the profession of arms in defense of this great country, first, a reality check in this time of war.
After graduating from Los Angeles High School in 1932, where he commanded the school's ROTC unit, Bill Latta returned to the family farm in west Texas to eke out a living in the midst of the Depression. His high school ROTC PMS&T was Col. James J. Mudgett. Gen. Latta pauses here publicly, and profoundly, now give thanks to Gol. Mudgett. The Colonel sent him a letter. While college was financially out of the question, Col. Mudgett told Bill of a program that allows enlistees in the Army to compete for appointments to West Point at a time when most cadets were sons of congressional friends.
Taking the advice, Bill enlisted at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. Evidently he was a bright prospect because he was assigned to the technical side of the Army. Someday you will tell your children and grandchildren, 'Why when I was young, all we had were cell phones and broadband internet.'
Bill's first Signal Corps duty, at $17.85 a month, was to tend to the carrier pigeons. He was a Corporal when he and 23 others from the U. S. Army entered West Point in June, 1934.
More reality checks: a quote from Gen. Latta: "When I was at West Point, we had horses. Now, they have women!" And while members of the class of '05 are enjoying your vacation here at home, recall back then, Bill's first break from West Point (except for an occasional football game) was the summer after his second year.
In June of 1938, 301 men graduated from West Point - it was 'the last great small class.'
After graduation from the Army Signal School, he was assigned to establish the U. S. Army officer Candidate School of the Signal Corps at Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey. At the time, the Army's Signal Corp officers consisted of only 290 men. The OCS School he established graduated 25,000 officers during the course of the war.
Later, in February 1942, while serving as aide to Gen. Olmstead, the Army's Chief Signal Officer, he asked visiting Gen. George S. Patton where he was bound. Patton replied "To start a tank battalion, want to come along?"
With Gen. Olmstead's blessing he jointed Patton. That battalion became the Hell on Wheels Second Armored Division.
On November 10, 1942, only 11 months after Pearl Harbor, and 18 months before D-Day, Gen. Latta, then a Captain, went ashore at Casablanca, French Morocco in America's first amphibious invasion of the war. It was the first dress rehearsal, with very lousy dresses, for D-Day. It taught the Army the lessons needed to avoid later.
The history books report that communications after the invasion were initially a problem that was resolved. But, how? Well, the radio trucks had been loaded wrong in Newport Beach and remained in the wells of ships in the harbor. Patton detailed the young captain to get them ashore. Bill commandeered an empty LST and went out to convince two ship's captains to offload the trucks and signal equipment on to the LST. Later that night, he and others watched the same two ships being sunk by German U-boats that had snuck into the harbor. Capt. Latta followed Patton across North Africa as the commander of the First Armored Signal Battalion, Second Armored Division.
The invasion of Sicily followed in July 1943. At a Christmas dance with the nurses of the Army Nurse Corps in December 1943, he was smitten by a beautiful young woman from upstate New York, Tommie Thompson. She attended high school in Amsterdam, New York. Unable to afford college, she went to nursing school through the generosity of a friend. Tommie was working in Albany, New York when Pearl Harbor occurred. She enlisted just over a week later. At Roosevelt Hospital in New York City the entire eligible staff of the hospital was drafted into the Army as a unit. They became the 9th Evacuation Hospital. She crossed the Atlantic in a yacht in one of the early convoys and was assigned to the 9th Evac. She went into North Africa with Operation Torch and Sicily in Operation Husky.
Pause for a moment and consider the red tape then required to be cut by two officers who wanted to get married, mid-war. They managed. Their wedding invitation reads "Somewhere in Sicily."
Lt. Latta was a scrub nurse for one of the Army's very few brain surgeons. For care packages from home, the nurses of the 9th Evac. asked for emery boards, not for their nails, but to sharpen and shape the dental tools they modified for brain surgery.
The two made their third amphibious landing in the South of France in August, 1944 in Operation Dragoon.
For those who would gripe about the discomforts of the 12-month tours of duty in remote places, recall then it was "for the duration." That meant the nurse was overseas for 44 months, and, by the end, Col. Latta was there for 46.
Bill Latta decided to remain in the Army as a career, and the Army obliged. Col. Latta returned to his permanent rank as Capt. Latta in the post-war. One of his saddest duties was to sign the order removing the horses from West Point.
He missed the Korean War, having been assigned to attend Harvard Business School, where he received a Masters of Business Administration, one of two awarded in 1950 "with distinction."
Geography teaches there are seven continents. The Army got Bill to five of them. He was shot at, and shelled on, three.
He had a penchant for hot spots. In 1954, he was on the island of Formosa and was on the off-shore islands of Quemoy and Matsu for their daily shelling. In 1961, he was again with Seventh Army in Germany for the start of the Berlin Wall, preparing for the expected invasion through the Fulda Gap. In 1963, he was NORAD's Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications and Electronics. In the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was pinned with his first star, not knowing if the plane returning to Colorado Springs would make it back before another war started.
There were rewards. He returned to Ft. Monmouth in 1965 as its Commanding General. Under his command, the night vision that "took the night away from Charlie" was invented and first deployed. It became the foundation of our new strategy for warfare night fighting tactics.
He and his wife offer their hopes, and don'ts, for your military careers.
- He hopes you don't earn enough demerits to walk punishment tours and do have a kind upperclassman who sticks a radio out the window so you can hear the Army/Navy game.
- He hopes you, too, will be reunited later in your career with a fellow graduate who tutored you in French, while being shunned by his classmates because he was black. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., became the U.S. Air Force's first black four-star general.
- She hopes you don't ever put in a 36-hour stretch in the operating room amputating the feet of over 200 soldiers who stepped on shoe mines scattered by the enemy under the new snow.
- She hopes your hospital unit will be recognized by a passing tank division for their efforts in saving lives, but does not have to endure the 24 hours of sirens blaring that it takes for a tank division to pass the hospital.
- She hopes your unit does not ever have to attend to the victims like those of Nazi concentrations camps.
- He hopes your First Sergeant will not take you over a hill to a string of boxcars filled with the bodies of people stacked like cordwood.
- He hopes you, too, will take a daring stance, later called foresight, by buying $20 million dollars worth of a new fangled item called a transistor from a little outfit called International Business Machines, like he did in 1953. Why daring? There were no transistors used by the Army and none even in research. Silicon Valley was just being born and the $20 million was seed money.
- He hopes you, too, will someday write a paper presaging the future, something like "A More Effective Army Through Electronic Data Processing Systems", which he wrote in 1957.
- He hopes you do get to talk to Speaker of the House of Representatives and don't have to tell him the Army won't buy his constituent/contributor's defective radios because they jeopardize soldiers lives on the battlefield.
- He hopes you may appear before Congress and don't have to explain the jet leased to commute across the country to the Pentagon was far more cost effective than the Air Force's C-130, and don't get ordered the night before to save them the embarrassment by omitting that fact.
- They both hope you will wear your campaign ribbons with pride but don't have to display the arrowhead denoting amphibious invasions or the eight battle stars denoting his, and six for her, major campaigns.
His last command in the new Signal Corps, the Strategic Communications Command, was at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona. After 40 years in the Army, and having started with carrier pigeons, he ended by commanding its world-wide, satellite based communications systems.
From carrier pigeons to satellites. What will your careers hold for their breadth?
Asking for his thoughts long after he retired, Bill Latta said of his men, and it is equally applicable to you today: "As I look back, I was and remain, impressed by the few professionals that we had, but even more by the citizens that turned into officers and soldiers in such a short time.
We were all young then, but got old fighting. The common ingredient was the citizen soldier, he was and remains superb, he is courageous, innovative, tenacious and bursting with initiative. In comparing WWII with Vietnam, we had superb presidential and civilian leadership in WWII and we did not for all of Vietnam. Given good leadership or even fair leadership, he learns very quickly and is the greatest."
We lost this great guy, at the age of 90, last June (2005). He was buried on the grounds of his beloved Ft. Hauchuca, Arizona.