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A WWII skipper who ‘went down swinging’

A WWII skipper who ‘went down swinging’

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Navy Commander Frank DeVere Latta’s is among the bravest hearts asleep in the deep.

“He went down swinging,” said Jeff Latta, the grandson of the courageous skipper of the U.S. submarine Lagarto, sunk by a depth charge fewer than 100 days before the Japanese surrender ended World War II. Eighty-five shipmates perished with Latta.

The discovery of the Lagarto in the Gulf of Thailand eight years ago by a group of sea divers would bear this out. One of 52 American subs sunk during WWII, the Lagarto was resting upright and appeared almost intact at a depth of 230 feet.

“Its torpedo tubes were empty,” said Jeff, a race car driver who lives in Petaluma. “The rudder was full tilt, the diving planes were straight down. It was making an evasive maneuver to avoid being hit. There’s no way to tell, but I would say he got nailed before he got to the bottom. If they were trapped down there no one knows, but I would like to think they died quickly.”

Latta, among America’s greatest U.S. Naval heroes during World War II, listed St. Helena as his hometown at the time of his death. His wife, Holly, and two children lived on Vineyard Avenue.

His courage will be locally celebrated at an annual American Legion Post 199 Memorial Day ceremony at St. Helena Cemetery and his name engraved on a black marble monument bearing the names of 27 other St. Helenans, who fought and died in World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

St. Helena historian Mariam Hansen discovered Latta’s story while scanning a list of names of local individuals who served in the military in 1944-45 for the American Legion memorial. She was drawn to the Latta story when her study of St. Helena Star archives turned up a headline of that period that read “Commander Latta overdue.”

“The more I found out, the more fascinating it became,” Hansen said. “It was one of the great, tragic stories of World War II.”

With additional research, Hansen was able to locate several surviving members of Frank Latta’s family. Ultimately, the trail led to his grandson, who is in possession of his grandfather’s numerous medals, photographs and other items.

First to fire on Japan

As captain of the USS Narwhal in April 1943, Latta participated in action to recapture the Aleutian Islands and was among the first Americans to fire upon Japanese-held soil. He was a veteran of nine war patrols, sunk two Japanese ships, and — as executive officer of the Narwhal — was awarded the Silver Star. Later, as skipper of the Narwhal, he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Navy’s second-highest honor. Posthumously, he was awarded the Legion of Merit with Combat V, the Philippine Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart.

Bill Savidge, an American Legion member, St. Helena Historical Society writer and fighter pilot in the Korean and Vietnam wars, was able to construct a more intimate profile of Latta, who was born in Indianapolis in 1910, graduated from the Naval Academy and became a submariner in 1932.

“Photos of Frank Latta show him smoking a pipe, a mischievous smile and engaging eyes under his senior Naval officer’s hat, its scrambled-egg bill set at a jaunty angle, suggesting a confident, relaxed personality,” Savidge wrote. “Against Navy policy, Latta would bring his Harley-Davidson motorcycle aboard ship with him and disassemble it to fit in a hidden corner. In port, he would put it back together on the dock and enjoy riding around town.”

Latta took command of the Lagarto (the only ship in the Navy named after a lizard fish) in New Orleans in October ’44. “Latta’s Lancers” (Task Group 17.13) formed column-Lagarto, Haddock, and Sennet and headed for the Bonin Islands to destroy “picket boats” in advance of planned carrier strikes.

Found in 2005

In May of 1945, Latta’s ship and another submarine, the USS Baya, were operating in the Gulf of Siam (now Thailand) and were in contact with a Japanese convoy. On May 3, the two submarines rendezvoused to plan an attack. The plan was that at 1400 that afternoon, Lagarto would dive on the convoy. After taking its position for the attack, the Baya reported enemy contact. Ominously, there was no response from the Lagarto. When the Lagarto failed to show up as planned in Australia, it was reported missing in action. It was not seen again until it was found at the bottom in 2005.

But there was no doubt that the Japanese ship that fired the depth charge that sunk Lagarto was the Japanese minelayer Hatsutaka. Almost as a postscript, the captain of another American submarine, the USS Hawkbill, a close friend of Latta’s, received permission to divert from its regular patrol to hunt down the Lagarto’s destroyer. Twelve days later, the Hawkbill found and sunk the Hatsutaka.

Jeff Latta said his father served in the Marine Corps in the time after Korea and before Vietnam, “but Dad never liked to talk about [Frank Latta’s] naval career and what a warrior he was,” Jeff said.

Jeff Latta never entered the service, despite the appointment to Annapolis dangled before him and then-President Ronald Reagan’s personal letter encouraging him to accept it.

“Navy life wasn’t for me,” he said. “I wanted to go into race cars, and that’s what I did.”

(The Star wishes to thank Mariam Hansen and Bill Savidge for their assistance with the article above.)

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