Sunday, January 01, 2006

Found submarine stirs memories of man


The Hawk Eye
By Shawna Richter
September 12, 2005

The USS Lagarto.

It has been 60 years since the World War II submarine USS Lagarto was sunk by a Japanese minelayer in the Gulf of Thailand, taking its 86 crew members to their deaths.

Cmdr. Frank Latta, a native of Burlington and a 1928 Burlington High School graduate, was one of those considered missing in action, but presumed dead since May 24, 1945.

This May, a team of deep–sea divers discovered the wreckage 200 feet below sea level, 93 miles from the southeast coast of Thailand.

Since its discovery, Navy officials and the diving team have had some disagreement over the ship. The Navy considers all sunken U.S. ships gravesites, off–limits to people in general.

However, the divers who found it would like to document the submarine, which is intact and sitting upright on the ocean floor. According to Karen Duvalle of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, Wis., the crew was given the OK to photograph the ship from the outside in mid–July, mostly to confirm that the submarine is, in fact, the USS Lagarto.

Two family members visited the wreckage with the divers, armed with letters, pictures and other mementos Lagarto families have sent them to be read or placed at the site as a goodbye to their loved ones.

"I know Michael is very thrilled to have some closure," said Carol Latta, sister–in–law to Michael Latta, son of Cmdr. Frank Latta. Carol was married to Patrick Latta, another son, who died 12 years ago. "Mike always wanted to go by the last known site and drop a wreath. He was never able to do that. But now he'll have some conclusion before he dies."Currently, Mike Latta is sailing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans with no way to be contacted.

Carol and the other remaining Latta family members live in California, where they heard the news of the submarine's discovery shortly after it was found."

Mike knows his father had a motorcycle the crew snuck onto the submarine," Carol Latta said, a hint of laughter in her voice.

Latta explained that her father–in–law had a passion for motorcycles. Although it was against Navy policy to bring motorcycles on board, Frank Latta would disassemble the bike, put it in a crate and sneak it on the ship. Once the ship had landed, he would put it back together again and ride it up and down the streets wherever they were.

"It's probably still on board (the submarine)," Latta said.

Frank Latta was more than mechanically inclined though. He was artistic, too, Latta said."I have a lot of his artwork in my home," she said. Frank Latta was into woodwork and woodcarving and the intricate pieces are still appreciated in the Latta home.

Both Mike and Pat Latta were young when the submarine was sunk, but they do remember being on board."Mike's talked to a woman who is (compiling current submarine information).

Her father is probably one of the crew members who chastised Mike for playing around on deck," Latta said.

"They remember their dad was a big deal. They always missed their dad."

Neither of the brothers talked about their father much, nor did Frank Latta's wife, Holly, a Burlington native who eventually remarried. But Carol knows Pat had reoccurring underwater dreams throughout his life.

"He would be happy to know the gravesite was found," she said.

Pat and Mike's children were a little surprised to find out their grandfather was such an important figure in history.

"It's very important they found the submarine," Latta said. "But it's like another era. (My daughter) Robin was sent all the information and she said, 'You know, I never even talked to Dad about this.' She was surprised at the history in it.

"It's like ... you live with them and you know them, but you don't talk about the past," Carol said as a way of explanation.



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