Major General William Braden "Bill" Latta, U.S. Army (Retired)
25 October 1914 - 22 June 2005
Another American patriot and public servant has joined the Long Grey Line. A bright young man, when he enlisted in the U. S. Army in 1933, he was assigned to tend the Signal Corps pigeons. When he retired nearly 40 years later, he had commanded the Army's worldwide, satellite based communications system.
Bill Latta was born in El Paso, Texas, on Oct. 25, 1914, and passed away at sunset on June 22, 2005, in Boise, Idaho. He was the only son of W. B. Latta, a pioneering Texas telegrapher and real estate developer, and Pansy Loomis Latta. His father died when he was quite young and he was raised by another stern Scot, William G. Davis.
Bill graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1932, where he did well academically and become the commander of the school's ROTC unit. The Depression, and the death of his stepfather, compelled returning to the family home in El Paso. There, he received a letter from Lt. Col. John J. Mudgett, his high school ROTC instructor. It told him Army enlistees with a high school degree could compete for appointments to West Point. A year after his enlistment at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Pvt. Latta entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. His class of 301 graduates, Class of 1938, was called "the last small, quality class."
When the U. S. Army was poised on the brink of World War II, the stage was not set. After he attended Wire School at Fort Monmouth, N.J., Lt. Latta was tasked to remain and create, from scratch, the U. S. Army Signal Corps Officer Candidate School. The Signal Corps OCS was the institution that grew the Signal Corps from its total of 289 men to more than 30,000 over the course of the war. It continued to train officers until the early 1990s when the School was moved to Fort Gordon, Ga.
Serving as the aide to Maj. Gen. Olmstead, the Army's chief signal officer, Bill asked visiting Brig. Gen. George S. Patton what he was doing. Patton replied, "Starting a tank battalion, want to come along?" With Gen. Olmstead's blessing, he went to work for Gen. Patton. A mere 11 months after Pearl Harbor, in November 1942, Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa at Casablanca, the first dress rehearsal for D-Day, began America's role in the war in earnest.
Communications were hampered by the lack of radio trucks, which remained in the wells of ships standing off shore. Now Capt. Latta was ordered by Patton to get them. Commandeering an LST, he returned to the ships carrying the communications gear and convinced both ship's captains to stop what they were unloading and dig into the bowels of the ship to offload the radio trucks. Later that evening, a German U-boat snuck into the harbor and sunk both ships.
When Roosevelt and Churchill met at Casablanca, they stayed at a hotel previously occupied by the German Army. Anticipating its use by Allied forces, they left the hotel riddled with listening devices. The Signal Corps/Bill's solution: pull out every piece of wire found anywhere in the building and rewire the entire hotel for electricity and communications — in 3 days.
His second amphibious invasion was into Sicily in 1943. He had met a beautiful Army nurse, 2nd Lt. Beatrice Thompson, whom everyone knew as Tommie, who had also come ashore at Casablanca with the Ninth Evacuation Hospital. Together, they managed to overcome the Army bureaucracy and they were married in Palermo, Sicily, on May 21, 1944. Two months later, they shared their third invasion, this time into the south of France.
At the conclusion of the war, Col. Latta, signal officer for the XXI Corps, decided to remain for a career. The Army accommodated him by returning him his permanent rank of captain. He had made it back to major when he was assigned to Harvard Business School. He considered the B School to be his supreme intellectual challenge. In 1950, he was awarded an MBA, one of two given "with distinction." Additionally, he attended the Army's Command and General Staff School and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. He put in substantial time at the Pentagon. It was a black day in his career when he signed the orders removing horses from the curriculum at West Point.
He had a nose for conflict. The Army got him to five of the seven continents; he was shot at on three. It started in Morocco, North Africa and continued into Sicily, France and Germany. When he was assigned to the island of Taiwan, the Chinese began to shell the off-shore islands of Quemoy and Matsu. When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, he returned to 7th Army to prepare for the Soviet invasion of Europe. When assigned to NORAD, the Cuban Missile Crisis was his first order of business. When visiting South Vietnam on an inspection tour, he was shelled by the NVA.
He received his second star upon returning to Fort Monmouth, this time as the commanding general of the Army's Electronics Command. He was always proud of his boss, Gen. Besson's, selection criteria: "I'd rather have the SOB on my team than somebody else's." Under his guidance, the Army invented, developed and distributed for use in combat one of its most potent weapons, the night-vision technology that gave the Army the ability to see in the dark and revolutionized America's war-fighting tactics.
In 1969-1971, he was assigned to command the Army's communications system from Fort Huachuca, Ariz. His final assignment was as the chief of staff for the Central Nations Treaty Organization, based in Ankara, Turkey.
He said his vocation was the Army and his avocation was people. Tall, stern and, literally, commanding, warm and fuzzy he was not. Nonetheless, as the commander of major military installations, he saw his charge to be one of problem solver. In one of his many recognitions and awards, he was called "The Accomplisher." He understood the Army's role and effect on its surrounding communities as supportive and mutually beneficial, not confrontational. These beliefs resulted in substantial, positive economic and social benefits to the Army and the two large communities outside of his commands of Forts Monmouth and Huachuca; Monmouth County, N.J. and Cochise County, Ariz., respectively.
Gen. Latta was awarded the Army's Distinguished Service Medal for his work directing the placement of the electronic equipment that protects America from inside NORAD's Hardsite in Cheyenne Mountain, Colo. He was awarded the Legion of Merit on four separate occasions, beginning in World War II and ending at his retirement. He never regretted declining a Purple Heart, figuring getting hit by shrapnel from the Navy (ours) shouldn't count. He proudly wore the service ribbons showing the 46 months he was at war overseas at the start of his career.
Very early on, the general recognized the importance of two emerging technologies, transistors and the computer. Whether buying $20 million worth of transistors in 1953, when no Army equipment used them, or writing "A More Effective Army Through Electronic Data Processing" in 1957, the Army, what we now call Silicon Valley, are better off for his foresight.
He and his wife chose Sierra Vista, Ariz., the small town outside the gates of Fort Huachuca, as their place to build a unique home with the sweat and assistance of his sons and daughter. They lived there for almost 30 years. He was a lifelong supporter of education. He insisted on it for his children. Bill headed the Catalina (Arizona) Council of the Boy Scouts for five years and was awarded Scouting's Silver Beaver. He was active in community affairs in Sierra Vista for many years. He helped found, design and build his house of worship, Faith Presbyterian Church. He was an engineer and a builder. He was an accomplished photographer, a master gardener, an orchardist and even raised orchids indoors. He loved Coke and seafood. Using his beloved Macintosh computer, he ran Latta Engineering Services, delivering CAD drawings to local builders and architects, until he was 85 years old.
After commenting on the differences between the civilian leadership during World War II and Vietnam, he once wrote: "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. The only common ingredient was the citizen soldier, he was and remains superb, he is courageous, innovative tenacious and bursting with initiative. Given good leadership, or even fair leadership, he learns very quickly and is the greatest."
West Point's motto is "Duty, Honor, Country." Bill lived his life under that standard and largely succeeded. He will be dearly missed by his family and friends.
Compelled by declining health, Bill moved to Boise to be near his son in 2002. At the 7th Annual All Service Academies Ball this past holiday season, he was honored by Gov. Kempthorne, Sen. Craig and the 200-plus attendees as the oldest living graduate of any of the academies, but especially his beloved West Point.
He resided at the Idaho State Veterans Home for the past three years. The family takes this opportunity to thank and praise the wonderful, attentive and kind staff of the Home for the fine care and support they provided in his final years. Dr. Cliff Tenley and the staff of St. Lukes Internal Medicine also are commended for their understanding and compassion.
Gen. Latta was a proud member of the Association of Graduates of West Point (Beat Navy!), a member of the Harvard Business School Alumni Association, the Military Officers of America Association, the Association of the United States Army, the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, the National Defense Industry Association, the American Legion and a life member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Gen. Latta was preceded in death by his parents and his three sisters. He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Beatrice T. Latta. He also is survived by his two attorney sons, Bill Jr. (Sheri) of Boise, and Bob (Jeanette) of Los Altos Hills, Calif.; his college professor daughter, Dr. Laura Gaudet of Chadron, Neb; a granddaughter, Christina Flanagan Latta of Boise and Moscow, Idaho; and three grandsons, Andrew, William and Thomas Latta of Los Altos Hills, Calif.
Hating funerals, he will be interred in a graveside ceremony, with full military honors, at the Southern Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery, Fort Huachuca, Ariz. The ceremonies will occur at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, June 28, 2005.
A reception for family and friends will follow at a location to be named at that time. No flowers, please.
Arrangements are by Summers Funeral Homes in Boise, Idaho, and Jensen's Sierra Vista Mortuary in Sierra Vista.