Oct. 5, 1972.Fighter pilot Jim Latham had just marked a target of abandoned supply trucks in a heavily populated area of North Vietnam when the right wing of his aircraft tore off.His F-4 Phantom fighter was hit just as he began a soaring climb from a low altitude. “Eject! Eject!” he yelled to his back seater, Rick Bates, as a sharp wind blasted him out of his seat.The ground was so close that as he floated in his parachute, he could see muzzle flashes and the enemy’s spray of bullets.Latham, who works for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth, has deflected inquiries for years about the months he spent as a Vietnam prisoner of war, he said. He was seldom drawn to accolades or certificates, even in high school, and had no focus or ambition in college. He attended Kansas State University on a swimming scholarship and was a poor student, he said. His father, a retired flight surgeon for the Army Air Corps, often doubted whether he would amount to much. Over the years, Latham became increasingly hesistant to tell the details of his past to those outside a circle of family and friends. In 2003, he tried to tell his POW experiences to hundreds of spectators at a Veterans Day celebration at Lockheed’s west Fort Worth factory. But he said, “I got choked up and decided not to do it anymore.”Now he is now talking publicly.“You’re the first person I have talked to about it with any level of detail,” Latham, 67, of Fort Worth, told the Star-Telegram. “And I had to think about it over a couple of Jack Daniels.”Bates, the back seater, had disappeared, and Latham broke both legs when he landed in a parachute. He could barely move and was immediately captured by enemy troops, who stripped him down to his boxers and t-shirt, blindfolded him, and tied up his elbows with rope, he said. After he was hit with rocks, rifle butts and wooden sticks, he was put in a concrete bunker, “known as a pillbox,” with peepholes. The bunker was next to ammunition and supplies that were targeted in bombings by American fliers shortly after his capture. So for three days, Latham hunkered down in the bunker, praying that he wouldn’t be blown to bits, he said.“It was absolutely the most horrifying experience I have been through,” he said. Bates, now an instructor of pilots for American Airlines, said he received a similar reception from the enemy and civilian crowds on the ground.“At the time, I was in my own little world back there,” he said. “The world kind of warps in a situation like that.”Bates was placed in a bunker a mile or two from Latham’s, but neither man knew that the other was alive until they were reunited a month later, three days after Latham tried to escape.Trying to escapeBy late October 1972, Latham had been moved to a bunker closer to the ocean and began to untie his bindings at night, then tie them again in the morning. The young guards had lost interest in their prisoner, he said.“So now I’m thinking, there’s been POWs in this place for eight years, nobody knows I’m here or alive,” Latham said. “My own guys are trying to blow me up. There’s no end to the war in sight.”About 10 one night, he snuck out with hopes of making it to the ocean, where he could jump on a fishing boat.“I knew the Americans would be monitoring the radio transmissions of the Vietnamese and they would surely have to report to Hanoi that I had escaped,” he said. “That would be intercepted by the U.S. and the Navy would come looking for me.”Once out of the bunker, he squatted in a nearby trench when he saw the senior officer light a cigarette in front of him. Moments later, the man walked away.By about 3 a.m., he had crawled for 21/2 miles in a rice paddy when he heard automatic gunfire at the bunker where he had been held. Shots went up in the air; the senior officer had discovered Latham’s escape.After a half-mile trek through sand and pine trees, he got to the ocean at dawn. He tried to get into a boat, but it was low tide. Suddenly, three soldiers came out to the beach and Latham scrambled for Plan B. He thought he could swim out to the ocean, float and drift with the current to the south in the day, then come ashore at night and hop a boat.But the soldiers started shooting once they spotted him. He waved his hands in surrender and was led back to the bunker and beaten unconscious. Every 15 minutes, he was slapped, stomped or crushed. “That went on pretty much all day,” he said. “During the initial course of the beatings, it would have been almost better if they just keep beating you so every 15 minutes you don’t denumb.”Three days later, in the middle of the night, he was pushed onto the back of a caged truck, where his limbs collided with a size 12 shoe.“Rick, is that you?” Latham said under his blindfold.“Yeah, Jim, are you OK?” Bates responded.Surviving ‘The Zoo’The men traveled by truck to the “Hanoi Hilton,” a prison known for torture where the future Sen. John McCain was also held captive. (Latham said McCain was there earlier and they did not cross paths.)Latham and Bates were placed in solitary confinement. At other times, they spent 14 hours a day shackled to each other. In early February, they got to “The Zoo,” another prison camp. On the menu was tea twice a day, a bowl of soup with rice and a little loaf of bread. The bread has rat excrement and large chunks of yeast. The yeast would trigger bouts of diarrhea among prisoners, so each was handed a personal bucket.“What choice do you have?” Bates said. “You can either deal with it or not deal with it. I certainly had been trained and my father told me I had always been a survivor.”One day, Bates peered through a crack in the prison walls to see a man walking across the open yard. “I think something is going to happen today,’’ Bates told a senior officer, “because I just saw Walter Cronkite walking across the court.”The men were released March 29, 1973.
Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705 Twitter: @yberard