Forty years later, Vietnam vets tell their story of POW days

Posted Monday, Nov. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Vietnam veterans Jim Latham After the Vietnam War, Latham went back to flying F-4 Phantoms in New Mexico and Alaska and graduated from the Air Force Top Gun school. He flew two tours with the USAF Thunderbirds, first as a wingman on the T-38 team and later as the commander and leader of the first F-16 team in 1983. Latham also commanded an operational F-16 squadron at Hill AFB in Utah; F-16 Fighter Wings at Misawa, Japan and in South Carolina; and was the Composite Wing Commander for 17 aircraft units in Saudi Arabia flying missions over Iraq. He was involved with Air Force leadership training at the Air University in Alabama as the Commandant of Squadron Officers School and Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps. His two staff tours in the Pentagon involved international military affairs with his last assignment before retirement serving as the Assistant Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for International Affairs. Latham now works for Lockheed Martin Aeronatics as the F-35 business development director for Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands. Rick Bates After the Vietnam War, Bates attended USAF pilot training and was again assigned to the F-4. He spent the rest of his Air Force career flying from bases in California, Utah and Germany. He spent 4 1/2 years as the Chief of the Standardization/Evaluation Division at the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB in California. He also spent two tours as an instructor for German AF pilots. Following his retirement from the Air Force, Bates worked for a defense contractor flying 1950s vintage fighters in support of various contracts, including three years in Germany working with their Air Force. Bates now works as an instructor pilot for American Airlines.

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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 escape

By 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

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Video: Rick Bates describes his experience as a POW in Vietnam

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