Jack Latta figures he is living a charmed life.
He flew 45 missions at the controls of a heavy bomber over the Philippines during World War II.
“I was on the first raid over Manila when we took it back,” he said, his memory as crisp and clear as it was back then.
Nearly every mission that he was assigned carried his crew at 25,000 feet in altitude. Anti-aircraft fire couldn’t reach that high. “All of the pop was underneath us,” he said.
Latta is 91 now, a retired Spokane police officer with a lifetime of harrowing stories that stretch from war to the streets of Spokane. He recalls bombing a Japanese oil depot in Borneo and seeing flames shoot quickly into the sky. On that run, the plane went into a descent to gain speed to avoid the fire.
Others in his squadron were sent to bomb Japanese warships scattered in bays across the islands. In those runs, the bombers descended to 8,000 feet, making them vulnerable to fire from below.
He returned to Spokane near the end of the war, but three of the six planes and crews who deployed with him never made it home.
“My whole life I’ve been lucky,” he said.
After the war, Latta joined the Spokane Police Department in 1951 and spent his career riding a three-wheeled motorcycle – a “motor bull.” He retired in 1981 with hardly a scratch and left the department with a reputation for integrity.
Retired police Officer Jack Pearson, who served with Latta, said he is the epitome of the so-called “greatest generation” who fought the war.
Tony Bamonte, another former Spokane officer, said, “He was a good cop. Jack was one of these guys everybody looked up to.”
He also has plenty of stories and loves to tell them. Flyboys apparently had a sweet tooth. So, they worked out a swap with one of the locals in the Philippines, trading whiskey for ice cream, a real treat in the tropics.
While overseas, Latta survived a plane crash in bad weather. The pilot that day decided to circle the runway hoping for improved visibility, but the storm raged. As they tried to land, the wingtip and propeller struck the ground. The plane collapsed onto its belly and slid into a gully full of rain water. Only one member of the 10-person crew was injured, he said.
A graduate of North Central High School, Latta had enlisted and entered the service in 1943 at age 19. He trained as a bomber pilot over the course of two years before being deployed overseas in a B-24 out of San Francisco.
On the morning of the departure, the pilot showed up with a powerful hangover, so Latta took the controls, giving the man time to recover, he said. When the pilot awoke, the crew opened up the standard provisions – two loaves of bread, two gallons of fruit cocktail and three cans of Spam.
Their plane was dubbed “Squirrely Shirley” and had the requisite pinup girl painted on its side.
During training, Latta said he found the B-17 to be more difficult to fly because it vibrated terribly as a result of the engine configuration. “You would think that plane was going to come apart,” he said.
The larger B-24 was a much better aircraft. “You don’t get the shaking so bad,” Latta said.
Back from the war, Latta sold soda pop and worked in a warehouse before joining the police department. He married his wife, Patricia, in 1947. They regularly attend St. Charles Roman Catholic Church and have two sons, three grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Latta still has his first pay stub: $119.90.
In 1953, he bought two lots on Garland Avenue and had his home built there, not far from where he grew up.
Latta has a scrapbook album filled with news clippings of his numerous cop stories, like catching a mink coat robbery suspect and working as a bodyguard for Elvis Presley’s appearance at Joe Albi Stadium in 1957.
There was the time that he and other officers lassoed a cow that escaped from a livestock truck and was running loose on the Maple Street Bridge.
He pulled a suicidal jumper off the Monroe Street Bridge and ended up in a fight with him. The man was later shot to death by a police officer in California.
Latta survived another close call. He was hurrying to an accident scene on his three-wheeled motorcycle when a car pulled out in front of him. He tried to avoid the collision and hit some gravel, causing the bike to drop under the car. He flew over the top but was OK.
He is still the longest continuous motorcycle officer in department history, riding motorcycles year-round.
Latta still has an old party invitation from a prominent lawyer written in the form of a subpoena, commanding Latta to sample the “liquid evidence” during the holidays.
Latta, who retired as a police officer first class, said he prides himself on being fair with people and his ability to defuse tense situations. “I always tried to calm it down,” he said.
At the end of his career, Latta retired holding badge No. 1, which denotes top seniority.
Looking back, he said, “I had a lot of fun.”
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