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A sailor’s wartime diary

Local World War II veteran who fought in and chronicled Pacific battles will be honored posthumously this Veterans Day

November 10, 2012
By CHRIS KNIGHT - Senior Staff Writer (cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

The siren to man battle stations rang out aboard the USS Bryant at 8:15 on the morning of April 16, 1945.

U.S. Naval Reserve Fireman 1st Class Jimmy Latour, a 22-year-old from Saranac Lake, sprang into action with the rest of the destroyer's 300-man crew, which had been patrolling the waters around Okinawa, Japan, in support of the Allied invasion of the island - seen as a staging ground for the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland.

Latour, who died in 2004 and will be honored posthumously at Monday's annual Veterans Day service in Saranac Lake, had already been at sea for nearly a year at this point, and he had seen plenty of action. The Bryant and its crew had been involved in some of the most important battles of the war in the Pacific, including the campaign to retake the Philippines. So far, they had gotten by largely unscathed. That was about to change.

Article Photos

Pictures of the late Jimmy Latour, of Saranac Lake, and the destroyer he served on during World War II, rest on top of his diary, which chronicles his experiences serving in the war of the Pacific.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

With Japanese planes circling above the Bryant and a group of other ships, Latour manned his station as an ammunition passer on a 40-millimeter gun.

"We had around 20 Jap planes around us," he would write in his diary soon afterward. "Our (Combat Air Patrol) was knocking them down right and left all around us. Four of them teamed up on us. They started to dive for us. We knocked two of them down and before we could get the guns trained around to port side, one had come in and right by our gun. He went into his dive and hit us right on bridge about near superstructure. It killed quite a few of our men on bridge and also some are missing."

The kamikaze hit the ship just below its bridge. A bomb from the plane then exploded, engulfing the entire bridge in flames and causing major damage to the ship's communication system, fire-control and radar equipment. The fires were extinguished, but the attack took a heavy toll: 34 dead and 33 wounded.

"We kept digging up the wreckage and taking fellows out of it," Latour wrote the following day. "A bunch of men came over and took the men off the ship which were gone. They identified most of them, but some they couldn't."

It could have been worse if not for the actions of Latour and his crewmates, many of whom received formal commendation letters.

"In the face of a sudden death from numerous approaching suicide planes, you remained at your station and enabled your gun to continue to deliver effective fire," Latour's commanding officer wrote in an official letter of commendation. "Your gun assisted in the last second destruction of one plane which otherwise would have undoubtedly hit the ship."

Latour's account of that attack and its aftermath is in the last few pages of his diary - a detailed, heartfelt and, at times, stark account of what day-to-day life was like for one soldier during the World War II campaign for the Pacific. The diary, which chronicles his experiences from August 1944 to the spring of 1945, was provided to the Enterprise by his widow, Ingrid Canning, through Ray Boula, senior vice commander of the Saranac Lake Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3357.

"I gave it to Ray and said, 'If you can do something with this, you know,' because it is sort of a thing of history long ago," Canning told the Enterprise this week. "I just wanted him to be recognized."

Canning, who was married to Latour for 12 years before he died in 2004, said her husband didn't like to talk much about his experiences during the war.

"He just wanted to shut it out," she said. "I asked him many, many times about it. He didn't want to talk about anything. I think his thoughts are all in this book."

Some of other noteworthy passages in Latour's diary describe the Allied campaign to invade the Philippines. One entry is dated Oct. 20, 1944, when the U.S. Sixth Army landed on the shore of Leyte, an island in the Philippine archipelago. Latour wrote that the Bryant's guns bombarded the beach most of the night in preparation for the invasion. Once it began, the ship moved to within 75 yards of the beach to provide cover fire.

"We were fired on by the Japs," Latour wrote. "The shells were hitting on all sides of the ship. I guess it was mortar fire. We opened up with everything we had. The can (naval slang for a destroyer) that was just at side of us got hit and some of her crew and officers wounded. They went hauling ass out of there. We were really lucky and only one shell or a piece of shrapnel hit the flying bridge and wounded a guy in the leg. I am thankful I am okay."

Later that same day, Latour wrote that Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had promised to retake the Philippines, was on one of the lead transport ships.

"He spoke to Philippino people and told them he was here and coming to give them liberty back," Latour wrote.

Five days later, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Latour wrote that the Bryant came upon a group of about 300 Japanese soldiers floating in the water. Their battleship had been sunk.

"We threw lines out to them but they would just grin and laugh," he wrote. "We couldn't get any to come aboard. We didn't bother any more with them. We started after what was left of their craft, but we looked back and a can and some PT boats opened up on them. You could see water splash all up and then we knew what became of them. We gave them every chance in the world to be saved but (they) didn't want to. There is no use of letting them swim to Isle and fight us tomorrow."

In addition to the details of the engagements the Bryant was involved in, Latour's diary also shows his state of mind as the war continued to drag on. Two days before the Kamikaze attack near Okinawa, Latour wrote that he was hopeful to return home soon, as his crew had just gotten word that Germany had surrendered.

"It made everyone on the ship very happy," he wrote. "Wished I was in good old New York to celebrate. Maybe we will get home sooner and war over, seeing Russia has declared war against Japan now. I sure hope it ends soon."

After the kamikaze hit, the Bryant limped back to Okinawa to undergo repairs. A memorial service was held on April 22 for the servicemen who had lost their lives. A now-faded copy of the program for that service was among some of Latour's military papers that Canning provided to the Enterprise.

The ship made it to Pearl Harbor on May 21, 1945. A week later, Latour wrote that he had "arrived in (the) states." That's the last entry in his wartime diary.

Latour was honorably discharged in March 1946. In all, he served two years and four months in the Navy on a half-dozen ships. In addition to a pair of written commendation letters, Latour was awarded the American Theatre Medal, the Victory Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Theatre Medal with six stars and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with two stars.

While Latour 's wife said her husband didn't like to tell her much about his experiences in the war, he eventually became involved with a group called the USS Bryant Association, which has its own website and hosted annual reunions for those who served on the ship. Latour hosted a reunion for his shipmates in 1989 in Lake Placid.

When he returned from the war, Latour became the fourth generation to own and operate Latour Fuel, which he continued to run until 1966. He founded the Triangle Lumber Company in Onchiota, which he operated until 2000. His obituary says he was active in community affairs, including as a member of the Saranac Lake school board and the Adirondack Medical Center board. The Latour family donated the property on which the new Saranac Lake hospital was built.

Boula, a Vietnam War veteran, said a passage or two from Latour's diary will be read during Monday's Veterans Day service, which will be held at 11 a.m. in the auditorium of the Harrietstown Town Hall, 39 Main St., Saranac Lake.

"It's pretty neat," Boula said. "So many of these journals get lost over the years. Ingrid gave it to me, but I'm probably going to end up donating it to the library so other people can share it. He's done a lot. I wish we could recognize every individual that served."

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Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.

 
 

 

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