Craig Latham, Vietnam Vet
"We didn't see what happened after mortars landed, only the puff of smoke. There were horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism? Or was this coverage?" - Ashleigh Banfield, Canadian Journalist
As a boy in Coshocton, Ohio, his job as newspaper carrier somewhat foreshadowed his Vietnam experience only a few years later.
Craig Latham was born to Gerald and Flo Latham in 1950, in Coshocton, located in East Central Ohio where the Tuscarawas and Walhonding Rivers meet to form the Muskingum River. It was a small community where all the neighbor kids called each other's mother "Mom". Forty years later, by the year 2000, there were only 11,000 residents.
He was the middle child, sandwiched between two sisters, Bonnie and Mary, the older of which was handicapped. He led a typical child's life in the 1950s and began delivering papers at age 12. He attended Coshocton High where he sang in the school choir as well as his church choir. During summers, at age 15 and again at age 16, he worked as a camp counselor at day camps in Massachusetts. This offered fun times with the other counselors and they promised to write each other when summer came to a close. One of them was Ned Ford, a red-headed, chubby-faced, fun guy with a sense of humor. The letters didn't happen, but Craig always remembered that Ned Ford had said to him, "We'll meet again my friend."
Craig held a part time job during his last two years of high school and graduated from Coshocton High in 1968. After high school, he attended Kent State for one year and he also worked at General Electric; his high school girlfriend/fiancé was still there at Kent State when the tragedy of the Vietnam protest riots took place on May 4,1970 when the National Guard killed 4 unarmed students and wounded 9 others.
It doesn't happen to many, but it happened to Craig -- he was drafted twice. The first was in 1968, but, not long after, he was "saved by the bell" when a letter from the government informed him that they were cancelling draft notices of 20,000 men and he was one of the lucky ones. He returned to work, but later they came out with the draft lottery and his number was 191. Concerned about having a number, he learned he had 3 choices: get drafted, volunteer to be drafted or enlist. He decided to volunteer to be drafted because it would give him enlistment status and he could choose his draft date; he chose February 1970. The formal draft notice arrived on his mother's birthday in January but his dad made him promise not to tell her until later.
On the same day as the Kent State riots, Craig graduated from basic training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. From there, the Army sent him to Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis for basic journalism and photography AIT training. His job would be an Army news correspondent. Maybe it was because he volunteered to be drafted that he was given a job that kept him from the jungle action at least part of the time.
After the AIT courses and a bout of rubella, which delayed his training, Craig was sent to Phu Bai, Vietnam in August of 1970. About this time he learned his draft number probably would not have come up. But there he was, on his way to Vietnam, assigned to the 34th Public Information Detachment (34th PID), 2nd Brigade/101st Airborne Division.
His job was to cover stories (though much of what he wrote was censored) from Danang north to the DMZ. Mostly he was to find the stories himself, but sometimes they sent him on a mission to cover something in particular. He would go into the field on a Monday, return to the office on Friday or Saturday, write up the story and develop the photographs and turn it in on Saturday or Sunday. He would start the process over again on Monday. There were three others he worked with and they each got one week a month to remain at the office.
While out in the field, he was injured a couple of times, but he turned down the Purple Heart because he didn't want his parents to know.
Craig liked to write stories from a human interest angle, giving the troops things to laugh about. One such story was about a soldier who could never find a can opener for his beer. He wrote to two breweries and asked for a can opener. Between the two breweries they sent 17,000 can openers. The soldier wrote to thank them but he told one brewery that the other had sent more; that brewery promptly sent 10,000 more. This soldier put out 27,000 can openers with a sign that told fellow soldiers to "help themselves". Craig wrote, "As it turned out, the next time the soft drinks and beer were delivered, the fellow had forgotten to keep one of the openers for himself and he still didn't have one."
His articles appeared in his division's newspaper, as well as The Stars and Stripes, the independent military newspaper. His job allowed him certain privileges, for example, he sat on stage during a Bob Hope performance, and because he wrote a story on Mamie Van Doren, a famous actress/singer of the 50s and 60s, he got to meet her.
He and the three other journalists he worked with wrote an excellent piece on medics. It begins like this: "The sharp crack of an enemy rifle and the groan of a wounded Screaming Eagle trooper break the jungle's silence. In one simultaneous movement, everyone in the platoon hits the dirt to look for the enemy. All remain motionless, except for one man. He crawls through the low vines and shrubbery to the wounded trooper." The article continues to tell how the medics, or "Docs" as the troops called them, saved the lives of countless troops with only three pieces of equipment - pressure dressings, a bottle of saline solution and an intravenous set.
After a year of this, it was August 1971 and he only had a few days left before he would be leaving Vietnam. He was given an assignment to write on Firebase Tomahawk, about 20 miles from Phu Bai where he was stationed. There were no more helicopters that day to transport him back to Phu Bai so he decided to hitchhike. He flagged down an army truck and hopped into the back seat. There were two guys in the front seat. As they drove along, Craig noticed the red-headed driver kept looking back at him. He finally pulled the truck over to the side of the road and turned to look directly at him. It turned out to be Ned Ford, whom Craig had been a camp counselor with in Massachusetts, six years before. Ned would also be going home in two days; they had been living only 100 yards from one another for the past year. They had a few beers that night, and Ned said, "See, I told you we would meet again." But they lost contact with each other after Ned moved to New York.
When Craig came home, he wanted to work in journalism, but everywhere he tried, they wanted a 4 year degree. His apartment was broken into and all 2000 of the photographs he had taken in Vietnam were stolen, as were the articles he wrote. Years later, on the internet, he was able to find two of his combat photos, which are posted below.
Once home, he got married, divorced, married again, drank too much to try to block out the war, hence the divorces, then quit drinking and hasn't touched a drop in thirty years. He married again, and got a job at a plastics compounding company as a Lab Tech and then moved into the position of manager and that is where he has remained for the past 26 years.
Like with most vets, Vietnam may have been only a year of their lives, but it never escapes them no matter what they do to try to push it down. It can destroy them, or, sometimes a vet will choose to channel the pain into helping others. Which is what Craig did. He helped form an AMVETS club in Coshocton, his small Ohio hometown, the town of three rivers, where he was born.
When Craig had left for Vietnam in August of 1970, his family saw him off at the Columbus airport. After all had said their good-byes, Craig's dad told the rest of them to meet him up at the top so that he could be alone with Craig. Craig saw tears in his dad's eyes, and had never seen him cry before. Craig promised that he would meet him right where they stood in one year. Then his dad saluted him. Exactly one year later, in August of 1971, at the exact same gate at the Columbus airport, there was his dad to greet him with a salute , and, for a much happier reason, with tears in his eyes.