Joe Kirby: Marietta fighter pilot brought pre-war flying to life in memoir
by Joe Kirby
May 29, 2011 12:00 AM | 1996 views | 4 4 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The late Col. Paul Latiolais of Marietta flew combat missions in three wars, piloted more than 65 types of aircraft and encountered numerous aviators along the way who went on to great fame.

But when he sat down to write his memoirs in the early 1980s, he barely mentioned any of that. Rather, he looked back at the process by which he earned his aviator's wings, and before that, at how an aviation-crazed boy in rural, Depression-era Louisiana finagled his way into the Army and then into a cockpit he could call his own.

"The romance of traveling to faraway places by air, the TRUTH of flying over God's green earth, the thrill and noise of flight, the unique glamour of being an aviator (especially back then ) - all these things had an overpowering attraction as compelling as sin - thank God I could succumb in grace," he wrote.

Latiolais' memoir, "Straight and Level: A True Story of a Young Man's Quest to Become a Flying Cadet in the U.S. Air Corps," has just been published by Braeburn Croft Press and was edited by his daughter, Renee Carrier of Wyoming, who grew up in Marietta when her dad was stationed at Dobbins Air Base toward the end of his 33-year career in the Air Force. (The memoir is available at the Marietta Museum of History's gift shop.)

Latiolais lied about his age to enlist in the Army Air Corps at age 16 in 1937 and spent his first couple years serving as a mechanic and ground crewman.

In that era, planes were refueled by pouring five-gallon cans of aviation fuel through a chamois to strain out the water. The fuel tanks tended to be on the top wings of the biplanes, which made for hard work that typically was performed by "gophers," or by aviation-mad pilot wannabes like him. But nevertheless, he wrote, "I came to love the smell of aviation gas - and fifty years later I still do, although plain automotive gas stinks."

The Air Corps was still miniscule in those days and like the rest of the military, was severely underfunded. The Corps was transitioning from open-cockpit biplanes to closed-cockpit monoplanes. Most of the aircraft Latiolais trained in and worked on during the pre-war era are familiar only to aviation historians these days, but that doesn't impede the flow of the narrative in any way.

Particularly memorable - and especially brutal for the men who flew them - were the Fokker Universals.

"Their cruising speed was about 90, but the most unique feature was that the pilot flew the ship wrestling a three-foot joystick in an open cockpit, while the six passengers flew in heated comfort below and in front of him in the cabin," he wrote. "Needless to say, our young peashooter pilots considered a flight in those muscle-testers as punishment. ... Their total range was 400 miles - enough to exhaust the pilot in turbulent weather. I flew in one to Illinois in the dead of winter - and I still feel sorry for that pilot as I recall the last 200 miles were over snow-covered country."

Latiolais proved to just as good with a pen as with a joystick. His 192-page memoir proved surprisingly readable.

"Not many men can say they reached all their goals - perhaps mine should have been higher, but at times I touched the hem of history and saw things, and participated in events that no boy of seventeen should have dreamed of," he wrote. "The Good Lord has given me the memory to recapture those high moments, and I would be remiss to my children, at least, if I did not leave some sort of journal. Perhaps some other youngster may read this and say, 'I want to be different, I want an exciting life, I want recognition, I want to honor my family an my country, and I don't want to get rich to do it.!' For money has very, very little to do with this entire narrative, but resolve, hard work and learning had everything to do with it, that - and the grace of God."

The once-torrential river of first-person memoirs from the World War II era has no ebbed to a mere trickle, for obvious reasons. That makes "Straight and Level" even more of a prize.

This weekend as we honor the men who sacrificed their lives for our country in that conflict and others, we should all pause and give thanks for the bravery and skill of men like Col. Latiolais.

Joe Kirby is Editorial Page Editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and author of "The Bell Bomber Plant" and the forthcoming "The Lockheed Plant."
Comments-icon Post a Comment
Stacey Arthurs
September 11, 2012
Is it possible to engage Mr. Kirby in speaking about Lockheed for a group at Mountain View Community Center?

We're currently looking at Monday evening at 7PM

Either 17SEP2012 or 15OCT2012.

To sort the details,

Please contact: Rio Rita Arthurs

770-977-9169 or


Stacey Arthurs

Dusty Rhodes
February 21, 2012
Joe Kirby, I was wondering if you are the same J.K. I used to know in Greensboro,N.C. He was a really nice guy, intelligent w/good sense of humor. I was there the first time he saw the ocean, was a really nice trip
Andre' Latilais
June 01, 2011
Mr. Kirby,

Thank you for such a kind and honoring reveiw of renee's and The Colonel's book. He would have, though humbly, been pleased.

Most Sincerely yours,

Andre' Latiolais PVT, US Army.
Pete Borden
May 31, 2011
Thanks Joe. I will be picking up a copy of the book on my next trip to the Gem City of the Couth.
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