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'At First Light' tells story of WW II hero Phil Larimore

September 25, 2022 at 10:00 p.m.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Growing up in Baton Rouge, Dr. Walt Larimore knew his dad had fought in World War II. An amputated right leg was a daily reminder. But Phil Larimore kept his story a secret.

Then, in 1994, the pastor at St. Alban's Chapel invited Phil to preach about freedom not being free. Learning of this, his four sons asked him to tell them how he lost his leg. Once he opened up, he didn't stop.

"He began talking to folks at work at LSU, where he was a professor, and with the Scouts; he was scoutmaster," Walt Larimore said. "When we boys were around, he started talking to us. Quite frankly, the stories were unbelievable."

But true.

Now, those stories fill a book.

"At First Light" (Knox Press, $35), which Walt Larimore researched and co-wrote, tells how the Army's youngest officer earned medals of valor, befriended a future president and a legendary hero and performed a top-secret mission behind enemy lines.

Raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Phil Larimore did poorly in school but became a skilled, enthusiastic horseman and outdoorsman from frequent visits to relatives in Arkansas. To instill discipline, his parents sent him to Gulf Coast Military Academy.

"He really thrived there, became a commander of cadets and a leader," Walt Larimore said. "People recognized his natural leadership."

During his last year at the academy, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Since the academy offered ROTC and because of Larimore's record there, he was eligible to attend Officer Candidate School immediately upon enlisting. Larimore completed the school while he was still 17 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant 16 days after his 18th birthday.

His first combat action was at Anzio, Italy, commanding a platoon that delivered ammunition and supplies to the front line and placed land mines. The lieutenant he replaced had been killed after just three days.

"They were either at the front line or in no man's land literally every night for four months," Walt Larimore said. "It was essentially World War I trench warfare."

After Anzio, he helped liberate Rome, was part of the invasion of southern France and history's first successful winter attack on the Vosges Mountains. Wounded, he was hospitalized for six weeks. The soldier in the next cot was Audie Murphy, who became America's most decorated soldier. Larimore also fought in the infamous Colmar Pocket, where the temperature never got above 14 degrees.

Then, Larimore's superiors offered him a tantalizing volunteer mission. Intelligence reports indicated that Adolf Hitler was keeping some of the world's finest thoroughbreds, including the famed Lipizzaner horses, in Czechoslovakia. They wanted confirmation. The Yalta Agreement had ceded Czechoslovakia to the Soviet Union, and U.S. officials feared that the advancing Red Army would kill the horses.

Larimore, who had seen the Lipizzaner horses as a child, agreed to go. On April 3, 1945, he was sent in by a small airplane. The Czech Underground directed him to the facility, and he confirmed that the prized horses were there. An official there who wanted the horses saved allowed Larimore to ride a thoroughbred before he returned to Allied lines. Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army later rescued the horses.

"If he had been caught, he would have been disavowed," Walt Larimore said. "If he'd been killed, he'd have been disavowed, and he wouldn't have life insurance or anything. It was a big gamble he took."

Five days later, Larimore heard a radio call for help from a surrounded unit. He found a tank and rode atop it, firing the turret machine gun at the Germans. He rescued the unit, but when the Germans counterattacked, Larimore was shot through the right leg, forcing its amputation.

For his actions, he received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest medal for valor. His wartime medals also include two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. He turned down three other Purple Hearts, considering the wounds insufficiently dangerous.

After writing the book, Walt Larimore received records indicating bullets struck his dad twice on his helmet and once in his canteen as he rode the tank. The records include an interview with a German officer that the author wishes he could have used.

"The officer earlier stated that his men were demoralized at the appearance of the man on the tank that bullets would not stop," he said. "Wouldn't that be a great quote?"

At the time, the Army did not allow officers to remain in service following an amputation. Larimore lost an appeal of that decision. In gratitude for his service, however, the Army brought the horse he rode in Czechoslovakia to the United States so Larimore, who named it Chug, could have it. Riding Chug helped Larimore's physical and emotional rehabilitation.

Another sign of Larimore's status was the company he kept, which included several encounters with President Harry Truman and his successor, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.

"They played bridge with Eisenhower once a week for a year," Walt Larimore said. "I read a book on Eisenhower that claimed that he chose his command staff based on their Army ability but also their ability to play bridge."

Larimore received bachelor's and master's degrees in cartography at the University of Virginia, then came to LSU to get his doctorate and join the faculty. He died in 2003, and his wife, Maxine, died in 2006.

Discovering his old letters and records led Walt Larimore, who now lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to write "At First Light." He said he is thankful that his dad finally shared what he'd experienced.

"As remarkable and miraculous (as) his story was, it makes me wonder how many hundreds of thousands of other stories we'll never know about," he said.

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