“I do feel strongly that the Infantry arm does not receive either the respect or the treatment to which its importance and its exploits entitle it. This may possibly be understandable, though misguided, in peace; it is intolerable in war. So, let us always write Infantry with a capital ‘I’ and think of them with the deep admiration they deserve.”
—British Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, who lived from 1883–1950
As he crept forward inside a cold, dark forest, Lieutenant Philip B. Larimore, Jr. and his men darted from tree to tree, stooping low, fingers poised on their M1 Garand rifles while using their other hands to signal to one another.
Larimore found the unexpected lull unnerving as he peeked around a massive tree trunk for enemy movement. After surviving almost fourteen months of intense combat, the company commander worried continuously that “one lead pill” could explode inside his body at any second and take his life, so close to the end of the war.
With the Russians bearing down on Berlin and the Allies steadily advancing across Germany, the Yank soldiers had heard the scuttlebutt that the German Army could surrender any day. Larimore, filled with cautious optimism, was no longer saying, “If I live,” but rather, frequently thinking of home and plans for the future.
But Larimore also heard the rumors that Germany’s dictator, Adolf Hitler, had ordered fanatical “last man” stands to give the German forces time to mount final defenses in larger cities so that the High Command could retreat into Austria. The result was stiff resistance from desperate German soldiers, which was turning into a significant military problem.
The latest snag was a firefight in a heavily wooded forest bordering the German village of Rottershausen on this chilly spring evening of April 8, 1945. German snipers nestled in towering firs were picking off his men one at a time. Machine gun nests hidden behind a camouflage of evergreen boughs were keeping the GIs pinned down. Simultaneously, well-disguised artillery was firing projectiles into the canopy of hundred-foot-tall evergreens, timed to burst and rain splintered wood and white-hot shrapnel onto the soldiers below.
Larimore was keenly aware that death lurked in every direction.
Even though he was only twenty years old, Larimore was considered an “old man” on the battlefield because he’d been part of the 30th Infantry Regiment since arriving on the Anzio beachhead in Italy in February 1944, part of the 3rd Infantry Division.
After liberating Rome, taking part in an amphibious landing on southern France’s famed Côte d’Azur beaches, fighting his way through France’s Provence region into the Vosges Mountains, and now making a final push across Germany, Larimore was well aware that he had been waging war in an active combat zone for over 400 days.
At Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, he’d learned that the typical frontline infantryman typically couldn’t take much more than 200 to 240 days of combat before mentally falling apart. He wondered if he was fighting on borrowed time.
Suddenly, the forest ahead erupted in gunfire, and his radioman’s SCR-300 backpack walkie-talkie sizzled with distress. The voice of one of his sergeants came through.
“Love 1, this is point squad alpha.”
A squad leader was calling him.
“We’ve been ambushed in a glade!” the sergeant yelled. “There are nine of us and probably 150 Krauts around us. The rest of the platoon behind us is pinned down. We have four wounded. We’re low on ammo. We’re in a clearing. Help needed now, sir!”
German potato masher grenades joined the cacophony, answered by American grenades and machine gun fire. Projecting a calmness he didn’t feel, Larimore called orders to each of his platoons and radioed back to armor. “I need a medium can now!” he yelled into the radio handset, requesting a Sherman tank.
Then he spread a field map on the ground and studied it with his Executive Officer (XO), Lieutenant Abraham Fitterman, and a field artillery Forward Observer (FO) who’d just come up to the front.
“Our trapped squad must be here.” Larimore pointed to the northwest edge of the only nearby clearing. Turning to the FO, he said, “I need fire massed on the other side of the clearing.”
He ran his finger along what appeared to be a forest lane on the map. “Abe, you take over the command staff. When the first tank gets here, I’ll take it to the clearing to get to our guys.”
Within a matter of seconds, all three men heard rumbling. Larimore looked up and was delighted to see three Sherman tanks advancing in their direction instead of one.
“Abe, I’m hopping a ride on the lead can.” Larimore’s experience had taught him that when officers or NCOs didn’t accompany the tanks, they frequently got lost, which often resulted in more guys dying.
Before his XO could object, Larimore and his radioman leaped onto the back of the vehicle and squatted behind the massive tank’s turret. The radioman found the intercom handset that would allow him communication with the tank commander inside. As they approached the clearing, green tracer rounds from enemy machine guns laced the air from directly ahead.
“Our guys are fifty yards ahead! Friendly platoons are coming up from behind on our left and right!” Larimore called to the tank commander. Speaking into the radio, he said, “Second Platoon, send up all three of your squads, pronto! One behind each can as we move up!”
His men sprinted from the forest to the shelter of the tanks. “Shermans, move into the clearing!” Larimore commanded as the two trailing tanks fanned out along the clearing’s western edge, one on his left flank and the other to his right.
Enemy fire poured in, churning up dirt all around them. Larimore quickly identified at least three machine gun nests on the other side of the clearing. He ducked as the slugs of multiple snipers came from at least two directions, missing him by inches. Larimore ordered the gunners inside the tanks to use their 76-mm cannons and .30-caliber machine guns to lay down suppressing fire as he manned the turret-mounted .50-caliber Browning heavy machine gun, firing and taking fire across the clearing. Spotting his besieged squad, he shouted into the radio, “I see our guys! Twenty yards ahead. Let’s get ’em outta here!”
The men behind the tank’s protection now emerged, running up and evacuating the wounded. Enemy fire erupted again, and Larimore fired his remaining ammunition, killing several Germans and drawing more hostile fire as his patrols used the diversion to withdraw. His machine gun now empty, Larimore turned to jump off the back of the tank to direct his men as another hail of German bullets came in his direction. Suddenly the back of his head took a jolt as a sniper’s bullet blew the helmet off his head and knocked him off the tank. He landed on his butt, stunned and seeing stars.
His radioman jumped off and carefully ran his fingers through Larimore’s hair. “Just nicked your scalp, Lieutenant, but it’s bleeding like hell.” He reached into his overcoat and pulled out a gauze bandage, tearing the wrapper off to press it against the wound and carefully tying off the cloth as bullets ricocheted off the tank.
“You okay, sir?” the radioman asked.
Larimore refocused his eyes as he became more alert. “Yeah,” he said. “Just a scratch.”
“It’s more than that, sir, but we gotta get out of this hellhole!” the radioman exclaimed.
As Larimore and the radioman moved back between the tanks and retreating men, laying down suppressing fire, enemy fire from the far side of the clearing intensified, coming from three directions. The other men started running as fast as they could for the protection of the trees. Larimore was beside the last tank backing out of the clearing, rapidly firing his M1 Garand as bullets shredded the earth around him.
Suddenly, an excruciating jolt of searing agony shot up his right leg. He hit the ground, groaning. Despite unbearable pain, Larimore managed to roll himself away from the tank’s treads and into a shallow ditch.
From the safety of cover, he peeked over the edge. The three Sherman tanks were rapidly pulling away from him, and scores of Germans, firing as fast as they could while screaming at the top of their lungs, were giving chase. When the Krauts were only twenty to thirty yards from him and closing fast, Larimore lowered his head and played dead. Within seconds, the enemy soldiers leaped over the ditch and kept running.
Not daring to move, Larimore thought, They didn’t see me. Maybe I’ll make it.
The violent blasts of the raging battle around him strangely began to wane. His vision dimmed. Even the overwhelming discomfort began to melt away.
Larimore understood what was happening: he was bleeding out, and he didn’t have the strength to pull off his belt and apply a tourniquet. Soon the world around him was silent, and his body was completely numb.
So, this is what it feels like to die. Not as bad as I imagined.
Tired beyond measure, he closed his eyes.
He felt his breathing slow. Maybe, just maybe, his long, grueling war was finally over.
PART I: PREPARING FOR WAR
“Build me a son whose heart will be clear, whose goal will be high; a son who will master himself before he seeks to master other men; one who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past. And after all these things are his, add, I pray, enough of a sense of humor so that he may always be serious yet never take himself too seriously.”
—General Douglas MacArthur, five-star general, and Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers at the end of World War II
Chapter 1: THE LITTLE STINK
“In your pursuit of your passions, always be young.”
—Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation
Philip Bonham Larimore, Jr., born January 4, 1925, was about two weeks old when the first letter about his birth arrived at his parents’ home at 565 South Holmes Street in Memphis, Tennessee. The note from his mother’s childhood friend, who lived deep in the backwoods hill country of north Arkansas, said:
Dearest Ethyl and Philip,
There is nothing that brings the happiness and joy of a little babe. You can never realize just what they mean to you until you keep them awhile and feel your very life bound up in them. I wish I could see the little rascal. Of course, he had to be a Jr. It is almost always that way with the first one.
Kiss that little stink for me.
After little Philip began walking and talking precociously early, he never slowed down and quickly became the prophesied little stink. His tendency toward delinquency happened because he was a latchkey child: his father was a Pullman conductor gone for days at a time, and his mother was a legal secretary. A succession of Negro nannies tried to keep him in rein but to no avail. Even two years at Miss Lee’s School of Childhood did not tame him.
During the annual Chi Omega May Festival for Children pageant, four-year-old Philip joined the other pupils of Miss Lee’s for the Alice in Wonderlandsegment. He was given the part of a bumblebee, along with one of his best friends, Luke McLaurine. Unfortunately, Philip was too hyperactive to remain in the flower he and Luke were assigned to. Master McLaurine screamed at Philip to return to their blossom, which did nothing to affect Philip’s improvised role as a young bee freely buzzing around the stage. The audience chuckled as his mother sat mortified.
One year later, Philip was no more successful as an elf in Hallowe’en when he couldn’t resist the temptation to trip a witch running across the stage on her broomstick. The young girl picked herself up and then began beating Philip with her broom as they ran off the stage to the amusement and laughter of parents in the audience.
Seeking to instill some values into her child, Ethyl tried religious education, but Philip couldn’t sit still during the services or children’s Sunday school at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. He did somewhat better at Vacation Bible School, but he was still considered a “rascal” by his teachers. His mother tried evening prayers and reading Christian storybooks, as well as a book of her grandfather’s sermons, The Story of a Happy Life, but the lessons failed to stick.
On trips to the family farms of relatives, the youngster found great joy in hunting, fishing, and most of all, caring for and riding horses. His father taught him how to shoot guns, and by his sixth birthday, Philip could knock kernels of corn off a fence post with a .22-caliber rifle at twenty-five yards while standing, kneeling, or lying prone. His other great skill was getting a running start and mounting a horse and riding bareback.
Because his father was a conductor, the boy could ride the Cotton Belt train to Pine Bluff for free and did so every weekend so that he could pal around with cousins and friends while hunting, camping, and taking long rides in the woods. Too bad he didn’t cotton as well to schoolwork.
Following his first six-week grading period at his local public school, the first-grader received “unsatisfactory” marks in all his subjects. After significant and painful discipline, as well as parental threats that he would never return to his relatives’ farms in northeast Arkansas or ever ride a horse again, Philip buckled down. He improved his marks to “acceptable” in all disciplines—both academic and behavioral. Throughout his elementary school years, his mother wondered if academic accomplishment prompted his promotion to the next grade, or whether his teachers were just anxious to see him move on.
On Saturdays, when his father was out of town on train trips or his mother was involved in trial preparation, he was forced to attend Miss Lee’s or the Free Art School. He loathed both and did not succeed at either. He often played hooky to spend time at a nearby stable where he could hang around the massive workhorses that pulled carriages or trolleys throughout the city. It was there Philip learned the rudiments of caring for these gigantic yet gentle creatures. He found out that he could innately communicate with them, so much so that one of the grooms told his mother that her son was a natural when it came to horses.
On his ninth birthday, his mother hosted a “duck” birthday party at the Peabody Hotel, known for the Mallard ducks that spent their nights in a “rooftop palace” and then marched down a red carpet from the main elevator to a marble fountain in the hotel lobby each morning. After enjoying the day frolicking in the fountain, the ducks would march out in the evening. Both marches were accompanied by a recorded version of John Philip Sousa’s “King Cotton March,” and their “rooftop palace” was an elaborately decorated doghouse.
Philip and his friends were overjoyed to see and play with the Peabody ducks on his birthday. The boys all laughed when, on a dare, Philip sat down on the floor and began calling the ducks. Before long, the drake and his four ladies were camped on Philip’s lap and between his legs.
By fifth grade, he earned the highest marks in physical education and geography, so his mother relented to her son’s pleas to take him out of Miss Lee’s and the Art School and let him spend his Saturdays and Sunday afternoons under the capable supervision of the stable hands.
Philip also became involved with Scouting and joined the local Boy Scout troop, where he found immediate success in Troop 40 of the Chickasaw Council in Memphis and received his Tenderfoot badge in the sixth grade.
A Scout Master gave him a copy of Horace Kephart’s 1906 masterpiece, The Book of Camping and Woodcraft: A Guidebook for Those Who Travel in the Wilderness, which he devoured. The lessons he learned about how to read a map and use a compass were put to good use at Scout camps, where Philip traversed the wildest swamps and the most desolate canyons.
Throughout his adolescent years, wearing camouflage, pathfinding, stalking and trapping game, and identifying every sort of edible plant all became second nature to him. He could dress wild game, catch fish, cook over campfires in the worst weather, and create comfortable camp bedding while setting up a safe camp in any wilderness environment (known as bivouacking). He learned first aid skills and imagined becoming a physician for wilderness expeditions.
His greatest love, though, was being around and riding horses. As a young equestrian, his skills grew. During his summers and holiday breaks, he rode the horses of friends and family, winning various competitions across western Tennessee and northern Arkansas. Rows of blue, red, yellow, and white ribbons covered the movie posters in his bedroom. His equestrian trophies filled several shelves.
Philip often took a trolley to attend horse shows at the Mid-South Fairgrounds a few miles from his home. Other times, he snuck out after bedtime to visit nearby stables. He could not seem to keep away from horses—nor they from him.
A wise trainer taught Philip the three most important virtues he needed when around a horse: patience, observation, and humility.
Even the hot-blooded and high-strung Thoroughbreds acted calm around him, and Philip developed an uncanny way to speak to them with finger and hand commands or with an almost inaudible whisper and very low-pitched squeaking sounds. He came to believe the adage that a good rider can hear his horse speak, but a great rider can hear his horse whisper.
“He’s incredible with horses,” one of the grooms told his mom. “He can speak to them and hear them.”
“How does he do it?” his mother asked. “What’s his trick?”
“There’s no magic. No mysticism. He’s curious about them. He seems to recognize that they are his kin. He gives them gentle love and genuine respect. They pick up on it pretty quick.”
The young boy spent his hard-earned yet meager allowance on every Western movie that played downtown. One of the posters in his bedroom pictured the movie cowboy, Tom Mix, and his trusty steed, Tony, the first horse to bear the name “The Wonder Horse.”
Phil was mesmerized by reading books about the Wild West. He would sit on the front porch for hours reading Zane Grey novels and imagining himself as the hero. He’d look up when the freight trains passed by, their beckoning whistles sounding like summoning sirens. The boy would break out in goosebumps, knowing for sure he was being called to some mysterious land, to some great battle—on his favorite horse, of course.
During the first light of each new day, he would imagine the adventures he would experience and the stallion that might take him there.
Philip Larimore Jr. had no idea that many of these dreams would come true.