At First Light: A True World War II Story of a Hero, His Bravery, and an Amazing Horse

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An extraordinary story of the youngest and one of the most decorated front-line junior officers on the forgotten southern front in Europe. Brutal combat, tragic sacrifice, astonishing suffering, a secret mission to save the world-famous Lipizzaners, a gripping aftermath, and an astonishing ending.
First 10 Pages


The Shot Heard Around the World

As he crept forward inside a cold, dark forest, Lieutenant Phil Larimore followed his men as they darted from tree to tree, stooping low, using one hand to communicate signals to one another. The forefingers on their shooting hands remained poised on their M1 Garand semi-automatic rifles, which General George S. Patton called the greatest battle implement ever devised.

The unexpected lull unnerved Larimore, as he peeked around a massive tree trunk. After surviving over fourteen months of intense combat, the young company commander continuously worried 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 racing across Germany, the GIs believed the Germans would surrender any day. Filled with cautious optimism, Larimore’s men were no longer thinking, “If I live,” but daring to consider their futures back home. But he had heard Germany’s dictator, Adolf Hitler, had ordered fanatical “last man” stands that were resulting in increasingly stiff resistance from desperate German soldiers.

The latest snag was a firefight in a heavily wooded German forest on this chilly spring afternoon 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 killed some of his men and kept others pinned down. Simultaneously, well-disguised artillery fired projectiles into the canopy of hundred-foot-tall evergreens, timed to burst and rain white-hot shrapnel onto the soldiers below. Larimore knew that death lurked in every direction.

Larimore had been with the 30th Infantry Regiment, part of the 3rd Infantry Division, since they landed on the Anzio beachhead in Italy in January 1944. After four months of trench warfare, the GIs broke out of the beachhead, liberated Rome, took part in an amphibious landing on southern France’s famed Côte d’Azur beaches, fought their way through France’s Provence region into the Vosges Mountains, and now were making a final push across Germany. His unit called him an “old man,” despite being only 20 years old, due to his over 400 days on the front line.

As the youngest-ever graduate of the Army’s Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia—a few weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday—Larimore had learned that the typical frontline infantryman typically couldn’t take over 200 days of front-line 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 walkie-talkie sizzled with distress. The voice of one of his sergeants—a squad leader—came through. “They’ve ambushed us in a clearing!” the sergeant yelled. “Nine of us—four wounded, one dead—surrounded by 150 Krauts. They pinned the platoons behind us down. Ammo’s almost gone.”

German potato masher grenades joined the cacophony, answered by American grenades and small gunfire. Projecting a calmness he didn’t feel, Larimore radioed to armor. “I need a medium can pronto!” he yelled, requesting a Sherman tank.

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).

“Our trapped squad must be here.” Larimore pointed to the edge of the only nearby clearing for his FO. “I want fire massed on the other side of the clearing.”

Hearing rumbling, Larimore looked up and was pleased to see three Sherman tanks advancing in their direction instead of one.

“Abe, you take over command. I’ll 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, often resulting in more guys dying.

After outlining an improvised battle plan for Abe, Larimore and his radioman leaped onto the back of the tank as it passed and squatted behind the massive turret. The lieutenant put on a headset to communicate with the commander inside. He signaled to his radioman to hunker down behind him as the tank rumbled forward. Approaching the clearing, tracer rounds from enemy machine guns laced the air from directly ahead.

As enemy fire poured in, churning up dirt 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 rained in from several directions, missing him by only inches. He ordered the gunners inside the three 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.

“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 walkie-talkie radio, he ordered, “Second Platoon, send up all three of your squads now! One behind each can as we move up! First Platoon, take the left flank, and Third, take the right.”

His 2nd Platoon men sprinted from the forest to the shelter of the tanks. “Shermans, move into the clearing!” Larimore commanded. The two trailing tanks quickly fanned out along the clearing’s western edge, one on his left flank and the other to his right.

As the tanks continued to rumble forward, fire belching from their cannons and guns, Larimore shouted into the radio, “Our guys are twenty yards to my front. On my orders, let’s get ’em!”

As the tanks passed the trapped squad, some of the following men provided suppressing fire as others evacuated the trapped men. Enemy fire erupted as Larimore continued to spray fusillades from his machine gun, killing several Germans and drawing even more hostile fire as his men used his distracting salvos to withdraw the last of his trapped men.

A sniper bullet glanced off his helmet, momentarily stunning him. Then Larimore felt another bullet strike his left hip. Immediately, warm spurts from the wound ran down his leg. He knew his femoral artery was hemorrhaging, leaving him only a moment or two to stop the bleeding.

As Larimore looked down to loosen his belt, remove it, and turn it into a life-saving tourniquet, to his relief, he saw that the squirting liquid wasn’t blood but water from his canteen that a sniper bullet had pierced. As the enemy increased its fire to eradicate him, he continued to kill more Nazis with bursts and barrages from his .50-caliber machine gun, wiping out the remaining three machine-gun nests.

Suddenly, his machine gun stopped. He was out of ammunition, but he could see the last of his men were heading to cover behind the tanks, so he ordered the tanks back to the woods as another hailstorm of German bullets ricocheted around him. The front of his head took another jolt as a second bullet struck his helmet, knocking him sideways and off the tank. He landed on his butt, stunned once again, and saw stars.

His radioman jumped off the tank beside him. “You okay, sir?”

“Let’s get out of this hellhole!” Larimore exclaimed to the soldier. “Run! I’m right behind you.”

Larimore laid down additional suppressing fire from his Garand as enemy fire intensified from the far side of the clearing, coming from three directions, mincing the surrounding ground. Then an excruciating jolt of searing agony shot up his right leg. He hit the ground, groaning. Despite the unbearable pain, Larimore rolled away from the tank’s treads and into a shallow ditch.

From the safety of the cover, he peeked over the edge. The three Sherman tanks were rapidly pulling away. Scores of German soldiers, firing as fast as they could while screaming at the top of their lungs, were giving chase. At that moment, a furious artillery barrage began. The ground shook as the bombardment shredded the ground and the Krauts who were only ten to twenty yards from him. Phil pulled his Colt out of the holster. Through the smoke, a German officer appeared only a few yards ahead, his pistol drawn.

Not daring to move, Larimore thought, Maybe he doesn’t see me.

The officer smirked as he walked toward Phil and raised his Luger. Before he could pull the trigger, Larimore quickly took a bead and shot. The man flew backward as another mortar exploded within yards. He instinctively ducked as mud and dirt rained down.

The violent mortar and howitzer explosions raging around Phil strangely waned. His vision dimmed. Even the overwhelming discomfort started melting away.

He understood what was happening: he was bleeding out. With all the strength he had left, he pulled off his belt and applied it to his leg as a tourniquet.

The world around him became 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, he thought, this long, grueling war is finally over.


At precisely the same time Phil felt the moorings slip, his parents, Philip Larimore Sr. and his wife, Ethyl, were attending a worship service at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. As their pastor prayed, Philip felt his wife startle.

At first, he wondered if she had dozed off. He looked at her and noticed she had broken out in a sweat and was trembling. When their eyes met, he recognized the fear on her face. Ethyl gathered her purse, stood, and walked out rapidly.

Philip followed her to the foyer, where he found her seated on a bench in the vestibule. She had pulled a handkerchief from her purse and was crying uncontrollably. He sat down and embraced her, not knowing what else to do.

After a moment, her sobs turned to moaning and then quiet weeping. She muttered, “While the pastor was praying, I heard a gunshot.”

Philip tightened his arm around her. “I didn’t hear a thing.”

“Not here. In Germany. Junior’s been shot. I know it.”

Philip Sr. trusted his wife’s intuition. But they did not know if their son was dead or alive.


It was dusk when Colonel Lionel C. McGarr’s Jeep skidded to a halt. He and three other men jumped out and ran to the Company Command Post.

“Update!” the 30th Infantry Regiment commander barked.

“The artillery barrage worked,” Fitterman reported. “We turned back the enemy attack. Our guys are mopping up.”

“Casualties?” he asked.

“Four wounded. One dead. Maybe two. The tank commander thinks they killed Larimore.”

“Follow me!” McGarr commanded. The colonel spun on his heels with Fitterman and his men, a medic, and a radioman, trailing.

Headlights off, two Jeeps followed the men as they crept slowly in the increasing darkness, the sounds of small arms fire, grenades, and machine guns ahead of them. As they entered the clearing, smoke, the smell of gunpowder, and the stench of burned flesh clung to the ground.

“Where’d you last see him?” McGarr said.

“Just up here, sir,” the radioman answered.

They passed several still-smoking craters, each containing parts of German soldiers. He’s been under my command since Anzio, McGarr thought. He knew Larimore was his youngest, one of my most highly decorated, and by far his longest-lived front-line junior officer.

“There!” The colonel ran forward in a crouch. In a shallow ditch lay the half-buried body of a GI, his American boots sticking out of a covering of mud, dirt, and bits of grass.

McGarr threw down his rifle and dug with his hands. “It’s Larimore!” he exclaimed. “God Almighty! He’s alive! Medic!” McGarr ordered the radioman, “Get a stretcher! Get my Jeep! Now!”

McGarr and Fitterman quickly uncovered Phil. McGarr sat down and gently lifted Phil’s head onto his lap. “Larimore, can you hear me?”

Phil slowly nodded. “Colonel, that you?”

“Damn right, it’s me!”

He pushed Phil’s hair back from his blanched face. “I’m ordering you to live, Larimore. Don’t die on me!”

A slight smile creased Phil’s face. “Yes, sir,” he whispered. An instant later, he lapsed into unconsciousness but quickly woke up when the medic dressed his wound, gave him a shot of morphine to blunt the excruciating pain, and inserted an IV to begin plasma. Fitterman and one of his sergeants carried Phil to a Jeep, carefully placing the stretcher across the back seat.

“It’s a miracle you’re alive, sir,” the medic told Phil. “Not to mention the men you saved.”

As the Jeep pulled away, McGarr and the remaining men heard a shout.

“Kamerad!” yelled a German voice.

The men spun around, instinctively dropping to one knee, as they raised their Garands toward the woods.

A German officer and about thirty men appeared, arms lifted high, with the officer waving a white towel.

McGarr yelled, “Halt! Have all your men drop their weapons and lie down. Now!”

The Germans did as they were told.

McGarr approached the German officer. After searching him, he offered the man a cigarette. He spoke excellent English and declared, “Had not the tanks come, I would have destroyed your entire patrol. The appearance of the man on the tank that bullets could not stop demoralized my men completely.”

The German took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I, myself, am in admiration for that young officer. He realized the need for a speedy diversion to rescue his doomed men and deliberately became that diversion himself, paying no heed to his own personal safety. If I had officers like that, you and your men would need to learn German!”

McGarr chortled and ordered his men to escort the prisoners to the rear.


Phil woke up whenever the Jeep hit a bump, causing an electric shock of pain to shoot up his leg. Arriving at the battalion aid station, a surgeon explained he needed to take Phil to the OR pronto.

Larimore knew they’d give the wound a good surgical debridement, just like they had done with the severe bullet injury to his right thigh while fighting in the Vosges Mountains six months previously. He’d be back with his men as soon as possible. An anesthesia mask covered his face, and the bright lights inside the operating room faded to black.


Waking up inside a jostling truck as a medic gave him two shots, Phil assumed they were morphine and penicillin. He prayed both injections were not morphine. He’d heard rumors of terribly wounded soldiers being given “terminal doses” of morphine when a medic was sure a man would not survive devastating wounds. They’d comfortably go to sleep and never wake up—no more distress, no more agony, no more suffering.

Is that what they are doing to me? he thought. If so, there was nothing he could do other than whisper the Lord’s Prayer.

The truck stopped, and two men carried him toward a dark building. His thoughts turned darker. My God! The surgeons failed me. The medic gave me an overdose of morphine. They’re taking me to the morgue!

Before he could scream, he lapsed again into oblivion.


When Phil woke, not knowing where he was. He felt warm and comfortable—in no pain at all—and wondered for a moment if he was in heaven. Rubbing his eyes somewhat cleared his blurred vision. His mouth was as dry as a ball of cotton and his tongue felt swollen. Slowly pushing himself up on his elbows, he saw he was in a hospital ward.

A sudden burning pain and itching at the bottom of his right foot grabbed his attention. As Phil sat up to scratch it, his eyes widened in shock. There was no right foot. There was no right lower leg! They had wrapped a beige elastic bandage around a stump below his knee.

He slowly scooted down and picked up the clipboard hanging from the end of the bed. The description of what happened in the operating room was stark:

“Amputation, guillotine type, leg, right, below knee, performed 9 April 1945, sequela to perforating bullet wound of right leg the size of a silver dollar that destroyed the tibia and significant soft tissue. Circulation to the foot and ankle was destroyed. An amputation was performed at a distance of five inches below the knee joint.”

Burning tears streaked down his face as he stared down at what remained of his leg. The word remnant came to mind, followed by vestige, leftover, and scrap.

Is that what I am now? he wondered.

Questions poured through his mind. What will I tell Mom and Dad? Will I ever walk again? Will any girl ever want me? Can I even serve in the Army again?

Overcome with terror and nausea, Phil started to wretch.

“Here’s a pan,” said a warm, comforting voice. It was as if an angel had appeared in front of him. “Hold this, Captain,” she said.

“I’m a lieutenant,” Phil answered. Then he threw up into the pan.

“Not anymore,” she answered. “They have promoted you, sir.”

When he finished puking, she laid him down and had him turn to the side so she could give him a shot in the left buttock. “This’ll calm your tummy, Captain.”

“Where am I?”

“10th Field Hospital. We’re just over a hundred miles behind the front. At least we were yesterday. The boys on the front are moving so fast that it’s hard to keep up with them. I heard this morning that your infantry regiment, the 30th, spearheaded another river crossing—the Main River this time. But today, we need to get you bathed, cleaned up, and your dressings changed. You’re heading home, soldier—a hero.” Her smile was radiant and reassuring.

Phil supposed his long, grueling war was finally over—but he had no way of knowing that his battles were just beginning.


Stuart Wakefield Thu, 31/08/2023 - 14:49

Great story! I thought the theme was resilience in the face of adversity. Even when faced with difficult challenges and life-threatening situations, Phil found the strength to persevere and continue fighting for the greater good. His courage and strength of will are evident throughout the passage, and I think this serves as an example for us all.

The part I liked the most was the description of Phil's emotions at the end. His journey from battle to home is full of uncertainty and fear, but the nurse's smile is reassuring and filled with hope. It's a small moment of joy in an otherwise bleak story. I also appreciate how the passage captures the chaos of war with the constantly shifting front and the idea of Phil being promoted while he is in the hospital.