At First Light: A World War II Memoir of a Hero and His Horse

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The youngest infantry office in WWII, wounded multiple times, receiving battlefield commendations, and encountering Churchill, Eisenhower, and Truman. At the end of the war, he’s sent on a top-secret mission to find a Nazi farm re-engineering famed Lipizzaners. Can he save them from the Russians?


“Now to the Infantry . . . the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end, they are the guys that wars can’t be won without.”

—Ernie Pyle, American journalist and war correspondent[2]

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.[1],[3]

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”[4] 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 Rotterhausen 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 the day they landed 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.[2]

“Love 1, this is Love 6.”

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.[3] 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.[4]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.[5]

“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 CP staff.[6] 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 often got lost, which often resulted in more guys dying.[7]

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 lieutenant put on the headphones hanging on the back of the turret so that he could communicate with the tank commander inside. He ordered his radioman to hunker down behind him and the tank to move out. As they approached the clearing, green tracer rounds from enemy machine guns laced the air from directly ahead.[8]

“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 jumped off the side of 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 and tore the wrapper off a gauze bandage to press against the wound, 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 in pain. Despite unbearable agony, 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 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.

CHAPTER 1—The Little Stink

“In your pursuit of your passions, always be young.”

—Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation[6]

PHILIP 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:[7]

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.

Ever fondly,


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 latch-key child: his father was a Pullman conductor gone for days at a time, and his mother was a legal secretary.[9] 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 Wonderland segment. 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 Philip’s 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 and from 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 hunting, fishing, and, most of all, caring for and riding horses. His father taught him 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 play 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.[10] 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, 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 their 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

• 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.

CHAPTER 2—The Big Muddy

“The spirit is there in every boy; it has to be discovered and brought to light.”

—Robert Baden-Powell, 19th century British Army officer and founder of the worldwide Scouting movement[9]

SINCE HIS EARLIEST DAYS, Philip had been an excellent swimmer. During the summer of 1936 when he was eleven years old, he took a junior lifeguard course with his pals, Luke McLaurine and Billy O’Bannon, at Camp Currier, a 300-acre Boy Scout camp located just south of Memphis near Eudora, Mississippi.[10]

Late that summer, they convinced their moms to allow them to swim the Mississippi River as part of an annual race sponsored by the Memphis Chicks semi-professional baseball team. Their competitors, all of them teenage boys, boarded a rented paddle steamer and were taken about fifteen miles upriver.

Once at the starting point, the boat turned sideways. On the steam whistle signal, all the boys leaped off the top deck of the paddle steamer and into the river. The current moved steadily at ten miles an hour, and the smooth water was the color of milk chocolate; thus, the river’s nickname “The Big Muddy.”

While the older boys swam for a trophy, the younger boys just paddled down the river accompanied by a small armada of sixty motorboats, each equipped with a pile of swim vests in case anyone encountered trouble. When Philip, Luke, and Billy successfully swam to the pull-out on the southern point of Mud Island, a peninsula on the east side of the river that connected to downtown Memphis, they ran out of the water screaming in joy, hugging and swatting each other’s backs and feeling exceptionally manly and heroic.

This only emboldened them the following year when, on an unusually warm, seventy-six-degree day in March, Philip and Billy decided to swim across the mighty Mississippi, unaware that the fast-moving river was carrying the largest volume of water since the historic flood of 1927. The ordinarily tranquil waterway, now the color of intensely dark chocolate, was a frothing, pulsating monster that roiled and rampaged downstream, throbbing with the unrestrained power of one million gallons of water per second rushing south. The newspapers further downstream were calling it the “Great Flood of ’37.”[11]

After placing towels and their clothes into small waterproof backpacks, the boys dove into the raging current just south of where the Loosahatchie River drained into the Mississippi River about four miles north of the Mississippi River bridge crossing from Memphis to Arkansas. They stroked across a three-quarter-mile section of the bone-chilling, raging torrent, dodging trees and barrel-sized litter to the large and mostly wooded Loosahatchie Sandbar near the west bank.

Philip thought they were far enough upriver that their swim would put them safely on the sandbar, but the current swept them downstream three miles so fast that they were barely able to make it to shore in a small bay on the southern section of the sandbar. Although exhausted and shivering from their ordeal, they each pulled out a towel from their backpacks, dried off, and briefly warmed themselves in the midday sun. They considered the option of hiking a half-mile across the island, swimming a half-mile channel, and then walking almost two miles to the bridge and hitchhiking back to Memphis. After thinking things through, they decided that they had no choice but to swim back to Memphis from the uninhabited island.

Philip, who had meticulously studied maps of the area in planning their escapade, reasoned they should aim for Mud Island. Given the incredible speed of the water, he calculated that they’d need to walk at least a mile up the Loosahatchie sandbar before taking off, which would give them a greater margin of safety as well as more time to warm up from the cold water.

Philip spied a small herd of Shetland ponies grazing on the south end of the island. He and Billy walked up to them, and finding them tame, chose two to mount bareback. Grabbing the ponies’ manes, the two boys whooped and hollered as they rode their steeds back up the island. After dismounting, saying a brief prayer, and encouraging each other with an Indian chant they learned as Scouts, they slowly waded back into the frigid water and began their swim to the distant shore. Fortunately, Philip’s calculations were correct, and it became clear they were going to make it to the safety of Mud Island.

Near the end of their swim, however, Billy ran out of steam and began to go under. He screamed out, yelling for help. When Philip saw his buddy panicking and fighting to keep his head above water, he used powerful strokes to bridge the distance quickly. Calling upon his lifeguard skills, Philip dove just below the surface and grabbed Billy by the waist. Then he promptly turned his buddy, surfaced, put him in a cross-chest lock, and hauled him to shore at Joe Curtis Point on Mud Island’s southernmost section. Upon reaching dry land, Billy dissolved into tears, embracing Philip and thanking him repeatedly for saving his life. After a time to rest and warm up, they dressed and hitched a ride back home.

Although Billy wanted to nominate him for a Red Cross or Boy Scout medal for bravery, Philip begged him not to. He didn’t want to get into more trouble because he was sure his father, upon learning of another one of his harebrained escapades, would reward him with yet another trip to the backyard tool shed for a whipping. This time Philip was lucky to escape punishment since he saved his friend’s life, but he realized how close he had come to losing his buddy to the heartless river.


PHILIP’S TWELFTH BIRTHDAY WAS HIS MOST MEMORABLE. At the stables, he learned that the world-famous Lipizzaners from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria, would be performing at the fairgrounds the same weekend as his birthday.[12] On a Saturday morning, Philip rode the trolley to the fairgrounds and watched the horses and their trainers practice the choreographed steps they would execute at their evening performance. He spent most of the day with the riders and grooms, asking endless questions. Best of all, they allowed him to brush and groom some of the magnificent stallions.

While brushing and talking to one of the Lipizzaners during the early afternoon, an observant stableman from Austria leaned toward him.

“A stallion like Gustav here may be perfectly schooled after about six years, but an apprentice rider—what we call an ‘Élève’—needs a full ten to twelve years of training to earn the right to show these magnificent horses,” the stableman said. “They first have to spend years feeding, grooming, and leading the horses around before they are allowed actually to ride a Lipizzaner. After that, they graduate to the rank of Assistant Reiter, or assistant equestrian. Few outsiders—maybe a royal here or there—have ever been granted permission to ride one of our Lipizzaners. But I can tell that Gustav here has taken a shine to you and that you have the makings of a master equestrian. Would you like to mount him?”

Philip’s eyes widened in wonder as a smile spread ear to ear. “Are you kidding me? I’d love to.”

The man smiled and looked around to be sure they were alone. He nodded and indicated to Philip that he would lift him onto the back of the massive stallion. Philip could feel the steed’s muscles quiver between his legs. He instinctively leaned forward to stroke the horse’s neck and whispered into his ears. Gustav immediately calmed down, shook his head, and continued to feed.

“He likes you,” the man whispered. “But let’s get you off before I get into big trouble.”

In the late afternoon, Philip’s mother hosted his birthday party, with cake and ice cream, and then took him and several of his friends to the arena for the evening show. They were mesmerized by the gala performance as they watched the expert riders and their Lipizzaners demonstrate the most demanding movements, all accompanied by classical Austrian music.

At one point, a stallion was led into the ring on a long rein without a rider. Philip recognized Gustav and leaned forward as the stallion was led to the center of the ring. The announcer described each increasingly tricky jump. “We call these ‘the airs above the ground’ or ‘school jumps.’ Only certain breeds have the strength and intelligence to perform these difficult airs today.” The crowd applauded after each incredible movement.

“To complete this amazing performance, Gustav will demonstrate the capriole, a word which means the ‘leap of a goat.’ On command, he will jump straight up into the air, kicking out with his powerful hind legs, and then land on all four legs at the same time. It is considered the most difficult of all the airs above the ground.”

The crowd burst into raucous applause after Gustav completed the arduous maneuver flawlessly, while Philip sat captivated. Then the boy’s heart skipped a beat when the horseman led the stallion toward him. He recognized the “stableman” who put him on the same Lipizzaner that morning. The man spoke to the horse, which then bowed by kneeling on one leg, extending the other leg in front, and lowering his head to the ground. The horseman smiled, tipped his black riding hat toward Philip, and mouthed, “Happy Birthday.”

The crowd erupted in applause again as all attention fell on Philip. He felt exceptionally proud and would never forget that day or Gustav’s capriole and bow. The boy vowed to himself that he’d one day travel to Europe to see these magnificent horses in person again.

Little did he know that would happen in an unimaginable way.


THE SCHOOL YEARS BECAME MORE CHALLENGING for young Philip as he continued to do poorly in academics. His mother found it increasingly difficult to discipline him, mostly since his father was away from home on railroad trips so often. Finally, at her husband’s insistence and the encouragement of Philip’s scoutmaster, Ethyl applied for her son to attend the Gulf Coast Military Academy (GCMA) in Gulfport, Mississippi, a distance of 360 miles. GCMA’s motto was, “Send us the boy, and we will return you the man.” She could only pray that this would be the case for a fun-loving son not inclined to academics.[13]

His four years at GCMA were a success by every measure and among the best in his life. The structured and regimented environment proved to be a stimulating learning atmosphere for the easily distracted teenager. Although Philip struggled with some of the mundane academic subjects, military topics became his forte—military history, strategy, operations, tactics, and weapons. He turned out to be a quick learner when motivated, and he became skilled in competitive shooting, compass work, navigation, wilderness skills, sailing, and close combat. Philip learned to fly a Piper Cub at a nearby airbase and became certified as a glider pilot. He enjoyed his time in the air, but the two areas in which he experienced even more joy were equitation—the art of horsemanship—and romance.

His happiness as an equestrian was primarily due to a feisty, chestnut Thoroughbred stallion nicknamed Moose. A trainer tried to steer Philip to a gentler horse, explaining, “Thoroughbreds are known for their agility, speed, and spirit, but they are also hot-blooded horses.”[14] But when Moose lowered his nose and relaxed as Philip spoke to him and stroked him, their partnership was sealed.

 Moose was large by Thoroughbred standards, standing seventeen hands and weighing just under 1,200 pounds. Moose’s rich mahogany coat made him look, except for the absence of antlers, like one of his namesakes. On Moose’s back, Philip not only excelled in showing, jumping, and steeplechase competitions, but he also won more show ribbons than he could count.

As for the romance side, that excitement started in his senior year of high school with a blind date. Marilyn Fountain was a beautiful brunette with a thin face, high cheekbones, and a radiant smile. She was from Des Moines, Iowa, and had just begun her freshman year at Gulf Park College in Gulfport, a junior college for girls close to the Gulf Coast Military Academy, even though she and Philip were born weeks apart.

They met because Philip’s roommate at GCMA, Billy “Tex” Metts, began dating one of Marilyn’s suitemates. After Billy found out that Marilyn’s father was an Army officer and that she had a fondness for horses, being the newest member of her college’s Bit and Spur Club, he deduced she and Philip might be a match made in heaven.

Billy arranged for them to meet under the Friendship Oak located on the campus of Gulf Park College. This massive Southern oak stood over five stories tall and spread its immense fingers of foliage over 150 feet in each direction, providing over 16,000 square feet of cool, moist shade. The Friendship Oak was also the center of a legend: those who entered the shadow of her branches would remain friends for all their lives.

Under this magnificent tree, Philip and Marilyn first met, and then not too many days later, where they first held hands and kissed. In the fall of 1941, the young couple could not have been happier, but they had no idea how their lives were suddenly going to be altered forever.

CHAPTER 3—A Day of Infamy

“Great crises in human affairs call out the great in men. They call for great men.”

—Brevet Major General Joshua L. Chamberlain, Union Civil War general and Medal of Honor recipient after the Battle of Gettysburg[xi]

ON SATURDAY EVENING, DECEMBER 6, 1941, Phil, as Marilyn called him and as he now liked to be called, took her out for dinner at the Bungalow, a popular seafood restaurant in Biloxi, Mississippi, that overlooked the calm, brown waters of the Gulf of Mexico.[15] The menu had something for every taste: fresh seafood, choice steaks, Southern fried chicken, Cajun specials, and even Chinese dishes. After enjoying the Surf and Turf special, the young couple decided to go to the cinema.[xii]

         Marilyn had wanted to see the romance, Johnny Eager, starring Lana Turner and Robert Taylor. In contrast, Phil had a yearning to watch Tarzan’s Secret Treasure, starring Maureen O’Sullivan alongside his favorite movie star, Johnny Weissmuller, one of the world’s fastest swimmers. They compromised with Ball of Fire, starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck.

The next morning dawned clear with unlimited visibility and an unseasonably warm 59 degrees predicted as the high. Rather than attending church together, which was their habit, Phil and Marilyn decided to play hooky. He picked her up early, and they trailered their horses to the nearby De Soto National Forest, where they rode through the gently rolling terrain. When they located Black Creek, Mississippi’s only National Scenic River, they followed the meandering ribbon of water until they found a wide white sandbar. They set out a picnic lunch and talked for hours in the warm sunshine about their hopes and dreams—and, for the first time, about the prospects of a life together.

Late in the afternoon, they returned to the stable and found a group of people gathered around a radio. “What’cha listening to?” Phil asked. The men shushed him as he and Marilyn leaned closer to listen.

The announcer blurted, “This is KTU in Honolulu, Hawaii. I am speaking from the roof of the Advertiser Publishing Company Building. We have witnessed this morning the severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by enemy planes, undoubtedly Japanese.... This is no joke. It is a real war.... There has been serious fighting going on in the air and on the sea.”[xiii]

Phil and Marilyn’s eyes met, and he pulled her close. There was another second or two of static. Then the announcer continued, “We cannot estimate just how much damage has been done, but it has been a very severe attack.”[xiv]

The sound of rustling papers came through the small radio as the announcer took a deep breath. “Oh, this is much worse than we’ve heard up to now. The BBC is now reporting, and I quote, ‘At oh seven fifty-five local time, the first wave of between fifty and 150 planes struck the naval base for thirty-five minutes, causing several fires and untold damage to the Pacific Fleet. The Japanese squadrons dropped high explosive and incendiary bombs. A second strike followed at about oh nine hundred when a force of at least one hundred planes pounded the base for an hour,’ end quote.”[xv]

Phil looked at his watch. This meant the attack started just before 1 p.m. in Gulfport, located in the Central Time Zone.

The broadcaster continued, “The BBC also says, and I quote, ‘The Times newspaper’s Washington correspondent says the U.S. Government expects Germany and Italy to declare war on the U.S. within hours. Although the attack has shocked the American people, there is little doubt that it has been brewing for some years,’ end quote.”[xvi]

Marilyn began to cry; Phil pulled out his handkerchief and handed it to her. “Oh, Phil,” she muttered, “This can’t be happening, can it?” He could only hold her close as a zillion thoughts raced through his mind. Their shared disbelief mirrored their astonishment.

The announcer paused a moment, and the clacking of a teletype machine could be heard. “This just in. This just in. Japan declares war! Japan declares war!”

Someone whispered to the man. The pitch of his voice increased as he announced, “This wire is just in from Hirohito, the Emperor of Japan. Here are his words, and I quote, ‘We, the Emperor, hereby proclaim unto our loyal and valorous subjects that we have now declared war upon the United States of America and Great Britain,’ end quote.”[16],[xvii]

Phil’s mind swirled. He thought, So this is it. This is really it. Soon, I’ll be off to war. I’ll be going into battle. He couldn’t have imagined such a confluence of excitement and horror occurring in one moment. Marilyn continued to weep in his arms. “I have to get back to GCMA. Now!” he said.

She nodded. They ran to the car and sped away.


THE NEXT MORNING, MONDAY, DECEMBER 8, the nation awoke to even more bad news: the extent of the damage from the surprise attack on Hawaii. At that point, no one knew that the Japanese attack killed 2,403 U.S. personnel, including sixty-eight civilians, and destroyed or damaged nineteen U.S. Navy ships, including eight battleships, and destroyed or damaged 328 aircraft.[xviii]

Not even the U.S. government was aware that the ship with the most lives lost, the battleship USS Arizona, would report 1,177 dead—meaning that about one half of those who perished at Pearl Harbor were on the Arizona. What everyone did know was that Japan also attacked the Philippines, Wake Island, and Midway on the morning of December 7. The only good news was that the three aircraft carriers of the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been out to sea on maneuvers.

After a hastily arranged Protestant church service at GCMA, Phil received a call from his father. He had been working on the train running between New Orleans and Memphis. At a stop in Water Valley, Mississippi, Phil Sr. had been given a handwritten note:

Do not permit any Japanese to ride your train. Orders of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.[xix]

Then Phil and his fellow cadets attended a solemn assembly at 11:30 a.m., during which they listened intently to the nationwide radio broadcast of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address to a joint session of Congress inside the U.S. Capitol. The President started his speech with these memorable words:

Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.[xx]

After recounting details of the aerial assault, the President concluded his speech with this:

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God. I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.[xxi]

The roars of approval and tsunami of applause from the members of Congress could be heard over the speakers and was joined by the young GCMA cadets as they bounded to their feet, throwing their caps toward the ceiling and hugging and swatting one another on the back. As the cheers faded, though, they became aware that America was about to face an extraordinary test—one that would potentially threaten her very being. The young men at GCMA knew that their training put them in a position to quickly make a difference and play a significant role in the days ahead.[17]

The next five months flew by, and on a beautiful cloudless and calm 70-degree Saturday, May 16, 1942, Phil graduated with honors from GCMA and the Reserve Officers Training Corps, or ROTC.

Before Pearl Harbor, he had planned to begin pre-med studies that fall, but with America in the midst of a global conflict against the Axis powers, he realized that he would not be studying medicine any time soon.[18]

Philip Larimore Jr. understood that he was destined for war.



[1] The M1 Garand was a .30-06 caliber semi-automatic rifle that was the standard U.S. service rifle for front-line enlisted men during World War II. The rifle was named after its Canadian-American designer, John Garand, and was the first standard-issue semi-automatic military rifle. General George S. Patton called it “the greatest battle implement ever devised.”

[2] The SCR-300, a battery-powered, backpack-mounted radio transceiver, was primarily used by combat troops as they moved forward, which is how the term “walkie talkie” came into use.

[3] “Krauts” was a derogatory term for Germans and German soldiers during World War II.

[4] The Stielhandgranate (German for “stick hand grenade”) was widely used by the Nazi Wehrmacht during World War II. The baton-like hand grenades were called “potato mashers” by Allied soldiers because they resembled a kitchen tool used to mash potatoes.

[5] An XO or executive officer was the second-in-command, reporting to the commanding officer, and typically responsible for the management of day-to-day activities, freeing the commander to concentrate on strategy and planning the unit’s next move. An FO or forward observer was an artilleryman embedded on the frontline as a liaison observer who directed the artillery fire via phone line or radio communication.

[6]CP stands for Command Post.

[7] An NCO or non-commissioned officer is a military officer who usually obtains his position by promotion through the enlisted ranks. Non-officers, which includes most or all enlisted personnel, are of lower rank than any officer.

[8] Tracer ammunition (tracers) are projectiles built with a small pyrotechnic charge in their base, which burns brightly, allowing its trajectory to be visible to the naked eye day or night. Tracers allow the shooter to visually trace the flight path and make ballistic corrections without having to see an impact or even use the weapon’s sight. American and German tracers were generally different colors: red for the U.S. and green for Germany.

[9] Philip Larimore Sr. was a sergeant in a machine-gun company during World War I. After returning from the war, he took a job with the Illinois Central Railroad. He met Sara Ethyl McClanahan in Little Rock, Arkansas, and after a whirlwind romance, they married in 1922. He was twenty-five, and she was twenty-eight. Philip was soon promoted to Pullman conductor on the Panama Limited, a first-class-only train, and the City of New Orleans. The trains traveled from Memphis to New Orleans or Chicago and back. As a result, the couple moved to Memphis, where Ethyl, who could type upwards of ninety words a minute flawlessly, took a job as the executive assistant for Walter P. Armstrong, the senior partner of an influential Memphis law firm. Having only one sibling each, the couple desired to have as many children as possible, but Philip Larimore Jr. was their first and only child.

[10] The Peabody is probably the grandest, most historic hotel in downtown Memphis, dating back to 1869 when the original Peabody Hotel opened. The resplendent hotel became the social and business hub of Memphis, building its legacy as the “South’s Grand Hotel.” During the Depression in 1933, ducks were placed in the hotel’s lobby fountain, setting in motion a tradition that continues today with the March of the Peabody Ducks.

[11] “The Great Flood of ’37” occurred in January and February when the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers experienced floods that exceeded all previously recorded stages. When measured by the loss of life and property, these floods constituted a major catastrophe.

[12] The Spanish Riding School is an Austrian institution dedicated to the preservation of classical dressage and the training of Lipizzaner horses. The school was first commissioned in 1565 and named for the Spanish horses that formed one of the bases of the Lipizzan breed, which is used exclusively at the school.

[13] GCMA was a military preparatory school for boys founded in 1912.

[14] The Thoroughbred breed is said to have been developed in 17th- and 18th-century in England, where native mares were crossbred with imported Oriental stallions of Arabian, Berber, and the now extinct Turkoman breeds. All modern Thoroughbreds trace their pedigrees to these three stallions. The breed was imported into America, starting in 1730.

[15]The Mississippi Sound is a massive estuary—a body of water where fresh river water meets a salty sea—that runs east-west along the southern coasts of Mississippi and Alabama. The water is brown, brackish, and shallow due to several rivers that drain into it.

[16] The “we” used by the Emperor is called “the royal we,” or “the majestic plural” and refers to a single person who is a monarch.

[17] On December 8, the Declaration of War against Japan passed with just one dissenting vote. Three days later, Germany and Italy, allied with Japan, declared war on the United States. America was now drawn into a global war and became part of the Allies, most importantly, Great Britain and the Soviet Union.

[18] The major Axis powers were Germany, Italy, and Japan. The military alliance began to form in 1936 and was called the “Rome–Berlin–Tokyo Axis.”



[2] Now to the. Newspaper Article, Pyle, The God.

[3] As he crept. This chapter was augmented from: Books, Champagne, 25, Prohme, 341, Murphy, 262-263; War Records, Larimore, Citation; and Web Sites, Blue and White, and Millen.

[4] one lead pill. Book, Murphy, 262-263.

Chapter 1: The Little Stink

[6] In your pursuit. Web Site, Tom Brokaw.

[7] Philip Larimore, Jr. This chapter was augmented from: Books, Cope, and Kephart; Newspaper Articles, Jernigan, and The Chi Omega Festival; War Records, Interview, McLaurine; Web Sites, Thoroughbred, and Wonder Horses; and “Chi Omega program, May 13, 1930,” an undated newspaper clipping of the Lee School of Childhood graduation, and a Sunday Morning, March 25, 1934 newspaper clipping from Ethyl Larimore’s scrapbooks.

[8] Dearest Ethel. Handwritten letter, January 21, 1925.

Chapter 2: The Big Muddy

[9] The spirit is. Web Site, Robert.

[10] Since his earliest. This chapter was augmented from: Book, McPherson, 13, and The Sea Gull, 66; Periodical, Jurga; War Records, Interview, McLaurine; Web Sites, Airs, Friendship Oak, High Flows,, The Sea Gull, Spanish Riding, and Thoroughbred; and an undated newspaper clipping found in Ethyl Larimore’s scrapbooks; and a 26 July 1938 letter to Ethyl from Gulf Coast Military Academy.

Chapter 3: A Day of Infamy

[xi] Great crises in human. Periodical, Chamberlain, 311.

[xii] On Saturday evening. This section was augmented from: Books, Prange, and The Tammy, 1943, 22, 24-27, 40; and Web Sites, Bungalow, and Weather History for KBIX.

[xiii] This is KTU. Web Site, Hear the, and This Is.

[xiv] We cannot estimate. Ibid.

[xv] Oh, this is. Web Sites, 1941.

[xvi] The BBC also. Ibid.

[xvii] This just in. Newspaper Article, Text of, 12; and Web Sites, This just, and Japan declares.

[xviii] The next morning. This section was augmented from: Newspaper Article, Sparrow; and Web Sites, A Date, A Pearl, The USS Arizona, and Weather History for KBIX; and GCMA Commencement Invitation found in Ethyl Larimore’s scrapbooks.

[xix] Do not permit. Handwritten note in Ethyl Larimore’s scrapbooks.

[xx] Mr. Vice President. Web Site, A Date.

[xxi] No matter how long. Ibid.