On his 50th wedding anniversary, Phil Larimore finally unleashed the details of his stunning military history.
He had been notoriously tight-lipped about his years as a 2nd lieutenant in the Army during WWII, but his four sons were finally able to pry open the vault over a Cajun meal in Baton Rouge, La., as their parents celebrated the milestone.
“It was just the right night and he was nostalgic,” said Colorado Springs resident Walt Larimore, a retired family physician and bestselling author. “Fifty years of marriage and here were his boys, all grown, and saying, ‘Dad, what happened to your leg?’”
Phil, an amputee, lost his limb at 20, one month before the war ended. But the strict, devoted dad had never shared the details of the injury, only that it got shot off in the war.
Wild tales flew up and out of him that night around the table, one more unbelievable than the next, prompting some skepticism from his sons.
“All my brothers were like that’s a little too much beer, Dad,” Walt said. “But he opened up and started telling stories. He was a Boy Scout leader, and he was telling stories to Boy Scouts and leaders and some of his friends. The stories stayed consistent.”
And then a curious thing happened. After Phil died in 2003 at 78, Walt got a phone call from the Pentagon. His father was a war hero, the general said, and a plot was waiting for him at Arlington National Cemetery. Perplexed, Walt told his mother, who confirmed the offer, and also said his dad hadn’t wanted to be buried there.
“I thought that’s weird,” Walt said about the call. “That’s not like the usual grunt.”
Three years later, after his mom died, he found a military foot locker while cleaning out their attic. The treasure trove contained materials supporting his father’s claims of being a famous equestrian and the first person to train a horse to respond to a one-legged rider. They found his riding outfit, 450 letters written during the war, history books marked in spots that confirmed his tall tales, and a shadow box of his medals and photos of generals made out to “the best soldier I’ve ever known.”
As it turned out, Phil’s outlandish tales were true. He was indeed the youngest graduate of officer candidate school, and one of the most decorated soldiers in the war, who shot snipers out of trees from 100 yards away. He did complete a secret mission to help save the world-famous Lipizzaner horses from Hitler and become friends with President Harry S. Truman and bridge-playing buddies with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower before his presidency. He did go through a brutal trial during which he tried and failed to reverse the military policy of discharging an officer and amputee after rehab. And he was reunited with the horse he trained during the war thanks to a big-hearted auctioneer.
His story is now the stuff of Walt’s new book, “At First Light: A True World War II Story of a Hero, His Bravery, and an Amazing Horse.” It’s available now by going online to amazon.com or drwalt.com.
“This story is extraordinary: an almost forgotten hero, tough combat, tragic sacrifice, gripping aftermath, a marvelous horse, and an astonishing ending,” wrote Army Gen. David Petraeus, former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Over more than 15 years, Walt transcribed the old letters, mixed in the references to Phil from the history books, and pored through WWII books for context and details. He tracked down and interviewed men Phil fought alongside, and traveled the world, digging through boxes of archives and other historical materials at Fort Stewart and Fort Benning in Georgia, The National WWII Museum in New Orleans and a war museum in Paris, among other sports.
What began as something for the family now stood at a million and a half words, Walt could see it begged to be told in a bigger way. With the help of longtime author Mike Yorkey, he turned Walt’s research into a history book about Phil, interspersed with the story of the largely forgotten southern European front of WWII.
“The Third Infantry Division, which was on the southern front, fought more days in the war than any of the 90 divisions,” Walt said. “It had more casualties than any other division throughout the war, the most medals of honor, the most distinguished service crosses, silver stars and purple hearts, but nobody knows.”
During his research, Walt came to learn his father’s reluctance to share his war stories was common among those who served.
“They went over for liberty, freedom, adventure, battle and heroism. They got there, and for at least the ones on the front line, it got very ugly very quickly,” Walt said. “His (Phil) first night on the front line, a private blew up his face. Pretty soon they weren’t fighting for their country, as much as they were for their buddies. And for their family back home, to get home. You see that in their letters.”
Once they landed on home soil, they walled off their past and rarely looked back.
“They had a new lease on life,” Walt said. “They’d seen their buddies get shredded. Every day was a gift to them, and they wanted to live the freedom they had earned.”
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