With the permission of my publisher, for the month of April, I’m giving you a SNEAK PEEK of the first five chapters of my latest book — a wonderful story about my father’s heroism and exploits before and after World War II. Here’s the PROLOGUE of At First Light: A True World War II Story of a Hero, His Bravery, and an Amazing Horse.
“This story is extraordinary: an almost forgotten hero, tough combat, tragic sacrifice, gripping aftermath, a marvelous horse, and an astonishing ending. Don’t miss reading this remarkable book. At First Light is a way for you to join me in remembering and honoring the story of our World War II heroes, those selfless Americans who put it all on the line downrange, day after difficult day, in crushing heat and numbing cold, in the toughest conditions, against the most challenging, resilient, often barbaric enemy to liberate Europe and to help safeguard our freedom and liberty here at home.”
—Gen. David H. Petraeus, U.S. Army (Ret.) four-star general, former Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and former Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan
“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 Cote 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 a 150 Krautsiv 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)vi 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 CP 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 jumped 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 against 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 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.
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