Off the page: ‘At First Light’

Memphis-born Philip Larimore had hardly mentioned the Lippizaners. He hardly mentioned No Man’s Land on the Anzio beachhead. He hardly mentioned the 10th Field Hospital in Alsbach-Hähnlein where he awoke—fresh off the memory of sniper fire, and at only 20 years old—to the promotion of captain and the loss of his right leg five inches below the knee. Only during his 50th wedding anniversary dinner outside Baton Rouge, where he had spent more than 40 years as an LSU professor of geography, did the stories begin to pour forth again. Not that his physician son, Walt Larimore, always fully believed them. Leaping onto tanks? Secret rescue missions? And that horse, Chug, the one Phil said saved his life? Yeah, right. But after Phil’s passing in 2003, the memory boxes came down from the attic. So did the letters, the photos, the Distinguished Service Cross. The saddle, too. And Walt, already a published author, began to see that the truth might really be stranger than fiction—a notion that eventually became a decade-long journey toward his father’s biography, At First Light: A True World War II Story of a Hero, His Bravery, and an Amazing Horse, available on April 19.

“The deeper I dug, the more horrified I was, and the more astonished,” says Walt, whose 1.5 million words of research from national archives, interviews with Phil’s acquaintances, and notes from European museums transformed into a narrative with the help of co-author Mike Yorkey. “How many other stories like his have we lost?”

Philip Larimore and Chug

In this pursuit of posterity—not just for his father, but for the many overlooked escapades of the war’s southern front—Walt’s account is just as much a historical document as it is a coming-of-age story, with hundreds of footnotes accompanying its rich details. By the time readers arrive at a certain horse auction at Fort Meyer Riding Hall, they may even feel like they’ve been there before. 

“Finding the narrative in Dad’s history was like looking at the back of a piece of embroidery, with the threads and colors all tangled up,” says Walt, who will be signing copies during the grand re-opening of the LSU Military Museum at Memorial Tower on April 7. “But as soon as you turn it over, you finally see the art. You finally see the story.”