At First Light: a true World War II story of a hero, his bravery, and an amazing horse


Popular memory of the Second World War is inconsistent. Certain events, such as the Battle of Britain, El Alamein, the Atlantic Campaign, D-Day, and Operation Market Garden, loom large in modern consciousness. Other events and fronts, such as the latter stages of the Italian Campaign or the fighting in Burma, too often obtain less mental purchase.

The campaign that saw American forces land in southern France (Operation Dragoon) in August 1944, before driving north and then westwards into Germany, is more like the latter. The invasion of Normandy is justly celebrated, and the Battle of the Bulge is widely recalled, but what about the fierce combat in the Vosges Mountains in autumn 1944 or the Colmar Pocket fighting in early 1945?

With At First Light, Walt Larimore (with Mike Yorkey) has written a splendid homage to his father, American GI Philip Larimore, US Army, as well as to the other young men who fought alongside him on this forgotten southern stretch of the Western Front. Unfolding cinematically, it introduces Philip Larimore growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, a boy prone to misbehaving. But, while still young, Larimore discovered a love of horses, and the equestrian skills he developed would come into play later, during the war.

When that war came for America, Larimore entered the US Army’s Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, for training as a second lieutenant. After completing this, he was sent across the Atlantic, first to Morocco, and then to Italy, where he took part in the fighting in the Anzio beachhead as a junior officer in the 30th Regiment, US 3rd Division.

Battle took a frightful toll on low-ranking officers, particularly the second lieutenants. Combat units often lost these men in droves, creating a constant, insatiable demand for replacements. This meant opportunities for promotion, for those lucky enough to survive, and Larimore would eventually become commander of L (‘Love’) Company, of the 30th Regiment.

Philip Larimore proved to be a brave and capable officer. Perhaps the book’s most-touching episode involves Larimore’s daring mission to aid the rescue of a collection of exquisite Lipizzaner horses. In early 1945, army intelligence reported that a number of these precious white horses were being kept at a Nazi stud farm in western Czechoslovakia. They were in grave danger: the Red Army, intelligence said, were killing some Lipizzaners, while using the others as draft animals.

Aware of his equestrian background, Larimore’s superiors offered him a chance to volunteer for a secret mission to find out whether Lipizzaners were present. If they were, then the US Army would take concrete steps to rescue them.

Confirming that the horses at the stud farm were actually Lipizzaners was complicated by diplomatic considerations. Larimore’s superiors, unwilling to rile the Soviets, would countenance Larimore’s mission, but would not give it an official blessing. He would be disowned if the Russians caught him.

Larimore, who had seen the Lipizzaners as a youngster, did not hesitate to do what he could to rescue them, and was aboard a tiny Piper Cub aircraft the next morning, flying behind enemy lines to have a look at the animals.

At First Light is worth reading, if simply to discover what the truth was concerning those Lipizzaners. It also provides a foot soldier’s view of war in the south. The account makes very plain the unending hardships faced by the infantry, who braved not only enemy soldiers, but often the weather as well, as they fought their way through Italy, France, and into Germany. Their stories ought to be better known, and this book is an important step in that direction.

At First Light: a true World War II story of a hero, his bravery, and an amazing horse
Walt Larimore and Mike Yorkey
Knox Press, hbk ($24.55)
ISBN 978-1642939590