Image ID 7831938 Maj Gen Jeff Broadwater, deputy commanding general, V Corps, talks with US Army WWII veteran Jake Larson during D-Day 79 commemorations on 1 June 2023 in France CREDIT US Department of Defense
Maj Gen Jeff Broadwater, deputy commanding general, V Corps, talks with WW2 US Army veteran Jake Larson during D-Day 79 commemorations on 1 June 2023 in France (Picture: US Department of Defense).

Papa Jake: The 100-year-old TikTok star who narrowly escaped death on D-Day

Image ID 7831938 Maj Gen Jeff Broadwater, deputy commanding general, V Corps, talks with US Army WWII veteran Jake Larson during D-Day 79 commemorations on 1 June 2023 in France CREDIT US Department of Defense
Maj Gen Jeff Broadwater, deputy commanding general, V Corps, talks with WW2 US Army veteran Jake Larson during D-Day 79 commemorations on 1 June 2023 in France (Picture: US Department of Defense).

A Second World War US Army veteran who helped plan D-Day, escaped death on Omaha Beach and at one stage was under the command of senior British Army officer Field Marshal Montgomery, is finding fame on TikTok. 

Known as Papa Jake, Staff Sergeant (Retired) Jake Larson's Story Time with Papa Jake videos, in which he shares memories of his time in the US Army, have been liked more than seven million times. 

The 101-year-old veteran's granddaughter, McKaela Larson, created a TikTok account for her 'Papa Jake' after a video she posted about his service in May 2020 went viral.  

Ms Larson helps her grandfather share his memories from the Second World War, including near-death experiences and his pride at moving ranks from an infantry soldier to joining G3 Fifth Corps and helping to plan the D-Day landings. 

The TikTok star has since appeared in a YouTube video with internet sensation Mr Beast in which 100 people – from the ages of one to 100 – spent days trapped inside clear plastic boxes and competed against each other to see who would last the longest and win $500,000. 

Mr Beast, whose real name is Jimmy Donaldson, was impressed that Mr Larson lasted until the second day. 

While Mr Larson has enjoyed the success of his videos and the adoration he receives for sharing his memories, his life started from meagre beginnings. 

Mr Larson grew up on a farm with no electricity or running water in Hope, Minnesota, during the Depression. His family had so little money that his parents sold moonshine to make ends meet. 

At just 15 and tempted by the prospect of earning £12 every three months, Mr Larson and his cousin lied about their age and joined the National Guard in 1939, eventually being inducted in the Federal Service on 10 February 1941.

Initially part of 34th Infantry Division – nicknamed the Red Bull – Mr Larson was transferred into V Corps G3 section, a plans and training unit, where he became an operations sergeant. 

@storytimewithpapajake Merry Christmas! Here’s a good story! PART 2/3 ❤️🎄 #Christmas2020#papajake#ww2#veteran♬ original sound - Papa Jake

Top secret: Planning D-Day

It was from Brownlow House, a base for US troops in Northern Ireland during the Second World War, that Mr Larson helped plan the D-Day landings and train 34th Infantry Division troops before they embarked on Operation Torch in North Africa. 

While at Brownlow House, Mr Larson was on the BIGOT list – a group of people working at the level of security above Top Secret. 

The term, chosen by Prime Minister Winston Churchill before 1942, stood for the British Invasion of German Occupied Territory. 

The anacronym continued being used when US General Dwight D Eisenhower took over the planning role. 

Speaking in July 2020 with host Don Abernathy for the What's The Scuttlebutt Podcast, a collection of interviews with World War Two veterans, Mr Larson explained what his role was during the D-Day landings planning, saying: "BIGOT – that's the highest classification you could get and we were working on the invasion. 

"I was an expert typist and I was just told what to type.

"Anybody that was top secret... you didn't walk around like anybody else. You were always kept under guard. 

"BIGOT was so top secret that you weren't able to be out and walk around with what you knew. 

"After the war was over, I received the Bronze Star for what I did working on the invasion." 

The veteran also received the Legion of Honour, or Légion d'honneur in French, France's highest order of merit.

Image ID 7677337 Capt Willie Cowart shakes hands with WWII Army veteran Jake Larson at the final D-Day 78 ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery, 6 June 2022 CREDIT US Department of Defense
Capt Willie Cowart shakes hands with Papa Jake at the final D-Day 78 ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery, 6 June 2022 (Picture: US Department of Defense).

Operation Tiger 

As Mr Larson shares his memories, one thing becomes clear – he considers himself to be very lucky. 

The veteran came close to death many times but, somehow, survived, prompting him to name his 2021 autobiography The Luckiest Man In The World, Stories From The Life Of Papa. 

His luck came in on 28 April 1944 when he found himself at Slapton Sands, England, faced with unimaginable horror. 

As part of the preparation for D-Day, British and US forces undertook a top-secret rehearsal involving 30,000 men which ended, catastrophically, in a bloodbath. 

Operation Tiger was an Allied forces' practice run for the D-Day landings that ended in the deaths of an estimated 749 American servicemen – some died due to blast injuries while others drowned or succumbed to hypothermia in the freezing British waters. 

The plan was for 400 men each to be loaded onto several Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) that were due to land on Slapton Sands. 

Watch: Bootprints remember US troops killed during secret D-Day rehearsal.

The exercise was to include a live-firing exercise to prepare the men for D-Day itself. 

As Mr Larson explains in a series of short TikTok videos, things didn't go as planned: "I happened to be in the first [Landing Ship Tank] to the left that headed from Plymouth to Slapton Sands.  

"The British were preparing us with live fire. 

"Well, before the British got to us, two German e-boats came in, they sent out two torpedoes. 

"They sunk the two ships to my right and they shot up our Armed Guard on top of us and shot out our air so we were breathing the fumes from this raw diesel. 

"Four hundred of us were laying on the floor vomiting and breathing through our wet handkerchiefs." 

When the few who survived reached the shore, Mr Larson said they found themselves defenceless against "[the German's] ammunition and stuff" as they carried the M1 Garand which, in the veteran's opinion, was "like a pea shooter". 

To keep up the morale of troops and not give Germany an advantage before D-Day, the failed operation was kept a secret. 

Mr Larson said: "When we got out of that landing ship, a full bird colonel came up and swore us to secrecy that we wouldn't say a word. 

"We couldn't talk about this, even to our commanding officers when we got back, under penalty of court-martial. 

"Over 40 years this was a secret. My family didn't even know about it."  

Image ID 943390 Ceremony at Cambridge American Cemetery, in Madingley, UK in April 2013 to mark 69th anniversary of Exercise Tiger tragedy CREDIT US Department of Defense
A ceremony at Cambridge American Cemetery, UK, in April 2013 to mark the 69th anniversary of the Operation Tiger tragedy (Picture: US Department of Defense).

D-Day Landings 

Five weeks later, on 6 June 1944, 21-year-old Mr Larson landed on Omaha Beach with the 1st Division, nicknamed Big Red One. 

Once again, Mr Larson's good luck came up trumps – because he was one of the first to be loaded onto the LST, he was one of the last off. 

As Mr Larson explains, he and his fellow soldiers knew the beach would be full of landmines, saying: "Every once in a while you'd see a spurt of water shoot up from some guy stepping on a landmine. 

"I made sure that I was walking in the steps of the people in front of me." 

And then, like a brutal battle scene in a Hollywood blockbuster, the soldier experienced a horror he will never forget but one that encouraged him to make it to safety. 

He said: "They were shooting in front of me and man, I was kind of nervous. I was smoking cigarettes then and I had a waterproof cigarette holder and I reached in and got out a cigarette and, dang, I reached in again and my matches were wet. 

"Not three feet behind me there was another soldier, so I turned around and said, 'Hey buddy, have you got a match?' I got no answer. 

"I turned around, looked again, there was no head under the helmet and to this day I thank the spirit of that boy for me getting up and running. 

"I must have came in at the time when they were reloading their machine guns and I ran and then they started shooting at me and part of the way there, I looked up and I said 'god, what the hell am I doing here?' 

"I can't see anybody to shoot at and they can shoot at me. 

"But I made it to the cliff and I thank God to this day for guidance from the soul of that soldier that lost his head." 

Image ID 6414569 US troops storm Omaha beach on 6 June 1944. The iconic photograph, 'Into the Jaws of Death', was shot by Chief Petty Officer Robert Sargent CREDIT US Department of Defense
US troops storm Omaha beach on 6 June 1944. The iconic photograph, Into the Jaws of Death, was shot by Chief Petty Officer Robert Sargent (Picture: US Department of Defense).

Battle of the Bulge 

Mr Larson is the only one still alive of the three different units he was in. A fact that leaves him feeling incredibly emotional.  

He fought in six battles – D-Day, Battle of Saint-Lô, Battle of Falaise Gap, Battle for Paris, Battle of Luxembourg and the Battle of the Bulge – and, in his words, came out "without a scratch" and a good memory of the events.  

Papa Jake's last dalliance with death during the Second World War was the Battle of the Bulge. 

At 2am on 16 December, Mr Larson was on duty and received intelligence that Germans were parachuting nearby. 

Immediately, the staff sergeant woke up Colonel Hill and General Giraud who alerted First Army. 

He said: "By alerting those people at that time, they expected the Germans to be coming in at daylight which they did. 

"At 5.30am the next morning, the tanks broke through and by alerting those people, we saved a few 100 lives, probably maybe 1,000 or so." 

Mr Larson and his colleagues quickly prepared to destroy all their top-secret documents in case of capture but, instead, the Germans cut them off from First Army. 

This led to Papa Jake being assigned to Field Marshal Montgomery's 21st Army Group which is where he spent the majority of time. 

He said: "How many people do you know that was also part of the British forces? The whole 5th Corps. 

"We had two divisions on the other side on the line, the First and the 29th,and when Third Army finally got there to relieve, the 101st Infantry Division, and we put the squeeze on them from the top and that's when the Germans finally had to lay down their arms and march out of there. 

Papa Jake turned 22 years old at the Battle of the Bulge. 

More than three-quarters of a century later, Papa Jake continues to share stories from his military career and other highlights of his life: fond memories of his late wife Lola, visiting Brownlow House eight decades later, paying his respects to the fallen at Omaha Beach and his delight at how many people have watched his videos. 

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