Sgt. Reckless inspired many while serving her country as member of Marine Corps.
Story by Kay Coyte
The Oscar-nominated film War Horse brought the majesty of the equine hero to the silver screen in a grand but poignant Steven Spielberg spectacle. And the charismatic mare Havre de Grace reflected some of her Horse of the Year glory on a Maryland city previously best known for mispronunciation of its name.
Both War Horse and Havre de Grace’s owner, Fox Hill Farm’s Rick Porter, may help cast a renewed spotlight on another amazing animal. She was a real war horse, a decorated hero of the Korean War who packed ammunition to the front lines and carried wounded soldiers back down. The thing is, she often did it by herself. She became a mascot so revered by the U.S. Marines that they refused to leave her in Korea and rewarded her with military parades and a lifetime green pasture in southern California.
Her name was Sgt. Reckless, and she once was a darling of news reels and magazines not unlike the racing star of those days, Maryland’s Native Dancer. She was barely a horse, a little sorrel Mongolian-bred with a flashy lightning bolt blaze and three white stockings.
Her story inspired Fox Hill to name a chestnut filly purchased last May after her. This century’s Sgt Reckless is a daughter of Latent Heat, out of the Meadowlake mare One Kick and Gone, bought by Delaware-based Porter at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-year-olds in training sale for $70,000.
“We found the story about Sgt. Reckless on the Web, and a couple of video clips, and were inspired by her story,” said Victoria Keith, executive assistant for Fox Hill Farm. She passed the idea on to Porter, “and he loved it,” Keith said.
The now 3-year-old Sgt Reckless is in training at Vinery farm near Ocala, Fla., after a setback last fall. “She injured her knee in her stall, possibly when she got cast,” Keith said. “We’re rather disappointed that our Sgt Reckless seems to have a pretty large hill to climb to perhaps even make it to the track, much less succeed at the track, but our fingers are crossed and we’ll just have to see how it goes now that she’s finally going into training.”
If the Thoroughbred Sgt Reckless needs a little inspiration, she need look no farther than her namesake.
Lt. Col. Andrew Geer, a Marine who served alongside Reckless, became her first biographer. As he wrote in his Reckless: Pride of the Marines introduction, “Some war stories become dated, but in the case of Reckless, there was no such worry. Her story is as timeless as that of Black Beauty.”
According to Geer, the little horse known to her Korean handlers as Ah-Chim-Hai, or Flame of the Morning, was the daughter of Mongolian-breds that raced at a Seoul track. She was in training for her first start when the Korean War broke out in June 1950. As civilians fled Seoul, she was harnessed to a cart and carried her owner’s family and their few possessions south to safety. Flame had early on shown great intelligence, curiosity and an eagerness to learn. During the flight from Seoul, she also exhibited a trait that would serve her later. At a dangerous river crossing, she was unhitched and swam the river, towing her owner, who clung to her mane, and his sister, who held onto her tail. Eventually, Geer wrote, Flame made the crossing without guidance, carrying children back to her owner.
In October 1952, Lt. Eric Pedersen, who, like Geer, had ridden horses as a boy, bought Flame for $250. Commanding officer of the Recoilless Rifle Platoon, Anti-tank Company, 5th Marine Regiment, Pedersen needed horsepower to pack ammuni-tion to hilltop gun pits on trails no jeep could negotiate. The powerful anti-tank weapon, known for its vicious back blast, was nicknamed the “recless rifle.” And so a little Korean mare called Flame for her fiery spirit and red coat was renamed Reckless and welcomed into the U.S. Marine Corps.
The equine recruit was a quick study. She learned to step over communication lines, lie down on command and kneel. Her Marine trainer, Sgt. Joseph Latham, told Pedersen, “Tell her what you want and let her look the situation over and she’ll do it, if she’s with someone she trusts.”
The next test was introducing Reckless to the Reckless.
“She had to get used to the gun firing,” said Harold Wadley, then a sergeant and 5th Marines demolition specialist who witnessed Reckless in action. Wadley, 78, spoke by telephone from his ranch in Idaho and remembered a special horse.
“The first time she went straight up in the air and when she came down, she collapsed into shaking,” he said. “The second time, she went up again, but not as high, and she calmed down more quickly. But the third time, she barely twitched a muscle. From then on, explosions didn’t bother her. Talk about bomb-proof!”
At the same time, Reckless began to endear herself to her platoon. She was lavished with attention, and never lacked volunteers for grooming duty. The soldiers built her a bunker-like shelter and paddock and, for many of them, she represented a little remnant of home in that faraway land. Soon, like her Mongolian ancestors who roamed free alongside their nomadic tribes, she had the run of the Marines’ camp. On cold nights, she frequently could be found dozing by the stove-heater in Latham’s tent.
She was a regular at the galley, too, and her appetite was legendary. She devoured carrots and apples, but also loved C rations, candy bars, scrambled eggs, Wheaties, bread and jam, Coca-Cola and the occasional beer, Geer recounted in his 1955 book, which was reissued this year. And that wasn’t all: she once ate about $30 worth of poker chips, and more than half of an Australian soldier’s slouch hat given to her in admiration. (Even though the soldier cut holes in it for her ears, Reckless didn’t care much for the hat.)
In short order, however, Reckless proved she was much more than a mascot or camp pet. When winter set in, she anchored a unit that strung communication wire. Carrying the reels in her pack, she could unspool more wire in a day than 10 Marines, Geer estimated. In January 1953, the 5th Marines were assigned to a battleground near the disputed Korean border, about 40 miles northwest of Seoul. At the time, the United Nations truce talks were underway in the village of Panmunjom along the 38th Parallel and a no-fire zone was created around it. Still, North Korean and Chinese forces battled fiercely with South Korean and American troops over strategic territory; toward the end of the war, both sides rained barrages of artillery on one another in firefights exceeding those of World War I or World War II.
Now Restless was tested in battle, carrying equipment, rations and ammunition forward. At times, she was trapped by darkness near the front and kept in makeshift shelters. When incoming fire became particularly heavy, the Marines shed their flak jackets and covered her from ears to tail. “The command frowned on such practice,” Geer wrote, “but no orders were issued to put a stop to it,” and if they had, they likely would have been disobeyed.
By now Reckless sometimes was packing ammunition from dawn to dusk. The trail from the ammunition supply point to the gun sites took her past rice paddies and up a twisting, 45-degree trail to a ridge line. Reckless liked to charge that hill, with her handler in her wake. She would stand at the top, her sides heaving, and as they neared the gun pits, she would travel to each one as the soldiers called to her. After a few trips, she learned the trail and traveled solo. During one February raid, for example, she made 24 trips from the ammunition dump to the firing sites, traveling more than 20 miles and carrying a total of 3,500 pounds. It was a preview of things to come.
The next month brought one of the toughest battles of the war. A line of outposts named for Nevada cities–Reno, Carson and Vegas–overlooked a potential invasion route to Seoul. The relative quiet on the front was shattered when Chinese forces mounted an offensive against these outposts. The first day, Reno and Vegas were lost and hundreds of Marines killed or wounded. The relentless shelling rattled even Reckless, who retreated to her bunker near the supply dump and ignored her feed. When the Marines counterattacked on the second day, Reckless was packed with eight rifle rounds, two more than usual. She charged the hill, but eventually labored to reach the top. But she didn’t stop. After each return to the supply dump, she took to the trail again without urging. On some of those return trips, she carried the dead and wounded.
Day turned to night and Reckless kept going; Geer described her as “an automaton.” She no longer charged the hill, but kept a steady pace. Latham lightened her load, rested her and watered her from his helmet. On one trip, shrapnel cut her face and blood stained her white blaze. On other run, she was cut again on her flank. But neither wound daunted her.
“As long as I live, I will never forget that image of Reckless against the skyline, her silhouette in the flare lights,” Wadley said. “It was just unbelievable, in all that intense fire, in the middle of this chaos. I said, ‘Dad gum, that’s that mare!’?”
By the end of that day, Reckless had made 51 trips to the hilltop gun sites, carrying a total of 386 rounds (more than 9,000 pounds of explosives). She was stiff the next day but stoically resumed her treks as the battle waged on. During one 23-minute period, bombs fell at the rate of more than a ton per minute. Finally, the Marines regained the Vegas and Reno outposts, despite casualties that totaled more than 1,000. Chinese losses were at least twice as high.
Wadley, from a long line of Oklahoma horsemen, could appreciate how truly remarkable Reckless was. Unlike the fictional Joey of War Horse, who ran away from the fighting as best he could, Reckless went toward the sound of the guns.
“I saw her about three or four times that night, and I figured she’d end up dead,” he said. “I never thought she’d survive.”
But survive she did, and word of her heroism spread. Maj. Gen. Randolph M. Pate, who visited the mare often in camp, presided over a ceremony promoting her from corporal to sergeant. She also earned a Purple Heart and other citations. Her picture and story were printed in Stars and Stripes. She got rock star treatment in newsreels and, later, the Saturday Evening Post.
During a little R & R, she posed with the platoon for a photo as they issued a tongue-in-cheek challenge to Native Dancer, then the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. The Marines wrote a letter to the champion colt’s owner, Alfred Van-der-bilt, suggesting a Paddy Derby match race be run over 1½ miles of hills and rice paddies at Upsan Downs. Weight to be carried: 192 pounds (equivalent to eight rounds of ammo). Without riders, both horses would be turned loose and the first to reach the firing Recoilless Rifle would be the winner. The Marines knew Reckless was a sure thing.
After the Korean truce, the Marines refused to leave Reckless behind. They already had taken up a collection to partially buy her from Pedersen when he was transferred out of their platoon. Latham asked Geer, his commanding officer, if he could take Reckless home with him. But Geer had another idea: retire the mare to the Marines’ Camp Pendleton near San Diego. There were snags and red tape, but a breakthrough came when Pacific Transport Lines offered to ship Reckless on a freighter from Yokohama, Japan, to San Francisco at no charge. Pate, who had risen in rank to lieutenant general and assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, gave his blessing, later saying, “In my career, I have seen many animals that have been adopted by Marines, but never in all my experience have I seen one which won the hearts of so many as did this lovely little lady known as Reckless.”
Next, Maj. Gen. Robert Hoga-boom, the 1st Marines commander in Korea, ordered the division’s Marine Aircraft Wing to fly Reckless from Korea to Japan in an R4Q (Flying Boxcar). Operation Horse Shift was a first. The aircraft designed to carry Jeeps, howitzers and other war equipment had never before air-lifted an animal. At halftime of an Army vs. Marines football game on Oct. 17, 1954, Reckless was toasted with a fond farewell–almost two years exactly from the fateful day when Pedersen bought her at the Seoul racetrack. A few days later she was buckled into the Flying Boxcar, and on Oct. 22, she set sail for America.
The media was alerted. Bob Con-sidine, noted war correspondent, columnist and radio broadcaster, launched a welcome-home campaign. Ed Sullivan offered to pay Reckless’ transportation costs, plus a $1,000 donation to a Marines family fund, to have her appear on his Toast of the Town television show. (Sullivan was one of TV’s early icons, along with Arthur Godfrey and, yes, the photogenic Native Dancer, who had completed his second Horse of the Year season in 1954.) A battalion of reporters, photographers and cameramen met Reckless in San Francisco after her ship arrived in early November. She reportedly drew more news hounds than Vice-President Richard Nixon did when he came to the city a week earlier.
But no doubt more important to Reckless was her reunion with several of the men whose lives she had touched, including Pedersen, Geer and Monroe Coleman, a private first class who was Reck-less’ chief groom. (Latham, by then stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., couldn’t make it.) Witnesses reported that Reckless strained her neck across her stall barrier to greet them, obviously recognizing her comrades.
After clearing quarantine, she was the belle of a Marine Corps birthday celebra-tion, riding an elevator to a 10th-floor banquet hall. The elevator didn’t faze her in the least, nor did the fireworks of flash bulbs that greeted her, celebrity style. As is Marines tradition, she was given the first slice of cake that goes to the most honored Marine present. After wolfing down more cake, she started in on the rose and carnation table decorations.
At Camp Pendleton, it was ordered that nothing would ever again be placed on Reckless’ back except for a blanket. Col. Richard Rothwell, commanding officer of the 5th Marines at Pendleton, credits Reck-less for saving lives, boosting morale and relieving stress for battle-weary Marines.
“They considered her a Marine, a fellow soldier,” said Rothwell, now 99 and living in Catonsville, Md., with his wife Rebecca. “She was quite the celebrity. The memory of her has stayed with me over all these years.”
Rothwell presided over another promotion ceremony, in June 1957, when Reckless made staff sergeant, an honor never bestowed on an animal before or since. At her side was Fearless, her first foal. She had two other colts, Dauntless and Chesty, named after Lt. Gen. Lewis (Chesty) Puller, the most decorated U.S. Marine in history. Because of a change in rank structures, she was due one more promotion, to a higher staff sergeant pay grade. Her old friend Pate, by then a general and commandant of the Marine Corps, led this one, in August 1959, and it included a 19-gun salute and a parade of 1,700 Marines.
Reckless was 20 years old when she died on May 13, 1968. A memorial headstone stands at Pendleton’s Stepp Stables.
Robin Hutton read about Reckless five years ago in Chicken Soup for the Horse Lovers’ Soul,” and today leads efforts to bring her story to a new generation. She has commissioned a statue and has visions of a replica at Pendleton and the U.S. Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Va. The museum also has expressed interest in a permanent Reckless exhibit, Hutton said. Her YouTube video of Sgt. Reck-less’ life has drawn more than 1 million views and she’s created a Face-book fan page.
“Really, I’d like to see statues of this little horse everywhere,” said Hutton, of Ventura, Calif. “What she did was amazing.”
Wadley has trained horses over much of his life and has written a book on his “spirit blending” method learned from his Cherokee grandfather. As a boy, he bonded with Blue Pair, who upset Whirlaway in the 1941 Derby Trial Stakes but faltered in the Kentucky Derby and was retired to stud at Paulfred Farm near Tulsa, Okla. Just 7, Wadley would sit on Blue Pair’s back and ride him bareback in his paddock.
“I’ve been around horses since I was a kid,” said Wadley, who once faced down a bear on horseback, “and I’ve seen some real brave horses. But Reckless sets the standard.”
(Story first appeared in the March 2012 issue of Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred)