Semper Fi: Equine Sister in Arms
Heavy machine gun, mortar and artillery fire blasted around the members of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, as they hunkered down in the trenches of Outposts Vegas, Reno and Carson in March 1953. The soldiers, fighting in the Korean War, struggled to hold their positions as wave after wave of Chinese troops attempted to fight their way into the strategic strongholds.
Although dozens of men proved their mettle during those fierce battles, one soldier was particularly indispensible to the effort. Standing almost 14 hands high and naturally equipped with Marine gung-ho, Staff Sgt. Reckless, a remarkable Mongolian mare, scrapped with the best of them and eventually earned the Marines’ highest accolades for her heroism and dauntless character in battle.
The Enlistment of 'Reckless'
U.S. Marine Lt. Eric Pedersen, commanding officer of the Recoilless Rifle Platoon, Antitank Company, 5th Marine Regiment, first laid eyes on the dusty chestnut mare one year earlier at a racetrack in Seoul. Intrigued by her performance, Pedersen offered to buy the horse from her owner, a young Korean boy named Kim Huk Moon. The timing proved ideal, as the boy could scarcely turn down Pedersen’s $250. His sister had recently lost her leg in a land mine accident, and the money would go toward purchasing an artificial leg for her.
After the exchange, “Ah Chim Hai”— Korean for “Flame of the Morning” — accompanied Pedersen back to his base. Although he was taken by the horse’s demeanor in competition, that wasn’t the only reason Pedersen thought to bring the mare back. Shells for the 1st Battalion’s recoilless rifle weighed almost 25 pounds each. Pedersen’s men could carry three or perhaps four at a time, but he expected that Ah Chim Hai, once trained, could carry six or more shells at once.
Of course, Ah Chim Hai would need a Marine-tough name to commemorate her assimilation into the regiment, and that moniker was an easy choice. The soldiers applied the same nickname to their new member as they had to the platoon’s main weapon: Reckless. The 75mm recoilless rifle first showed up on battlefields during World War II. It took three or four men to carry the hulking weapon, and when fired, its blast was so loud as to give away its triggerman’s position. You took a chance using the thing—it was a reckless choice. Reckless the horse, however, demonstrated a different definition of the term. Over and over again, Reckless put her own instincts of self-preservation aside and proved she was as hard-core as any battle-tested Marine.
On the Front Lines
Pedersen’s men were already in the midst of combat, so there was little time to assimilate Reckless to the din of battle and incredible boom of the recoilless rifle. Platoon Sgt. Joseph Latham, a young Marine who had experience with horses, was charged with putting Reckless through her paces. He saw first to lodging, building a bunker and small fenced pasture where Reckless could graze. Latham also brought in a supply of barley, sorghum, hay, rice straw and the essential salt block for the horse’s provisions. But, it wasn’t long before Reckless betrayed her palate’s true desires. She soon became renowned about the camp for her insatiable appetite, chowing down treats like beer, scrambled eggs with pancakes and coffee, chocolate bars and pretty much anything offered to her.
In the short time allowed, Latham taught Reckless how to jump into a Jeep trailer, take cover in gunfire and, most important, carry the ammunition harness loaded with essential shells. Her training was tested under the toughest conditions during the three-day Battle of Outpost Vegas. This was where Reckless would first be exposed to the massive blast of the recoilless rifle. Andrew Geer, author of the 1955 book Reckless: Pride of the Marines, describes her reaction:
“Wham-whoosh! The hills bellowed and rocketed with the roar. Behind the [recoilless rifle] spurted a flame of dust. Though weighted down with six shells, Reckless left the ground with all four feet…her eyes went white. ‘Take it easy, Reckless,’ Coleman, a Marine, soothed. Wham-whoosh! Reckless went into the air again, but not quite so far. She snorted and shook her head to stop the ringing in her ears. Wham-whoosh! She shook as the concussive blast of air struck her, but she did not rear. She stood closer to Coleman, trembling slightly, but the white was gone from her eyes.”
The mare had been spooked, but quickly returned her focus to the task at hand. At first, Marines guided her along the route between ammunition stockpile and the frontline trenches. Later, as the gunfire became heavier, Reckless would make the trip more than 50 times unaided. She brought fresh shells in and wounded soldiers out, and even provided cover to some men left exposed on the battlefield.
Reckless proved herself again and again during the Battle of Outpost Vegas. On one harrowing day, Pedersen and his men reckoned Reckless had carried more than 380 shells totaling some 9,000 pounds, and had traveled a distance of approximately 35 miles. The mare was wounded by shrapnel twice, but never flagged on the battlefield.
During the year that followed, Reckless served alongside many more Marines, providing ammunition support and stringing miles of telephone wire, which proved essential for troop communications throughout the war. In November 1954, Reckless finally got leave.
A Legacy of Valor
After billeting for several years with the Pedersen family, Reckless was relocated in 1960 to Camp Pendleton in California. There, she was promoted twice to the prestigious rank of Staff Sgt. Reckless was awarded two Purple Hearts, a Good Conduct Medal, the Presidential Unit Citation with star, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal and Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation.
During her eight years at Camp Pendleton, Reckless bore three colts and one filly: Fearless, born in 1957; Dauntless, born in 1959; and Chesty, born in 1964. Her fourth foal died shortly after birth.
Staff Sgt. Reckless succumbed to old age in 1968 and was buried with full military honors at Camp Pendleton. Today, she is remembered for her unwavering fidelity to her fellow Marines and the easy way she earned the affection of nearly every soldier who served with her.
Fans of this remarkable horse are currently working to erect a memorial in her honor. Take time this Memorial Day to learn more about those efforts at www.sgtreckless.com.
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