***You can watch the animated video version of this article here***
By the northern autumn of 1952, the Korean War had been raging for almost 3 years, with South Korea and the United Nations Command going toe to toe with North Korea and China. While the first years of the conflict had been a seesawing affair, it had now settled into a stalemate, with little territory changing hands despite a series of attritional battles.
Peace negotiations had begun in the so-called Truce Village of Panmunjom, but they had made little headway and fighting raged all the while.
It was during this period of stalemate that, Lieutenant Eric Pederson of the 1st Marine Division, United States Marine Corps, walked into the Seoul racetrack with the intention of buying a horse.
Pederson commanded a Recoilless Rifle Platoon. Despite its name, the signature weapon of the unit was an anti-tank artillery piece that fired a 75mm projectile. It was a powerful weapon and its crews were given the nickname ‘Reckless Riflemen’ both as a contraction of ‘recoilless’ and as reference to the weapon’s notorious blowback.
The problem for Pederson was that the weapon’s shells weighed 10.8 kg (24 pounds) each and the mountainous terrain of the battlefront meant that the Marines charged with carrying the ammunition quickly became exhausted.
What he needed was a packhorse.
He had already sent a letter to his wife in California asking her to mail a packsaddle. Now all he needed was the animal itself. Hence his arrival at the racetrack.
Many of the animals in the stables were in poor condition, with the years of war taking their toll on the level of care. There was one, however, that caught Pederson’s eye: a little red filly of good Mongolian stock with a white socks and a thick blaze on her head. She was in fine condition as well.
The horse’s owner, a young boy named Kim Huk Moon, was reluctant to part with his best friend, who he had named Flame. However, Pederson offered US $250 for the animal, money that actually came out of his own pocket. For Kim, this was enough to buy a prosthetic leg for his sister, who had stepped on landmine.
With no small amount of sadness, Kim said goodbye to his companion and handed Flame’s reins to the American soldier. Little did she know it, but the filly’s life was about to change forever.
As for the Marines…. well, they had no idea what they were in for either.
To transport the horse, Pederson had borrowed a trailer, which turned out to be a little small, to say the least. Nonetheless, he was able to coax Flame onto the trailer and they made their way back to base. Though understandably shaky on the trailer at first, it would not be long until Flame became an expert trailer-rider, mounting and dismounting with practiced ease.
Of course, in order to fulfill the role earmarked for her, she would need training. To that end, Pederson put the horse in the care of Platoon Sergeant Joe Latham, who would become her dearest friend.
Now, every horse needs a good name. When Pederson asked his men what they should call her, someone shouted Reckless. Immediately everyone agreed and they all came forward to welcome Reckless to the platoon. Little did they know just how apt that name would be.
Reckless settled quickly into her new life and within a few days she was no longer tied to her bunker but was instead free to roam in the camp.
She explored every corner of her new home, frequently popping into the Marines’ tents to see what they were doing. Perhaps her favourite place was the galley, which she quickly discovered was an excellent source of food. Her diet included horse feed, apples, carrots and oats, but her favourite appeared to be the chocolate Hershey’s kisses.
Indeed, it soon became apparent that Reckless had a propensity to eat just about anything. Whether or not it was actually edible was irrelevant. Anything that came within range of her mouth was fair game.
If Reckless seemed inclined to stay in one of the tents past ‘lights out’, the men would rearrange the sleeping bags to make room for her to sleep.
As for her training, Latham was put Reckless through what he called ‘hoof camp’, as opposed to boot camp.
He taught her to recognize barbed wire and to wait for handler to guide her through or around the obstacle.
He taught her to seek cover in the event that the platoon came under enemy fire. If there was no cover, Latham trained Reckless to lie down. He even taught her to kneel and crawl, in case she needed to get into a shallow bunker.
Reckless took to all this training like a duck to water and her comrades quickly became enamoured with her. Word spread rapidly and soon Marines from other units were dropping in to meet the newest recruit.
Even Major General Edwin Pollock, commanding officer of the entire 1st Marine Division, went out of his way to make an appearance and see the horse for himself. Apparently, he liked what he saw.
Once the packsaddle arrived, hoof camp began in earnest. After testing various configurations, Pederson and Latham decided six rounds of ammunition was the ideal load. Reckless didn’t appear to be unduly burdened and they were easy enough to secure.
In extreme circumstances, she could be configured to carry eight to ten, but Pederson ruled this was only a last resort. For comparison, the average bipedal Marine could carry a maximum of three rounds.
After a particularly tough training run in the hills, Latham poured a bottle of coca cola into his helmet on a whim and offered it to Reckless. She guzzled it and asked for more.
By this point, all that was left was for Reckless to experience the concussive blast of a Recoilless Rifle. The weapon system was usually fired at a rate of four to five times a minute, so it was essential that she become accustomed to the boom.
According to Coleman, the firs time the Recoilless Rifle fired in her vicinity she jumped straight into the air, all four hooves leaving the ground.
With Coleman soothing her, the second time she jumped again, though not as high. Afterwards she started investigating what was making the noise.
The fifth time, Reckless barely batted an eye and started eating the liner from a discarded helmet.
During that operation, she made five trips between the supply depot and the gun. At one point, they came under enemy artillery fire and though she was visibly sweating, Reckless appeared otherwise unfazed.
The day was a success. Back at camp, the Marines were having a beer. Naturally, Reckless demanded one too. Just as she had with the coke, she downed it and asked for more.
Later that night, she decided she didn’t want to sleep in her bunker, so she made her way to Latham’s tent. Latham wiped off the rain and rearranged the tent so she could sleep next to the heater boiler. This was the first of many nights spent in her comrades’ tents, especially once the freezing Korean winter set in.
By that point, there was no doubt. Reckless was a Marine.
Many military units on deployment adopt animals as mascots. It’s a simple and effective means of improving morale amongst the soldiers. Dogs were the most common.
Reckless was so much more than that. While she was undoubtedly the pride of her regiment and the Marines doted on her, she also served a practical function. When the bullets started flying and the shells started falling, she was there alongside her beloved comrades.
Indeed, so beloved was she that whenever her platoon came under enemy artillery fire, the Marines would shed their protective flak jackets and use them to cover Reckless, rendering themselves more vulnerable just to keep her safe.
She also fulfilled practical roles when the regiment was taken off the front line. When it came to laying down telephone cables, Reckless could make more progress in a day than ten of her bipedal comrades.
During further operations, it became apparent that Reckless only needed to be shown a supply route once. After that, she could manage on her own.
In February, the Marines launched a raid on Chinese positions. During this operation, Reckless made 24 trips between the supply depot and the firing sites, carrying six rounds per trip. Pederson estimated she had travelled at least 20 miles and had a total carry weight of around 1,587 kg (3500 pounds).
Naturally, the very appreciative Marines gave her a thorough rub down later that night and, after a hearty meal, Pederson covered her with a blanket. She was asleep before Pederson had even left.
For her actions during this raid, she was promoted to Corporal. Military mascots are often given honorary ranks. This was not one of those occasions. Reckless was recognized as an actual Marine and was thus incorporated into the rank structure.
Word of her exploits spread throughout the United Nations forces. One Australian soldier even gave her one of their distinctive and prized slouch hats. For her part, Reckless apparently hated it and it was eventually eaten.
All of the qualities that made Reckless a special horse were truly put to the test during the Battle for Vegas Outpost in March 1953, in what was to be her finest hour.
In the evening on 26 March, thousands of Chinese troops began assaulting defensive positions occupied by the 1st Marine Division.
One such position was Outpost Vegas, which was located atop a hill.
As the Marines prepared a counterattack in the early morning of the 27th, Reckless was tasked with supplying the various recoilless rifle emplacements that were supporting the American advance.
To reach these emplacements, Reckless would be required to traverse a steep slope and, given the urgent situation, Reckless was loaded up with 8 rounds instead of the usual 6. The total weight was 192 pounds.
The fighting lasted the entire day. Under intense enemy artillery fire, Reckless made solo trip after solo trip between the supply depot and gun emplacements. By midday, she was visibly tired. Latham gave her a half hour break, let her have what little water he could get his hands on and fed her some candy. After a quick wipe down, she resumed her relentless solo march along the trail.
By mid-afternoon, her head had dropped and her pace slowed to a crawl. Eventually, she had to rest three or four times just to make it up the slope. She was utterly exhausted.
At some point, a piece of shrapnel nicked her above the ear. Later, she suffered another minor wound on her flank.
But she didn’t stop. She just kept going.
By the time the fighting ceased around nightfall on the 27th, Reckless was out on her feet. The Marines coaxed her back to the camp, where she demolished a pile of hay and settled down for a well-earned sleep.
Over the course of the day, Reckless had made 51 solo trips between the depot and the guns. She carried 386 rounds, more than 4,000 kg (9,000 pounds) of explosives. Pederson calculated that she had travelled in excess of 35 miles.
She had maintained such a steady supply of ammunition that the barrel one of the recoilless rifles had turned white-hot and had become sufficiently deformed so as to render it unusable.
After a long night’s rest, Reckless continued to do supply runs until the battle came to an end on the 30th, though luckily she was not required to repeat the heroics of the 27th.
After the battle, the entire battered 1st Marine Division was transferred off the front line for the first time in many months.
Fortunately, the remainder of the war was far less exciting for Reckless. In July 1953, an armistice was signed and the fighting ceased, though it should be noted that a peace treaty was never signed and so, technically, North and South Korea are still at war.
Anyway, in October 1953 many of her Marines were promoted or transferred back to US. Though it was a particularly sad goodbye for Latham and Pederson, Reckless did not suffer for their absence.
All of the Marines in her regiment and even the entire division were incredibly invested in her care. It was a running joke that the surest way to find yourself in lock up was for Lieutenant General Randolph Pate to find Reckless’ bunker in anything less than pristine condition during one of his regular visits to see the little red horse.
In November 1953, it was decided by Marine command that Reckless was in need of a promotion and this wasn’t going to be some sort of nondescript affair.
The Marines went the whole nine yards. Since she obviously could not wear a uniform, her comrades organized for a tailor to make her a special silk saddle blanket.
A review stand was set up and General Pate and Colonel Elby Martin, commanding officer of the 5th Marine Regiment, were in attendance. With the company in full parade, Reckless’ citation was read aloud, stating in part:
“Reckless’ attention and devotion to duty makes her well qualified for promotion to the rank of sergeant. Her absolute dependability while on missions under fire contributed materially to the success of many battles…”
General Pate then pinned the stripes to Reckless’ new blanket. She was officially a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps.
Word soon spread of the equine Marine Sergeant. Newspaper articles were written about her all of the US and she became something of a celebrity.
As the US began winding down its troop numbers in Korea in 1954, talk began of taking Reckless back to America when the division was rotated home.
It is an unfortunate reality that animals of war, be they mascot or warhorse, have in the past often been left behind when a unit returns from overseas. The Marines of the 1st Division were determined that would not be the case with Reckless.
In October 1954, Reckless finally began the long journey across the Pacific Ocean to her new home.
Everything going according to plan, she would even arrive in time for the United States Marine Corps Birthday Ball, one of the most important events on the Marine Corps calendar and one at which she was to be a guest of honour.
However, once the ship arrived in San Francisco, Reckless’ entry into the US was not an especially smooth affair. The US Department of Agriculture would not allow her to disembark without undergoing blood tests to make sure she was not carrying diseases, such as Glanders or Dourine.
Apparently, when informed that dourine is an equine sexually transmitted disease, many of the Marines that had served at her side in Korea were furious at what they considered a slight on her honour.
In addition, the Marines who accompanied her made the rookie error of leaving the parade saddle blanket within her reach. By the time they realized what was happening, she had eaten all but a few scraps.
Pederson, who had travelled to meet her on the docks, rushed to organise a replacement blanket.
When she finally set foot on US soil, Reckless was greeted by her old friends, including Pederson and many of the original Marines she had served with. Latham was unfortunately unable to make it.
Much to their relief, the replacement blanket was ready just in time to head to the Birthday Ball.
In addition to her former comrades, there were also about a dozen photographers waiting for her.
When she arrived in the banquet hall, having ridden an elevator to get there, Reckless was the centre of attention, just as she liked it. By all accounts, she entered the room as if she owned it. She stood at the head table and ate cake and guzzled coca cola, with cameras flashing all the while. In typical Reckless style, when there was no more cake to had, she started in on the floral decorations.
In other words, she had the time of her life.
A few days later, Reckless was on her way to her new home at Camp Pendleton, California, the home of the 5th Marine Regiment.
The Marine Corps had agreed, complete with a full written contract, that Reckless would be treated as VIP for the rest of her life. They were also careful to ensure she was never exploited for commercial reasons.
During her time at Pendleton, Reckless had three foals that survived to adulthood; Fearless, Dauntless and Chesty, the latter being named after Chesty Puller, the most decorated Marine in US history.
In 1959, Reckless was formally promoted to Staff Sergeant. There to present her new rank was her old friend Randolph Pate, who was by that time Commandant of the Marine Corps. The ceremony was complete with a 19-gun salute and a full parade of 1,700 Marines from her combat unit. She officially retired from the Marine Corps a year later and was provided free quarters and feed in lieu of retirement pay.
At the end of her military career, a full account of her medals is as follows:
- United Nations Korean Service Medal
- United States Korean Service Medal
- Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal
- National Defense Service Medal
- Navy Unit Commendation
- 2 Purple Hearts
- Presidential Unit Citation
- Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation
After a peaceful retirement, Reckless died in 1968 at the estimated age of 19 or 20.
In 2013, a statue of Reckless was unveiled at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. A second statue was dedicated at Camp Pendleton in 2016, a fitting tribute to the little red horse who became a United States Marine.
- Geer, Andrew. Reckless: Pride of the Marines. E.P Dutton & Co, 1955.
- Hutton, Robin. Sgt. Reckless: America’s War Horse. Regnery Publishing, 2015.