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Reckless: The Horse That Was a Marine

RecklessOne of America’s heroes in the Korean War was a horse that was a Marine. With no rider and no escort, the horse—called Reckless—carried munitions to American soldiers on the front line. On her return to the base (also alone), she brought with her the dead or wounded. She was a true hero.

How did the United States…and a horse that was a Marine…find itself in Korea?

The Story Behind the Fighting

Near the end of World War II, the Soviet Union invaded Korea, taking it from Japan. The U.S. feared that the Soviet Union would soon dominate the entire peninsula, so Americans quickly moved into southern Korea.

Rough map of South Korea; istockphoto.com

At war’s end, no country had the energy to work out what to do about Korea, so the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to temporarily divide the country along the 38th parallel.   The North became the Democratic People’s Republic and maintained a communist government. The South set up a democratic republic, calling itself the Republic of Korea. Both entities hoped to dominate the Peninsula one day.

But then in 1950, an act of aggression stirred the ire of the United Nations Security Council. The North Koreans crossed the parallel and marched toward Seoul in late June. President Harry Truman committed American forces to join the United Nations military effort. General Douglas MacArthur was commander.

By 1952, the fighting had accomplished little. Both sides were still entrenched along the 38th Parallel, still hoping to expand their territory.

That’s how Reckless found herself along the front lines in 1952.

A Horse and Trench Warfare

RecklessHorses had not been used in the military in an official capacity since World War I, but one the Marine commander in charge of the Recoilless Rifle Platoon saw a way where one might be helpful.

The border between North and South Korea, was through a mountainous area. For the most part, the men fought from trenches along the ridgeline, but the regiments needed to get into the front line trenches with weapons and ammunition. The terrain was treacherous, and their equipment was heavy.

An efficient weapon used at the time was the recoilless rifle, first introduced at the end of World War II. While fighting in the Korean War also involved more modern weapons, the 75 mm recoilless rifle was perfect for trench warfare. The rifle was deadly accurate, even when the target was 2-3 miles away.

But there were two challenges to using these guns. The rifles themselves were heavy—115 pounds each, and each shell weighed about 125 pounds. For men to get the equipment from the storage areas behind the front lines was very difficult work.

In addition, regiments using this weapon needed to stay on the move. The rifles emitted big puffs of smoke after firing. After 4-5 shots, any rifle platoon had to move to a new location.

Recoilless Rifle Platoon

Lieutenant Eric Pedersen was commander of the Recoilless Rifle Platoon along the border of North Korea. Pedersen’s grandparents owned a ranch in Wyoming, so he knew horses and had a solution for how to move these heavy shells. He wanted a pack animal.

He obtained the necessary permission, and on a day off, he and a companion drove to the former racetrack in Seoul, South Korea. The racetrack was used as an Army air strip, but the barns were still there along with a few horses.

Jejuma horses. istockphoto.com

Pedersen wandered through the barns, looking for the right horse. He noticed a young filly that looked strong and sturdy. She was sorel-color with a blaze of white on her face and three white-stockinged legs. He offered the boy with her $250.  He agreed to sell the horse he called Flame.

What type of horse was it? In her well-researched book, Janet Barrett identifies the horses that were raced in Korea at that time as Jeju horses from the Jeju island off South Korea. (“Jejuma” means “short enough to go under fruit trees.”) The average Jejuma horse stands about 44-48 inches (11-12 hands). They are stocky, sturdy animals that are known to be sure-footed and resilient. During the winter they grow very shaggy coats to protect against the cold temperatures in Korea.

Taking the Horse Back to Base

Lt. Pedersen did not have a horse trailer with him but brought a utility cart. It was about 6 feet square, with sides that were about 4 feet tall. There was no drop-down door for loading Flame, so they backed up to higher land so that Flame could be led up an incline and then step down into the cart. They then drove to the base with Blaze in full view.

When they arrived, the men hovered around to see why a horse was brought to camp. Pedersen explained that the horse was as a pack animal—no one was to ride her. He told them that horses could maneuver across the uneven terrain that led to the front lines. Anything Flame carried would ease the burden for the men.

After delegating the responsibility for the horse to his gunnery sergeant, Joe Latham, Pedersen said the men should decide what the horse should be called.

Someone immediately called out that any horse with the Recoilless Rifle Platoon should be named, “Reckless.” All agreed.

Training Reckless

While Reckless had lived by a noisy air strip, the first step in working with her was to let her acclimate. She needed to become accustomed to the sights, smells, and sounds of the battlefield and know what it was like to be near a recoilless rifle when it was fired.

Next, Joe Latham taught her about the hazards she would face. They worked on how she could maneuver through barbed wire and keep her eyes peeled for landmines.

Incoming Fire

Incoming fire was a constant danger even at the base camp. Latham taught Reckless that if he put his hand on her hoof, they should both crouch down. And if she heard men shouting, “incoming!” it was the same thing. Go down or if she was in her paddock, take shelter in her bunker.

Courtesy Department of Defense

Only a week or two after her arrival, the call of “incoming, incoming” was heard. Everyone took cover and when it was clear, the men looked around for Reckless. No one was with her at the time, and they feared she’d been hit. But then one of the men near her paddock saw a nose poking ever so slightly out of her bunker. All was well.

She soon had the run of the camp. She loved being with the men and visiting the mess halls. On cold nights she either slept by the big hot water tanks, or she found her way into one of the tents to join the men.

 The Packsaddle

The packsaddle Pedersen asked his wife to send was a cavalry pack saddle. Pads were held in place by straps that ran across the chest, around the rump, and under the belly.  It was designed to provide cushioning and support cargo without restricting the gait of the animal.

This is not Reckless; it’s an example of a packsaddle.

After Reckless became accustomed to the feel of the packsaddle, Latham experimented with adding shells. The shells were long and awkward (see photo). He started with a single shell and worked his way up so that Reckless could carry four or five.

Latham next needed to teach her the route between the ammunition depot and the ridgeline where the men were fighting.

Teaching Reckless the Route

To learn how Reckless was trained to travel her route unaccompanied, author Janet Barrett found a fellow who knew how Latham accomplished it. For several days, Joe Latham accompanied her from the supply depot to the ridgeline. Once Reckless reached the rifle location, she was given praise and a food treat. (Reckless loved to eat.) When she arrived back at the ammunition depot, she received more praise and another treat.

After that, Reckless could traverse the route on her own…carrying shells up to the front line and bringing down the dead or wounded. She always knew the men would be there to reward her.

By January 1953, just three months after having joined the platoon, Reckless was making regular pilgrimages to the front carrying shells. That month she was promoted to corporal.

Battle for Outpost Vegas

Command Museum, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego

The most brutal fighting occurred in March of 1953. Towns called the Nevada Cities (Vegas, Reno, and Carson), were along the 38th parallel and manned by US Marines.

When an attack from the North was launched on Vegas, the Recoilless Platoon was fully engaged. Throughout this time, Reckless traveled up and down, carrying shells up and wounded men back to base.

They stopped her for food and water and brief periods of rest, but like the men, she worked night and day. Reckless maneuvered across areas where shrapnel was falling, made her way through landmines, and traveled the treacherously narrow pathways above rice paddies.

During the 5-day battle, approximately 1000 Marines were killed. Reckless was injured twice, (once on the rump; another time she was grazed by a shard just above her eye.)  They patched her up and she went back to work.

Reckless’s Battle Record

Pedersen summed up her record during this time: Reckless made 51 trips to the rifle sites, traveling more than 35 miles. She carried 386 of the heavy shells —for a total of about 9000 pounds of explosives. On her return trip to the base, she carried the wounded and dead, never seeming to mind.

The soldiers quickly realized the labor she saved them and all acknowledged that there were times when a man might have been shot if Reckless had not been part of the platoon.

Reckless at Camp

If the men weren’t engaged in the front lines, then they were often stringing communication wire. Reckless also helped there. The men loaded the wheels of wires on her pack saddle, and she was perfectly happy to join the “stringing” teams.

Reckless was a Character

Most of the men took great comfort in having Reckless around. One of the men talked of being on night patrol: “She would trot up to you and you’d pet her a little bit, and sometimes she would walk along with you for awhile. She took you mind off everything else.”

RecklessLike every other Marine, Reckless liked to eat. She was fed her allotment of grain, but she had no problem demanding more. The men shared with her some of their mess hall food, their C-rations, and even their beer and whiskey with her.

She also snatched things she shouldn’t have if she felt she needed more attention.  Men lost their hats, their poker chips, and anything else that came in her path, and odds were good that she would eat them.

Author Janet Barrett tells a story of a night when “cherry pie” was listed on a blackboard that provided the dinner menu. But by dinnertime, there was a different—less desired—dessert listed.

In the afternoon, the cook left three large pans of cherry pie to cool on tables behind the mess tent. When the kitchen staff went out to get them, each one had a big bite taken out of the center. Everyone knew the culprit.

Camp Winding Down

As the men were preparing to return to the States, Sgt. John Meyers was assigned to take care of Reckless and got in the habit of bringing her pancakes every morning. On his day off, he neglected to find a substitute. No problem. Reckless located his tent, found him still in bed, and nipped at his arm so that he would get up. She needed her pancakes.

 Promoted Again

In April 1954, Reckless was promoted by one of her biggest fans, General Randolph McCall Pate, commander of the 1st Marine Division and the highest ranking Marine in Korea Pate promoted Reckless from Corporal to Sergeant, and Reckless received a red and gold blanket with the Marine insignia.

Marines Returning Home

When the Marines began leaving for home, Reckless was not included in the plans. The military felt that transporting her to the States was unnecessary, so they arranged to leave her behind.

But young writer Andrew Geer had served alongside Reckless, and he wrote her story for The Saturday Evening Post. (Geer is also the man who gathered initial stories to document Reckless’s past.)  After the article appeared, there was no leaving Reckless behind. The public clamored for her to be brought stateside.

Among those who read the article was Stan Coppel, an executive with the Pacific Transport Lines. His company operated ships that traveled from Japan to California. If the Marines could deliver Reckless to Yokohama, he would transport her to San Francisco at no charge.

A deal was made. Reckless arrived in Yokohama and boarded a ship for San Francisco. She would arrive just in time for a celebration of the Birthday of the Marines, an event at which she was to be honored.

Reckless and the Birthday Ball

Reckless hoping for flowers to go with her cake.

But Reckless had not enjoyed her voyage…she’d been sick and had taken comfort in eating her red and gold blanket.

Her old friend. Lt. Pedersen was assigned to meet her in San Francisco. When he saw she would not be wearing her blanket that displayed her honors, he worked quickly to find someone to make a new blanket where all pins and medals could be displayed.

That solved, Pedersen and Reckless attended the Birthday Ball, and she was even given some of the birthday cake. Reckless saw the event involved beautiful flowers, and decided she ought to eat them, too.

Then it was time for her to become accustomed to American life.

Quarantine?

The Department of Agriculture required that Reckless be quarantined for several months after arrival. Lt. Pedersen negotiated for her to be kept on her own in one of the pastures on his ranch.

After the quarantine, Reckless was transferred to the stables at Camp Pendleton (near San Diego) and served on active duty for six years.

She appeared at all ceremonial events on the base and accompanied the troops on some marches. If an outside organization wanted her to appear, they were asked to donate to the Fifth Marine Scholarship Fund.

Over time, she gave birth to four foals—three of whom lived. Fearless was sold when young. Chesty and Dauntless were used as riding horses at Pendleton.

Final Promotion

In 1959 at a ceremony before 3000 Marines and guests, Reckless received her final promotion. She was promoted to Staff Sergeant by General Pate who was by now commander of the Marine Corps. Following that event, she would retire.

Her list of military decorations is impressive: two Purple Hearts, a Good Conduct Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation with a star, a National Defense Service Medal, a Korean Service Medal, a United Nations Service Medal, a Navy Unit Commendation, and a Presidential citation from Republic of Korea. In addition, she was eligible to wear the French Fourragére (braided cord) military award that the 5th Marines earned in World War I.

Retirement for Reckless

In retirement, Reckless lived happily in the base stables. She remained popular among the Corps, and those who served in Korea with her often arrived with their families. They wanted them to meet the popular Marine.

When  she died in 1968, she was buried at Pendleton with full military honors. The plaque there reads: “Reckless, Pride of the Marines.”

Statues to Honor Reckless

The first statue in memory or Reckless was introduced in 2013, at the National Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico, Virginia. The sculpture was made by Jocelyn Russell who chose to depict Reckless making her way uphill with 4 shells strapped to her back.

A copy of this statue was created for Camp Pendleton and put in place in October of 2016. In May 2018, another statue was placed at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky.

These were all suitable ways to recognize a horse that lifted spirits as she labored to save lives. Semper Fi.

For another story about a hero in the Korean War, read about Pete Fernandez, an Ace Pilot.

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