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A War Horse Earns Her Sergeant’s Stripes: 1953

Published: January 14, 2012

When armored tanks first appeared on the battlefield in World War One, military planners expected the horse would be retired from combat. Motorized vehicles, they assumed, would move all their soldiers and weapons. Yet the horse remained in combat throughout World War II— partly because of a shortage of motor vehicles and partly because horses weren’t stopped by deep snow, mud, and steep hills that were impassible to vehicles.

The War Horse, Model 2011: U.S. Special Forces on horseback in Afghanistan.

The horse was also conscripted during the Korean War. A war horse named Reckless served the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Marines on the Bunker Hill-Panmunjom line with such distinction that she earned the rank of sergeant.

Her story, written for the Post by Col. Andy Geer U.S.M.C.R., began when a Marine raiding force was nearly cut off by Chinese troops as it fought its way back into Allied lines. To cover the incoming marines, the battalion created a ‘fire curtain’ using recoilless rifles — called “Reckless Rifles.”

Ammunition carriers ran over hills and across paddies in an exhausting race against time and space. It was a killing job, man-packing the 75-mm. artillery shells to the firing positions. The fire of the recoilless weapons was slowing to an intermittent cough when the last of the raiders married up with the main body.

The battle convinced 2d Lt. Eric Pedersen a horse was required to supply his portable artillery pieces… The next day, though suffering from leg, hip and face wounds, Pedersen hooked a trailer to his jeep and took the rough road south.

His destination was a race track in Seoul, where all racing had been canceled for the duration of the war. There he met breeders eager to sell the horses they could no longer race. Pedersen found a promising young Mongolian mare and paid $250 of his own money for her. Her name had been ‘Flame of the Morning,’ but the Marines soon rechristened her ‘Reckless.’

T/Sgt. Joseph Latham put the recruit through ” hoof ” camp. Long hours were spent in the hills, teaching the little sorrel to become accustomed to a friendly firing and not to bolt when the recoilless rifles back-blasted their horrendous pathway of destruction.

Latham taught her how to cross over communication and barbed wire and to move into a tent or bunker without invitation. Although the marines had built her an open-faced bunker, Reckless roamed the camp, and when it began to rain she walked into the nearest tent. Upon her appearance, a marine would say, “Here’s Reckless,” while the rest simply pulled up their legs or shifted a sleeping bag or two to make room.

By the end of her training, Reckless was routinely carrying ten rounds of 75mm shells: 220 pounds in all. Then, in July, the Chinese launched an all-out attack on four Marine outposts.

The savagery of the battle for the so-called Nevada complex had never been equaled in Marine Corps history.

A 75 mm. recoilless rifle in use during the Korean War.

Reno [had been] lost with all hands aboard. Vegas was lost with heavy casualties. Elko and Carson held tenuously.

Orders came from higher command to recapture Vegas. The second battalion, 5th Marines, was ordered in for the counter-attack, with Reckless and her rifles in close support.

The fury of the battle reached such heights that veterans of the first and middle wars are unable to compare it with previous engagements. Enemy in-coming artillery and mortar shells were judged to be at the rate of 500 rounds a minute.

Losses were staggering. Capt. John Melvin’s D Company of the second battalion (over 600 men) was shot away from a full complement to sixteen men in less than two hours. E Company of the same battalion suffered nearly as badly.

It was under these brutal conditions that the Marine’s war horse showed her indomitable spirit, following her orders without supervision or even guidance.

To supply the guns that were supporting the assault units, the little sorrel had to carry

Reckless and her combat trainer, Sgt. Joseph Latham.

her load of 75-mm. shells across a paddy and into the hills. The distance to the firing positions of the rifles was over 1800 yards. Each yard was passage through a shower of explosives. The final climb to the firing positions was at a nearly forty-five-degree angle.

Because of the steepness of the climb, Latham loaded her with only six rounds.

On the first few trips Latham or Pfc. Gary Craig or Monroe Coleman — particular friends of hers— led her from to the front lines. After the fourth or fifth trip she returned from the forward position to the dump alone.

Upon being loaded, she took off across the paddy without order or direction. Thereafter she marched the fiery gauntlet alone.

Fifty-one times Reckless delivered her load of explosives. All three weapons were kept in action; one fired so fast the barrel crystallized.

Vegas was retaken and held against murderous counterattacks. The violence of battle ebbed, Vegas was secure (until Turkish forces from the U.N.) relieved the marines.

When the fighing was over the battalion’s gratitude toward Reckless was only exceeded by their pride their war horse.

When the 5th Marines held a regimental parade honoring the heroes of the Vegas battle, Reckless passed in review with her unit. She had become a celebrated marine. Generals and colonels came to call on her; newspapermen interviewed her and she appeared on television.

None of this, however, can be said to have affected the distance between her ears. She was content to do her job, live on marine chow and, of a hot day, have a beer before turning in.

The battalion was still on the front line when the Korean cease-fire was signed. The entire unit, plus its war horse, was assembled for a final parade before returning state-side.

At a ceremony as formal as could be arranged on a wind-swept Korean field, Reckless

Reckless welcomed at the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. Lt. Eric Pedersen is shown on right.

was cited for her bravery. Maj. Gen. Randolph Pate, division commander, pinned sergeant’s chevrons to her shiny new red-and-gold silk blanket. It was Sergeant Reckless now.

Her farewell citation said, “Disregard for her own safety and conduct under fire were an inspiration to the troops and in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service. Reckless’ attention and devotion to duty make 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.”

The Marines refused to leave Reckless behind in Korea. Thanks to considerable string-pulling, favor-cashing, and public support stirred by Reckless’ story in the Post, she was eventually brought to California. She spent the rest of her life as the 1st Marine Division’s mascot at Camp Pendelton. In 1957, the Post offered this one final postscript to the Reckless’ story.

Combat experience is the best preparation for motherhood: Reckless and Fearless in 1957.

Last month Andy Geer got a phone call from Camp Pendleton, California, where Reckless had been pastured with other horses, announcing that the Sergeant, who is lady, had that day foaled a son, named Fearless.

Go to www.sgtreckless.com to learn more about this remarkable war horse, and how you can help build her a memorial monument.

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  • DarrellC

    I had never heard of Sgt. Reckless until recently. As a veteran and a passionate horse lover and steward (to ten in fact). This beautiful, incredible and magical soul touches me on the deepest level. She is/was living testimony to the ‘heart’ of a mare! The boys are awesome in their own right BUT my heart and soul has been captivated by mares. IMO, there is nothing on this earth that can compare to what they are capable of IF loved and treated as spiritual ‘equals’. When my time comes I will beg to be graced to tend her in the stables across the Rainbow Bridge…

    ~”I respect a horse. We relate; and so when I seek companionship, a really meaningful relationship, I look for a horse.” – from ”Split Infinity” by Piers Anthony~

  • JustineG

    Bravo! Such a charming story with a true heroine. Thanks to the Marines who saw Reckless as a partner in their fight and treated her with the respect she clearly earned. This is more evidence that real men don’t treat animals as lesser creatures.

    Too bad the BLM Wild Horse & Burro program isn’t run by Marines like 2d Lt. Eric Pedersen, T/Sgt. Joseph Latham, Pfc. Gary Craig, Pfc. Monroe Coleman, Maj. Gen. Randolph Pate, and countless other Marines who value horses and their service to us throughout history.

  • Ima Ryma

    Sergeant Reckless, U.S. Marine,
    Served during the Korean War,
    Earned her stripes going ‘twixt and ‘tween
    The front line and the ammo store,
    Getting ammo, then going back
    To fellow Marines to reload,
    And hold their line in the attack.
    Best in a Marine, Reckless showed.
    After the cease fire, Reckless went
    Back to U.S. Camp Pendleton,
    Where the rest of her life was spent
    With Marines and Fearless, her son.

    For Sergeant Reckless, Semper Fi
    From this true war horse does apply.

  • Diane Miller

    This was such a sweet story and inspiring and uplifting. These days we don’t have enough of any of those things.Animals of all kinds will always be our best friends.