“The spirit of her loneliness and her loyalty, in spite of the danger, was something else to behold. Hurting. Determined. And alone. That’s the image I have imprinted in my head and heart forever.”
This is a quote from Sergeant Harold Wadley, who served in battle alongside Sergeant Reckless. It can be viewed on the plaque at the base of a statue by sculptor Jocelyn Russell of a little chestnut mare named Reckless.
We tend to think of heroes as being larger than life, we also tend to think of them as human but roughly 63 years ago, during the Korean War, in March of 1953, during the Battle for Outpost Vegas, a small chestnut mare standing roughly 14 hands (56 inches, 142 cm) and weighing 900 (410 kg) made 51 solo trips to resupply multiple front line units. You can see from the photos just how small she was.
She carried a total of 386 recoilless rounds (over 9,000 lbs.), carrying 4 to 8, 24lb. shells on each trip while covering over 35 miles that day. The battle lasted 3 days and she was wounded twice, once by shrapnel, over her left eye and another time on her left
I don’t think horses were utilized as much as they had been in the army’s past but in October 1952 Lieutenant Eric Pedersen received permission to purchase a horse for his platoon. Based in mountainous terrain, Pedersen wanted a pack animal capable of carrying more than 2 of the 24lb. shells needed to arm the Recoilless rifles used by his unit. Purchased from a Korean stable boy, for $250, Ah Chim Hai (Morning Flame or Flame-of-the-Morning) was renamed Reckless, as a contraction of the name of the Recoilless rifle (and possibly a nod to the daredevil attitude of its users).
From everything I’ve read, Reckless was a bit of a character, which no doubt endeared her to her Marine buddies, I hesitate to call them handlers because by all accounts she was considered as much a part of the unit as any man there. She had such a gentle disposition that she was allowed to roam about and would wander into the men’s tents, often sleeping next to the camp stove of her primary trainer and the person she was closest to, Gunnery Sergeant, Joseph Latham.
Latham, pictured with her, here, helped teach her battlefield survival skills so she wouldn’t become entangled in barbed wire and how to lie down when under fire. She even learned how to run for a bunker when she heard the cry, "Incoming!” Apparently, she had a voracious appetite and would eat anything that wasn’t nailed down, including her horse blanket and $30 worth of Latham’s winning poker chips. She especially liked scrambled eggs, beer and coca cola and would nudge her buddies when she wanted more. The unit’s medic at the time oversaw her health and injuries and limited her to 2 cola’s per day but this was about her only dietary restriction.
Her baptism of fire came at a place called Changdan. Loaded down with 6 shells (about 144lbs.), all four feet came off the ground the first time one of the Recoilless rifles was fired. The second time the gun was fired she snorted and by the end of the mission that day was calm enough to try and eat a helmet liner. I don’t know how these guys got so lucky, but Reckless only needed to be shown a new delivery route a couple of times before she could make the trips on her own. When she wasn’t carrying ammunition, or rescuing the wounded, Reckless helped string telephone wire, and could string as much as 12 men, on foot.
Reckless was promoted to sergeant several months after the war ended and again to staff sergeant on August 31, 1959 during a full ceremony that included a 19-gun salute and a 1,700-man parade made up of Marines from her wartime unit. For her exemplary service to the Marine Corps, Reckless was awarded 2 Purple Hearts, a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation with bronze star, the National Defense Service Medal, a Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Korea Medal, a Navy Unit Commendation, and a Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation. She wore these awards on her horse blanket, plus a French Fourragere that the 5th Marines earned in World War 1.
After a little wrangling with the Customs Bureau and the United States Department of Agriculture, and a campaign by American supporters, Staff Sergeant Reckless was brought to the United States. The Marines were always protective of her and refused to let her be exploited by commercial interests. However, she did produce four foals; colts, Fearless, Dauntless and Chesty (named for Marine Corps lieutenant general, Chesty Puller, one of the few Marines ever allowed to ride her) and an unnamed filly that died shortly after birth. Reckless retired from active service with full military honors at Camp Pendleton on November 10, 1960. In lieu of retirement pay, she was provided free quarters and feed. I wonder if that included scrambled eggs and a cola.
I read somewhere that after she retired, nothing heavier than a blanket was allowed to be put on her back. Even so, she developed arthritis as she aged and died while being treated for a fall on May 13, 1968 when she was about 20 years old. There is a plaque and photo commemorating her at the Camp Pendleton stables and the statue in Semper Fidelis Memorial Park at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. I’ve included a link for images of the statue. It's pretty awesome and I admit to getting a bit choked up when I viewed it.
In 1997, LIFE magazine listed Reckless as one of America’s 100 all-time heroes. I don’t have any trouble believing that. So this month, while we celebrate our veterans, I will raise a glass and remember Staff Sergeant Reckless and her exploits. I wish I could have known her.
Until next month,