Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Very Special Brave Lady

When I sent an email to my friends about my new blog, one of the women I ride with replied with this message: “If you’re writing about women who’ve been to war, you’d better include this brave lady.”  So I clicked on the link she'd added, and was soon engrossed in the life of a gal I knew nothing about, a Marine Staff Sergeant whose courage in battle has slipped from the story of America in the 20th century, even though the lady in question was featured in Life magazine’s, “Celebrating Our Heroes,” edition.  Listed alongside Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, & Martin Luther King is a small Mongolian mare named Reckless, who became the greatest war heroine horse in American history. She was a lovely lady who won the hearts of her fellow marines with her courage and quirky ways.  Here’s her story ….

Reckless was recruited into the Marine Corps in October of 1952 by Lieutenant Eric Pedersen. Pedersen was the commanding officer of the Recoilless Rifle Platoon, Antitank Company, Fifth Marine Regiment. Given the long distance endured by ammunition carriers as they took their precious cargo to the front lines, and the threat of enemy engagement along the way, Lt. Pedersen recognized the value of having a horse to help transport ammunition for his platoon's recoilless rifles.  After receiving permission from regimental commander, Colonel Eustace P. Smoak, Pedersen and two other Marines set off for the Seoul racetrack. It was there that Pedersen first laid his eyes on the little red racehorse who would later distinguish herself in battle and become a decorated combat veteran.  The Marine lieutenant bought her for $250 - and it was his own money.

During the first few nights with the Marines, Reckless, as they named her, was tied in her bunker. This didn't last long because she was soon given free rein to roam around. She visited the Marines in their tents and even spent some restless nights with them. They would just move their sleeping bags to one side and make room for their new recruit. On very cold nights, Sgt Latham, her designated carer/trainer would invite her into his tent to sleep standing up next to the stove. Sometimes she'd even lie down and stretch out.  Her early days with the Marine Corps were filled with Sgt Latham putting his new recruit through training. He taught her how to get in and out of a jeep trailer - Reckless had to be quite nimble since the trailer was only 36in by 72in. "She'd jump in the trailer and go in catty-cornered, and I'd tie her down," recalled the Marine.

Latham taught Reckless how to take cover while on the front lines. When tapped on the front leg, she would lay down. The training proved invaluable on many occasions when Reckless was making journey after journey on her own. Latham trained the mare to go straight to a bunker when incoming rounds hit behind the lines. "We'd get incoming there too, and they'd [the enemy] lay it on you. If Reckless was in the back, she'd go to a bunker. All I had to do was yell, "Incoming, incoming!' and she'd go." During training, Latham offered Reckless her first Coke. She liked the fizzy drink so much, she nudged Latham and asked for more.  He consulted naval hospital corpsman George Mitchell, who advised she not be given more than a couple of bottles a day – though he wasn’t a veterinarian, "Doc" Mitchell became the go-to guy when issues of Reckless' health came up.

 There’s are a few YouTube clips that tell the tale of Reckless. I was amazed at the pluck and intelligence of this little lady, who would be sent on her way to the front line, often alone with her load of ammunition. She never failed to find her guys, and always came home to her base.  Here’s what Life magazine had to say about Reckless:
During the Battle for Outpost Vegas in March 1953, on one day alone, Reckless made 51 trips from the Ammunition Supply Point to the firing sites, most of the time on her own. She carried 386 rounds of ammo on her back (over 9,000 lbs) and walked over 35 miles through open rice paddies and up steep mountains with enemy fire coming in at the rate of 500 rounds per minute. Wounded twice, she never stopped. She shielded Marines going up to the line, and helped carry the wounded to safety. They’d take the wounded off her back, load her up with ammunition, and send her on her way up to the guns. There’s no telling how many lives she helped save.

Reckless was brought home to the United States after the Korean War, and first stepped onto American soil on November 10th 1954. There are wonderful stories of her homecoming, including her presence as an honored guest at parties and receptions (one on the 10th floor of the Marines Memorial Club in San Francisco).  It was at Camp Pendleton, where she spent the rest of her days, that she was promoted to Staff Sergeant, with a march-past of 1700 marines – and her sons, Fearless and Dauntless in attendance.

The sorrel mare was retired on Nov. 10, 1960, with full military honors.  An article in the San Diego Union stated that General David M. Shoup, then-Commandant of the Marine Corps, had issued this order: "SSgt Reckless will be provided quarters and messing at the Camp Pendleton Stables in lieu of retired pay.”  Reckless' decorations included two Purple Hearts, Good Conduct Medal, Presidential Unit Citation with star, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, and Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, all of which she wore on her scarlet and gold blanket – and if I know horses, she would have understood exactly how impressive she looked in that blanket.
On May 13, 1968, the Marine Corps lost a dear friend when Reckless was injured and had to be put to sleep.  Reports put her age at 19 or 20 when she was laid to rest.
Surprisingly, there is no official memorial in Washington DC to SSgt Reckless, who could teach some of us a lesson or two about bravery.  I say “surprisingly” because I had assumed that the Life magazine citation would have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars – but that didn’t happen.  I know there’s the argument that money would be better spent on our returning heroes, and that’s fair comment – but there’s something about the selfless contribution of animals in a time of war that touches hearts and brings attention to the fact that the suffering caused by conflict is as deep as it is broad. 
On Christmas Day, Steven Spielberg’s epic film, The War Horse opens. I will be one of the first in line to watch the movie as soon as the theater doors are drawn back.  As a horse lover I have always been moved by the role played by horses in a time of war – I’ve read Michael Morpugo’s book that inspired both the stage play and Spielberg’s movie – and I know I will be in tears before the opening credits are up (I cried buckets when I saw the stage play in London).  In the Great War, Britain lost hundreds of thousands of horses; one report suggests some 500,000 went into battle and to their deaths, one for every two British soldiers killed.  In Germany, the Trakehner breed - an ideal cavalry horse - was almost wiped out by 1917.  The War Horse will draw attention – I hope – to the role of animals in wartime. And I hope very much that someone, somewhere – perhaps a TV celebrity known for an affinity with horses, or a movie star, or a much-read journalist – will give a mention to Reckless. It’s about time the long hoped-for memorial to Reckless was built in Washington DC.  America’s true war horse deserves nothing less.
For more information on SSgt. Reckless, go to: http://www.sgtreckless.com/Reckless/Welcome.html
To see her on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIo3ZfA9da0
For this post I have sourced information from various places, and in particular an article about Reckless written by Nancy Lee White Hoffman in 1992: http://www.mca-marines.org/leatherneck/sgt-reckless-combat-veteran
And if I knew how to embed those links, life would be made easier for you – apologies for my non-technical approach to imparting online information links.
Finally, here’s wishing you Happy Holidays, and many blessings in the year to come.

Next post:  Can’t resist it – more on Downton Abbey, and those women of the Great War.


  1. I'll be right there with you watching War Horse (just on the other side of the country)!

    In pondering Reckless' story, I think her most powerful testimony wasn't just her bravery in battle or intelligence, but perhaps the bond that was shared between she and the troops she served with. I would reckon that she probably supported more troops emotionally that she did physically.

    Wonderful story - thanks for sharing :)


  2. Natalie, there's no doubt that Reckless was good for the morale of those men - horses are so intuitive when it comes to understanding emotions, and being in the right place at the right time to give support. Thank you for visiting the blog and taking time to post a comment.

  3. What a wonderful story. I don't think I can bear to watch War Horse, though. I will cry through the whole thing.

    Thanks for the posting this!!

  4. Thanks for bringing that wonderful story to light, Jacqueline!

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