“Reckless” only horse to be named a Marine, with honors

Toni Stinson
for Tri-State Livestock News
Marines load the little mare, Reckless, with 75mm rounds that she would famously carry under fire to embattled Marines during the Battle for Outpost Vegas during the Korean War. Photo courtesy of the Camp Pendleton Archives

A monument to an unremembered war hero from the “Forgotten War” recently brought hundreds of horse lovers and Marines together to honor Staff Sergeant Reckless, the only horse to earn the title of United States Marine. The little Mongolian mare is credited with saving pinned down Marines on the front lines of the Korean War in 1953. She was commemorated with a life-sized bronze memorial at Camp Pendleton, California where she was laid to rest in 1968.

In the 1950s, SSgt Reckless was as popular and well-known as Rin Tin Tin and Lassie. She had faded from recent memory until her story was revived by author and screen writer, Robin Hutton, in her 2014 book, “Sgt Reckless, America’s War Horse.”

At the time, Hutton was working on another project when she was consumed by writer’s block and went to her bookshelf for inspiration. Hutton found a short story about Reckless and her curiosity was piqued.

“After reading her story, I searched the internet, but she had virtually vanished from the pages of history. I made it my mission to bring Reckless back to life,” Hutton said.

The Little Horse That Could

In October of 1952, the Marines of 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment were dug in along the Main Line of Resistance (MLR), an area located between the Chinese forces to the north and the South Korean capital of Seoul to the south. The brutal cold of the Korean winter approached.

Marine First Lieutenant Eric Pederson took stock of his men’s mission to defend several remote Korean outposts with big weaponry. It required the Marines to strap the large 75mm rounds on their backs and claw their way to the top of mountain grades too steep for motor transport. Even the biggest Marines in Pederson’s platoon could only carry a few of the 24-pound rounds at a time with their battle gear. Something had to be done and quick. The Marines needed a better way—a horse.

Pederson, who grew up on ranches in Wyoming and Arizona, knew good horse flesh when he saw it. Traveling to a Korean racetrack, Pederson found what he was looking for in a small Mongolian mare barely 13.1 hands.

The little sorrel mare, known as “Ah Chim Hai” or “Sun of the Morning,” was owned by a young Korean boy, who sold her to Pederson to buy a prosthetic leg for his injured sister. The boy’s loss was the Marine Corps’ gain. 1st Lt Pederson purchased the pint-sized mare with $250 of his own money and took her back to the Marines of 1st Battalion/5th Marines.

The Marines renamed the mare “Reckless” for their Recoilless Rifle Platoon and trained her to haul load after load of ammunition up the steep mountainside. The Marines even taught her to crawl under the battlefield barbed wire and to lie flat when she came under enemy fire.

Reckless soon became inseparable from her Marines, even bedding down with them on cold nights and eating scrambled eggs and Hershey bars they gave her from their own plates. Known to steal hats or eat the Marines’ poker chips when she wanted attention, Reckless was more to her Marines than a beast of burden. She was one of them.

More Than a Horse, She’s a Marine

Reckless’ defining moment came during the Battle of Outpost Vegas in March of 1953. Chinese enemy forces relentlessly bombed and fired upon the Marines at the Nevada Complex, a series of outposts named for Nevada cities—Vegas, Reno and Carson.

Over five days of battle, the exploding bombs and ordinance left a wasteland of scorched earth and casualties. Despite incredible danger, Reckless stayed true to her Marines as they fought to hold their ground. She faithfully trekked through the deadly “no man’s land” of rice paddies and up the steep 45-degree mountain trails that led to the fortified guns where the Marines waited under heavy fire.

“It’s difficult to describe the elation and the boost in morale that little white-faced mare gave Marines as she outfoxed the enemy bringing vitally needed ammunition up the mountain,” Sergeant Major James E. Bobbitt recalled.

Despite being wounded twice by enemy fire, Reckless never stopped. In one day alone, and unaccompanied up the mountainside, Reckless carried 386 rounds of ammunition—over 9,000 pounds—and walked over 35 miles in 51 trips from the base camp to the gun bunkers.

On her return trips, Reckless carried the wounded down the mountain to safety and was reloaded with ammo to go back up to the big guns. Reckless even provided a shield for several pinned down Marines trying to make their way up to the front line. Nothing stopped her.

Though the Marines victoriously held their ground, the battle would claim the lives of 170 Marines and wound another 700. Reckless’ contribution to the Marines’ victory is undeniable.

Once the Korean War ended, Reckless was eventually reunited with her unit, the 1/5 at Camp Pendleton near San Diego.

For her heroic actions during the Battle for Outpost Vegas, Reckless was promoted to staff sergeant by the Commandant of the Marine Corps and was a highly-decorated Marine with two Purple Hearts, a Good Conduct Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation with star, a National Defense Service Medal, a Korean Service Medal, a United Nations Service Medal, a Navy Unit Commendation, and Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation.

Reckless spent her final days as a retired Marine at Camp Pendleton and would eventually have three colts; Fearless, Dauntless and Chesty. She was buried in 1968 with full military honors at the base’s stables.

A Hero Remembered

It took three years for Hutton, with the help of hundreds of donors and the Camp Pendleton Historical Society, to raise the $185,000 for the monument to Staff Sergeant Reckless at Camp Pendleton. A twin memorial to Reckless was also installed at the Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia in 2013.

The 12-foot bronze memorial created by artist Jocelyn Russell depicts Reckless climbing the mountain loaded with ammunition on her way to her Marines.

Hutton has written a screenplay about SSgt Reckless and said it is currently being considered for a movie by a first-rate production company.

“In honoring Reckless, we continue to honor the brave Marines that served with her,” Hutton said.