Veterans Day is upon us—the day set aside to remember those who have served in our country’s military. When I was trying to decide how to approach today’s blog post, I had my usual brainstorming session. (Yeah, that’s pretty dangerous territory.) Of course, there have been many great military heroes who would meet my criteria of being a true story of the American West. But how many of those would tie in with my great affection for horses? That’s when I knew who the subject of this Veterans Day blog post had to be none other than the remarkable Sergeant Reckless!
A Korean War veteran (and a horse!), Sergeant Reckless was named one of America’s 100 Greatest Heroes by Time Magazine, in a 1997 special collector’s edition. Yes, she was right up there with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa. Yet, few people today know about this great American hero. Let’s see if we can change that.
The $250 Investment
Reckless wasn’t born a sergeant. She wasn’t even born a U.S. citizen, but she was to become one of the greatest war heroes in U.S. history. Reckless was part Mongolian and part Thoroughbred and originally belonged to a Korean stable boy. The stable boy’s older sister had lost a leg in a land mine accident and he selflessly sold his horse to pay for her prosthetic leg. In 1952, Lt. Eric Pederson purchased the horse for $250.00 of his own money. At the time, Lt. Pederson had no way of knowing that his investment would pay off in such a monumental way.
Reckless was purchased for the purpose of carrying ammunition to the front lines for the 77mm Recoilless Rifle Platoon of the 5th Marine Regiment. She even got her name from the Recoilless. Eventually, Recoilless was changed to Reckless after the platoon’s nickname, “Reckless Rifles.” It was soon apparent that Reckless was no ordinary packhorse and that she was far from reckless in her behavior.
Taking Horse Training to a New Level
For a horse to carry supplies and ammunition, during combat is impressive. For a horse to evacuate the wounded is noble. For a horse to learn how to do all of those things without the benefit of a handler is so monumentally extraordinary that I had to look in Roget’s Thesaurus just to discover that I couldn’t come up with anything more fitting than “monumentally extraordinary!” It only took a couple of trips for Reckless to memorize each supply route. And, somehow, she was able to locate the injured men and take them to receive medical treatment without any direction from anyone.
Reckless was taught to lie down when under fire and how to avoid becoming snared by barbed wire. And, she showed a good deal of horse sense by learning to run for a bunker when she heard, “INCOMING!”
All in a Day’s Work
One day, in March of 1953, Reckless made fifty-one solo trips to resupply the units on the front line, at the Battle of Panmunjom-Vegas (also known as the Battle of Outpost Vegas). Throughout the course of that day, she covered a total distance of more than thirty-five miles and hauled over 9000 pounds of ammunition! That’s not even taking into consideration the number of wounded she carried down the mountain to safety. With every trip up the mountain to deliver arms, she’d bring down wounded soldiers. That’s thirty-five miles, up and down mountains, with enemy fire coming in at a rate of five hundred rounds per minute!
The very idea of a riderless horse voluntarily walking into open combat makes me gasp. During the three-day Battle of Panmunjom-Vegas, Reckless was wounded twice. Both times, she was hit by shrapnel. One hit was above the eye and the other was on her left flank. Yet, she continued her trips. She even shielded four marines who were attempting to make their way to the front lines. For her valor, Reckless was promoted to Corporal! Following the war, she was awarded two Purple Hearts, a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal and a Korean Service Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation with bronze star, and other honors.
But Reckless didn’t let rank go to her head! When not facing combat conditions, she proved useful for stringing telephone wire and packing other supplies. It is said that Reckless could string as much telephone wire as twelve men!
She Ate Like a Horse
Her platoon didn’t just love her for her acts of valor. They loved her because she was just plain lovable! It’s not difficult to imagine how much comfort and entertainment she must have provided for a bunch of war-weary, homesick Marines.
Reckless was allowed to freely roam the camp, which led to some interesting situations. She made herself right at home. If she was cold, she slept in any tent of her choosing. If she was hungry, she ate. She ate like a horse, and yet, not like any horse you’ve ever known! She loved a breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs and a cup of Joe! It’s hard to believe she wasn’t born in the U.S! She was also fond of Hershey bars, cake, beer and Coca Cola, although the platoon medic did advise that she not be given more than two bottles of Coke a day. Moderation is important, even for war heroes!
If she felt she was being ignored…Well, let’s just say it was best to not ignore Sergeant Reckless. She was known to chow down on blankets, helmet liners, hats and poker chips, when she felt she wasn’t receiving enough attention. She was not a woman to be trifled with!
When the Korean War ended, Sergeant Reckless went stateside, to Camp Pendleton. On November 10, 1954, Reckless took her first steps on the soil of the country she had served so well. She was home. Her arrival coincided with the Marine Corps Birthday Ball, which she attended. Always a lady, Reckless rode an elevator, ate some cake and then polished off the flower arrangements!
In 1954 and 1955, Reckless was featured in editions of The Saturday Evening Post. In 1955, she was the subject of the book, Reckless: Pride of the Marines. She made public appearances and even appeared on Art Linkletter’s “House Party” television show. Had it not been for an ill-timed typhoon, she would have appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
While at Camp Pendleton, Reckless received two promotions, one to sergeant and, in 1959, to staff sergeant. Her promotion to Staff Sergeant included a nineteen-gun salute from General Randolph Pate, who presided over the ceremony. There was also a parade of 1,700 troops, from Reckless’ old outfit!
At Camp Pendleton, Reckless produced four foals, three of which survived. On November 10, 1960, Reckless was retired from full-time military service, with full military honors. According to Marine documents, Reckless was provided with room and board, in lieu of retirement pay.
Reckless passed away in May of 1968. She was believed to have been nineteen or twenty years old. A plaque honoring her remains at Camp Pendleton. A statue of Reckless was unveiled in Semper Fidelis Memorial Park at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, on July 26, 2013. That was one day before the 60th anniversary of the Korean War.
And so, as we observe Veterans Day, let us not forget about the most decorated horse in U.S. military history. Semper Fi, Reckless. Semper Fi.
Watch this video of the beloved Reckless, as told by someone who knew her well!
Happy Trails, y’all!