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Korean War History: Reckless, the Little Mare That Became a Marine War Horse

Reckless and Recoilless Rifle

Reckless standing next to a 75mm recoilless rifle.
Reckless standing next to a 75mm recoilless rifle. | Source

Wanted: A Marine Pack Horse

In October 1952, Marine Lieutenant Eric Pedersen went to Seoul, the capital of South Korea, to buy a pack animal to carry ammunition for his recoilless rifle platoon. He ended up at the Seoul Racetrack where he bought a small four-year-old mare named “Morning Flame” for $250 out of his own pocket. Pedersen renamed her “Reckless”, a contraction of “recoilless” and hauled her off in a trailer back to the 75mm Recoilless Rifle Platoon of the 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. Reckless would end up a much-decorated Marine Sergeant, beloved by the entire Marine Corps and a recipient of the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross or the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Korean Stalemate

By 1952, the Korean War had devolved into a bloody stalemate where captured terrain was used as bargaining chips in the endless armistice negotiations between the UN Command and China. Both sides had dug in, roughly along the 38th Parallel, fortifying their lines in a manner reminiscent of the Western Front in the First World War, in contrast to the fluid battle lines that had encompassed the entire Korean peninsula during the first year of the war. This was Reckless' new world.

With Her Trainer

Reckless with her trainer, US Marine Sergeant Joseph Latham (c. 1952)
Reckless with her trainer, US Marine Sergeant Joseph Latham (c. 1952) | Source

Reckless' Training and a Glimmer of Something Special

Gunnery Sergeant Joseph Latham became her trainer and taught her some basics: how to avoid getting tangled up in barbed wire, how to step over communication lines, to lie down or kneel on command and find shelter when someone shouted “incoming!”. In addition to hauling supplies and ammunition, she learned to string wire played out from reels on her pack and could lay as much telephone wire as twelve men. If she trusted you, she would do as she was told. Reckless also displayed a talent for learning routes between the front lines and supply depots. Astonishingly, after being led only a few times, she was able to then find her way back and forth all by herself. She was outfitted with a pack saddle which allowed her to carry up to eight 24-pound recoilless rounds (almost 200 pounds) up and down the steep, rocky hills.

Under Fire

Reckless under fire in Korea.
Reckless under fire in Korea. | Source

First Combat and a Hearty Appetite

The first time Reckless heard the recoilless rifle fire in a minor skirmish, she reared up and leapt into the air, despite being loaded down with six recoilless rounds. As she stood shaking, her handler managed to calm her down. The next time it fired, she snorted nervously. By the time the mission was nearly over, she eyed the firing weapon with curiosity while trying to eat a helmet liner.

Reckless had such a gentle disposition that the Marines allowed her to come and go through the camp. On cold nights, she might even enter their tents and lie down with them by the tent stove. However, if she felt she was being neglected, she would push her way into a group of Marines until they gave her the attention she deserved. Reckless could not be left alone around food. She had an enormous appetite and loved scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, beer, Coca-Cola, bacon, toast, pancakes and coffee-- in short, she ate almost anything edible and then some. The episode of her eating the helmet liner was not unique-- she once ate her horse blanket as well as assorted hats and $30 worth of poker chips. These antics seemed to endear her to the men, though they did try to restrict her to no more than two Cokes a day.

Month after month Reckless performed her duties, ate everything she could find and continued to earn the affection of her Marine Regiment.

Battle of Vegas Hill

Map of the front line in Korea as of July 1953. Blue circle is the approximate site of the Battle of Vegas Hill (which was part of the Battle of the Nevada Cities) in March 1953.
Map of the front line in Korea as of July 1953. Blue circle is the approximate site of the Battle of Vegas Hill (which was part of the Battle of the Nevada Cities) in March 1953. | Source

Her Heroic Actions During the Battle of Vegas Hill

Her sternest test, however, came in March 1953. The Marines were holding three hills 25 miles north of Seoul which the Chinese wanted very badly for the armistice negotiations. For five days, starting on March 26, the Chinese attacked and the outnumbered Marines counterattacked during the Battle of Vegas Hill. Artillery and mortar bombardments were fierce on both sides and ammunition supply was critical. Restless began her lone trek down the hill-- the steep trails were 45-degrees in some places-- and across the open rice paddies below to the supply depot where her pack was loaded with up to eight recoilless rounds. Then she turned around and retraced her steps. In some places she was in full view of the Chinese, but she plodded on. After delivering her cargo, she returned for another load. Sometimes, she carried wounded Marines down to safety and then carried another load of ammunition back to her platoon.

Reckless' Awards and Decorations

Reckless' awards and decorations include the Purple Heart with 1 star, the Navy Presidential Unit Citation with one star, the Navy Unit Commendation, the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Service Medal with 3 bronze stars, the Korean Presidential Unit Citation, the United Nations Korea Medal and the French Fourragere.

In 2016, she was also awarded the Dickin Medal.

Inspiring Her Marines

In a single day, Restless made 51 round trips, many times under fire. During the battle, Marines said their morale was lifted as this small horse struggled, all alone, to keep them supplied. Marine Harold Wadley reminisced “As long as I live, I will never forget that image of Reckless against the skyline, her silhouette in the flare lights. It was just unbelievable, in all that intense fire, in the middle of this chaos.” She shielded several Marines who were trying to get to the front lines. Restless covered more than 35 miles under fire delivering 386 75mm recoilless rounds (more than four-and-a-half tons of ammunition) and was wounded twice by shrapnel just above her left eye and her left flank. She would later be awarded two Purple Hearts.

Promotion to Sergeant, 1955

Sergeant Reckless in her red and gold horse blanket at Camp Pendleton, California (c. 1955)
Sergeant Reckless in her red and gold horse blanket at Camp Pendleton, California (c. 1955) | Source

Promotions and Stateside

Restless survived the Battle of Vegas Hill and, in recognition of her conduct during the battle, the Marines promoted her to corporal. The Korean War ground to a halt four months later after an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953 (though no peace treaty was ever signed). General Randolph Pate, commander of the 1st Marine Division, promoted Reckless to sergeant on April 10, 1954. News of the little mare reached the States and a popular campaign urged the Marines to bring her stateside and, on November 10, Lieutenant Pedersen, who had originally bought Reckless, led her off the ship onto American soil. She was a guest at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball that evening, where she ate cake and then the floral decorations.

Promotion to Staff Sergeant, 1959

Sergeant Reckless' promotion to Marine Staff Sergeant in 1959 at Camp Pendleton, California. General Randolph M. C. Pate, Commandant of the Marine Corps tacks staff sergeant chevrons on her blanket.
Sergeant Reckless' promotion to Marine Staff Sergeant in 1959 at Camp Pendleton, California. General Randolph M. C. Pate, Commandant of the Marine Corps tacks staff sergeant chevrons on her blanket. | Source

Finally, a Quiet Life and Continuing Honors

After staying with the Pedersens for a while, Sgt. Reckless was moved to Camp Pendleton, where she lived out the rest of her life. On August 31, 1959, General Pate, who had become Commandant of the entire Marine Corps, promoted Reckless to Marine Staff Sergeant with a 19-gun salute and a parade of 1700 men who had served with her. During her years at Pendleton, she gave birth to four foals. Sadly, Reckless injured herself on a barbed wire fence and, while being treated, died under sedation on May 13, 1968.

On July 26, 2013, a full-size bronze statue of Reckless was dedicated at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. In the statue's base is a lock of her tail hair. A similar statue was dedicated on October 26, 2016 at Camp Pendleton.

On July 28, 2016, Restless was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal which honors the bravest animals for “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving... with any branch of the Armed Forces”.

Statue of Reckless, Dedicated July 26, 2013

Visitors view the full-size bronze statue of Korean War Horse Staff Sgt. Reckless at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle, Va., July 26, 2013. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos, was in attendance.
Visitors view the full-size bronze statue of Korean War Horse Staff Sgt. Reckless at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle, Va., July 26, 2013. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos, was in attendance. | Source

The Story of Sgt Reckless

© 2016 David Hunt

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Comments 6 comments

Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin 5 weeks ago from Oklahoma

A very special animal!

It is amazing what sort of relationships can be formed.

Wonderful read!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 5 weeks ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks, Larry. It makes me wonder how she managed to keep going, back and forth, with nobody leading her, doing her job and all the while not comprehending the meaning of the bullets and shrapnel and horrendous explosions all around her despite her wounds. I have to admit to getting a lump in my throat reading that Marine's reminiscence.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 5 weeks ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

Heartening tale, David. A lot of horses and mules taken to Flanders and France in WWI ended up as dog food because the Army didn't want the expense of bringing them back again. A lot were put up for auction, some commandeered by the Germans when they overran our lines and died of exhaustion pulling heavy guns uphill - ever see the film 'War Horse'? Then there was Warrior, a cavalry horse taken by his owner, one of the military commanders, and survived cavalry charges against German machine guns. He retired back to the Isle of Wight where he died in the 1920s.

Nice tale, well put with interesting images. No maps? (Would be interesting to see the area of ops, where it was in Korea).


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 5 weeks ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Much appreciated, Alan. Doh! I knew I forgot something. I meant to have a map showing where the battle took place. I'll see what I can dig up. By the way, Reckless made her television debut on Art Linkletter's House Party. Ed Sullivan wanted her on his show (creatively called The Ed Sullivan Show), a very well-known program that aired across America every Sunday evening, but bad weather scuttled the cross-country trip.


Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 5 weeks ago from San Diego California

Beautiful story, superbly written. We never give animals enough credit, and you have certainly done this horse justice.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 5 weeks ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Many thanks, Mel. We can't even imagine what goes through their minds in battle, but to show such bravery when they have no comprehension of the hell they are in is heart-rending. Per Alan's suggestion, I have added a map showing the approximate location of the Battle of Vegas Hill.

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    UnnamedHarald profile image

    David Hunt (UnnamedHarald)559 Followers
    138 Articles

    My passion for Twentieth Century history and current events has lasted over 50 years. I try to make history readable and interesting.



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