Reckless wasn’t just a horse. She was a Marine.
A hero horse who shed blood alongside U.S. Marines in the Korean War was honored with a statue at Camp Pendleton this week.
The mare known as Staff Sgt. Reckless was famous during the Korean War era, equal to Lassie or Rin Tin Tin. But her story has largely faded from popular memory.
A Los Angeles-area screenwriter is trying to revive it with a 2014 book and a now-successful campaign to erect a larger-than-life bronze likeness at Camp Pendleton, where Reckless lived out her retirement years.
“I thought, this is the greatest horse story I had never heard about,” said Robin Hutton, who wrote “Sgt. Reckless, America’s War Horse,” and led a three-year effort to raise funds for the Pendleton statue. She’s shopping the concept to movie studios, as well.
Hutton sees Reckless as a way to teach the history of the Korean conflict — often called the “forgotten war” — whose veterans are now dwindling in number.
A few dozen white-haired Marine survivors of Korea gathered at Pendleton on Wednesday to honor their comrade in arms, or, hooves.
“Horses and Marines are a lot alike,” said Harold Wadley, who served with Reckless and traveled to Wednesday’s ceremony from his home in Idaho.
“They both are herd animals requiring leadership,” Wadley said. “The main difference is that horses instinctively flee from danger, and Marines run toward it.”
It was an unlikely war story.
A young lieutenant with the 5th Marine Regiment received permission to buy a pack animal — maybe a mule, maybe a horse — to carry heavy ammunition to his Marines on the firing line in late 1952.
1st Lt. Eric Pedersen returned with a small Mongolian mare, bought for $250 at a race track from a South Korean youth who needed the money for his sister’s medical care.
Named Reckless, after the recoilless rifle platoon she was attached to, the horse proved her worth beyond price.
She learned to duck beneath barbed wire, lay flat if caught under fire on open ground, and run for her bunker when artillery or mortars were coming.
A horse without a herd, she bonded with those Marine grunts.
“Cold winter nights, you’d find her nestled among her Marines by the oil stove,” Wadley said.
Reckless’ main job was transporting shells for the 75 mm rifle, a big weapon more like today’s mortars. Each one weighed more than 20 pounds. The Marines tied four to six rounds to her back.
With a slap on the flank, she was off to the front line, often solo.
In March 1953, the enemy overran the company’s location, Outpost Vegas. During pitched battle, Reckless is credited with making 51 trips to resupply the guns.
She carried 386 rounds totaling more than 9,000 pounds and trekked over 35 miles up and down steep ridges. The horse also transported wounded Marines back from the front.
Wadley remembers the scene.
“It was like the sky was falling. … I didn’t have near enough stretchers,” he said.
Reckless didn’t shy from her mission. She knew where her Marines were.
“I looked back at the eastern skyline through all the smoke and could hardly believe my eyes,” Wadley recalled for the audience Wednesday.
“The silhouette of a heavily laden horse came in and out of view along the ridge. It was Reckless. All alone, scrambling in the torn earth to keep her footing.”
The mare was wounded twice, on the forehead and in the hindquarter, receiving the Purple Heart.
Wadley said he sees more than a horse carrying ammunition when he looks at the new statue, in front of the base’s Pacific Views Events Center.
“To me, she represents a whole lot more than herself. When I see her, I know that’s our 5th Marine Regiment, and all the guys we lost,” Wadley said after the ceremony.
“There are just a lot of ghosts.”
Michael Mason, a corporal during Korea, remembers lighter moments, too.
Reckless was as hardheaded as any Marine.
At 6 a.m. every morning, Reckless would stick her nose in his tent. His bunkmate was one of the unit’s cooks. The mare yanked at the blanket on the cook’s bed until he got up and fed her.
“We treated her as though she was another Marine. She was one of us,” Mason, who lives in Maryland, said after the ceremony. “After all, she outranked most of us.”
That kind of horse deserves a statue. Or two.
The first was erected in 2013 at the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Va.
The Camp Pendleton version — by the same artist, Jocelyn Russell — stands about 12 feet high. The cost was $185,000, mostly raised through donations to the Camp Pendleton Historical Society and Hutton’s Angels Without Wings nonprofit.
The U.S. military has a long record of using animals for their strength and superior senses.
The Marines have employed donkeys as pack animals as recently as the post-9/11 wars.
However, horses largely stopped being used in combat after World War II, according to Hutton — making Reckless an anomaly of history.
American troops continue to work with dogs for bomb detection, and even fighting.
Famous dogs in Marine Corps lore include Sgt. Soochow, a terrier mix who fought alongside the Marines in the Philippines during World War II. The Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 reportedly took a dog on that mission.
Reckless’ story almost didn’t have a happy ending, according to Hutton.
The mare stayed behind in Korea after the fighting ended — again a horse without a herd, now a Marine without her brothers.
It took an article in the Saturday Evening Post to generate enough public sentiment to bring her to the United States via civilian ship.
Eventually, Reckless was billeted at Camp Pendleton’s stables.
She lived a life full of carrots and parades.
The mare gave birth to three colts. They were named Fearless, Dauntless and Chesty–the last an homage to Marine Corps icon Chesty Puller, a fellow Korean War veteran.
Reckless died in May 1968. She was buried at the base stables with full military honors. Her obituary made the front page of the San Diego Union newspaper.
Her memorial plaque reads, “Reckless. Pride of the Marines.”