Originally published Jan. 3, 2012 in The Coast News. Story by Lillian Cox (Lede updated to commemorate 50th anniversary by Jordan P. Ingram)
CAMP PENDLETON — One of the greatest animal stories in American military history recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Real-life warhorse Staff Sgt. Reckless served courageously during the Korean War hauling loads of valuable ammunition across minefields and under heavy artillery fire to Camp Pendleton’s 5th Marine Regiment on the front lines of the Battle of Outpost Vegas.
Reckless was the only horse in U.S. history promoted to the rank of sergeant.
Adding to the legend is the fact that Reckless was a lady, a petite racehorse whose given name was “Flame of the Morning.”
In October 1952, 2nd Lt. Eric Pedersen bought “Flame” for $250 from a boy at a Korean racetrack who needed the money to buy an artificial leg for his sister who had stepped on a land mine.
“(Pederson) wanted to increase the firepower of his Recoilless Rifle Platoon and he needed an animal to pack 75-mm shells over the rugged Korean hills,” said Marine Lt. Col. Andrew Geer, who commanded the 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment of the 1st Division.
Flame’s name was changed to Reckless, a nickname for “recoilless” rifles. Despite her tiny stature, she displayed unflinching determination as a munitions carrier in combat, including the bloody Battle of Vegas.
“Marines, young and old, who were there can tell you of Reckless,” Geer wrote in “The Saturday Evening Post” on April 17, 1954. “Fifty-one times she marched through the fiery gantlet of the Red barrage — and she saved the day for the Leathernecks.” She did this 51 times.
Reckless also carried wounded marines back to base.
After the truce was signed in July 1953, most of Reckless’ buddies returned home.
Bob Rogers, a former Navy corpsman, was among those who remained.
“A lieutenant, myself and others were in a circle talking,” Rogers said. “Reckless came up behind one fellow and nuzzled the back of his neck. It scared the guy, and he cussed Reckless, calling her a blanking ‘nag.’ The lieutenant sternly let him know Reckless was a hero and had done more for the Marine Corps than he ever would. And since Reckless outranked him, any further verbal abuse would be cause for disciplinary action.
Rogers added, “I had the honor of being in formation when Cpl. Reckless was promoted to sergeant.”
In 1954, war buddies and the American people, who learned about Reckless from the Geer’s Post article, rallied to bring her “home” to the United States.
Pacific Transport Line graciously agreed to transport Reckless via ship to San Francisco. A hero’s welcome awaited her that included the national press, Gov. Goodwin Knight and friends from the battlefield who never forgot her.
“It is claimed that horses have no memory and quickly forget past associations,” wrote Geer in the Post article.
“Obviously these so-called authorities do not know Reckless. She recognized us immediately and gave voice to her joy at seeing us again. It had been 18 months since she had seen Pedersen, but she strained against the stall gate to lean her head into his hand. The same greeting was extended to all of us.”
After posing for photographs, she was taken to a reception in the theater of the Marines’ Memorial Club. Later, she stepped into an elevator for the first time and rode 10 floors to the banquet hall where she was guest of honor at a Marine Corps anniversary celebration.
“With Pedersen and (Elmer) Lively as escorts, she trooped into the dining room to the thunderous applause of 400 marines and their ladies,” Geer wrote. “While being introduced, she spied a two-foot-high anniversary cake and helped herself before anyone could stop her.” Reckless also grazed on rose and carnation centerpieces.
When the festivities were over, Reckless traveled south to Vista, Calif., where she was the guest of Pederson and his wife, Kate, on their ranch.
In preparation for her transfer to Camp Pendleton, Geer wrote the Commandant of the Marine Corps in Washington, D.C.:
“The undersigned is in hearty agreement that Reckless should be stationed at Camp Pendleton . . . It should be kept in mind, however, that this is no ordinary horse and she should have special care and attention . . . It is suggested her court be in the vicinity of the Commanding General’s quarters and properly marked with appropriate sign, so that all will know this to be the home of Sergeant Reckless, Pride of the Marines.
“… Her shoes should be removed and she should be allowed to go barefoot for a period of six weeks,” Geer continued. “At that time, her feet should be trimmed and new shoes fitted. Only the most knowing and patient horseshoer should be employed. Sergeant Reckless is extremely proud of her feet and will not stand for inexpert attention. Several Korean horseshoers will painfully attest to this statement.”
The memo continued, “During the extreme heat of Korea, when potable water was scarce or non-existent, Reckless came to know and like certain liquids other than water. She is fond of coca cola and milk. Under the stress of battle she has been known to drink beer.”
Five years after arriving at Camp Pendleton, Reckless was promoted in a ceremony to staff sergeant. She died in 1968 and was survived by three offspring: Fearless, Dauntless and Chesty (named after Lt. Gen. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller).
During her military career, Staff Sgt. Reckless earned 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 and a Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, all of which she proudly wore on her scarlet and gold blanket.
In 1955, Geer published the book, “Reckless, Pride of the Marines.” Videos of Sergeant Reckless, including one with her foal, Fearless, can be viewed at http://bit.ly/uf7rDl.