Sgt Reckless: Combat Veteran
By Nancy Lee White Hoffman - Originally Published November 1992
Today, the subject of American women in combat is a controversial issue. In the 1950s it was almost unheard of.
But, during the Korean War there was at least one female who saw combat. She was a Marine named Sgt Reckless.
"I first saw this little lady. . .when the [First Marine] Division was in reserve for a brief period," wrote Lieutenant General Randolph McC. Pate, then-Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps. "I was surprised at her beauty and intelligence, and believe it or not, her esprit de corps. Like any other Marine, she was enjoying a bottle of beer with her comrades. She was constantly the center of attraction and was fully aware of her importance. If she failed to receive the attention she felt her due, she would deliberately walk into a group of Marines and, in effect, enter the conversation. It was obvious the Marines loved her."
That's because Sgt Reckless was no ordinary lady. In fact, she was a horse-a small, sorrel or chestnut-colored horse with a white blaze on her face and three white stocking feet.
Reckless was recruited into the Marine Corps in October of 1952 by Lieutenant Eric Pedersen. Pedersen was the commanding officer of the Recoilless Rifle Platoon, Antitank Company, Fifth Marine Regiment.
The recoilless rifle was introduced in World War II. An antitank weapon, it could be carried by three or four men and project a 75-mm. shell several thousand yards with precision. One drawback of the weapon was its terrific back blast, which made it impossible to conceal its firing position. This allowed for a quick counterbattery fire by the enemy. Rounds for the recoilless rifle weighed 24 pounds each. A Marine ammunition carrier could usually carry three to four rounds.
With the threat from the enemy as well as the long distance the ammunition carriers had to take their precious cargo, Lt Pedersen recognized the value of having a horse to help carry ammunition for his platoon's recoilless rifles.
After receiving permission from regimental commander Colonel Eustace P. Smoak, Pedersen and two other Marines set off for the Seoul racetrack. It was there that Pedersen first laid his eyes on the little red racehorse who would later distinguish herself in battle and become a decorated combat veteran.
Lt Pedersen used his own $250 to buy Reckless from a young Korean. Though the Korean loved the horse very much, he was desperate for some money to buy his wounded sister an artificial leg. So he sold his beloved "Flame" to the Marines. (The horse's Korean name Ah-Chim-Hai translated to "Flame of the Morning.")
The three Marines drove back to camp with Flame riding in a jeep trailer. Even though it was dark when the foursome arrived at the camp near Changdan, members of the RR Pit. gathered to meet the new recruit. That night she became "Reckless," after the reckless rifle nickname Marines have given the weapon. Lt Pedersen chose Private First Class Monroe Coleman to take care of her and to be her companion. Pedersen then gave Platoon Sergeant Joseph Latham the responsibility of putting her through boot or rather hoof camp. Both Marines as well as their platoon commander had prior experience with horses.
There was plenty to do over the next few days in order to make the platoon's new recruit comfortable. The platoon built a bunker and fenced in a small area for a pasture. Without any provisions for a horse, the platoon had done the best it could for Reckless' first meal, which consisted of a loaf of bread, and uncooked oatmeal. PltSgt Latham soon returned with a trailer full of barley, sorghum, hay and rice straw. He later found her a salt block.
Reckless enjoyed her horse fare, which sometimes included apples and carrots. But she also liked to supplement her diet with what the Marines were eating. She once strolled near the galley tent and ate some scrambled eggs that were offered to her. She then washed them down with coffee. On later occasions Reckless ate bacon and buttered toast with her scrambled eggs. "She loved scrambled eggs," recalled Latham, almost 40 years later. "She'd eat anything you'd give her."
Reckless also liked the taste of chocolate bars, hard candy, shredded wheat, peanut butter sandwiches and mashed potatoes. She drank beer and cola, and sometimes a little whiskey or bourbon. "Of course, too much of that stuff isn't good for horses," said Latham.
During the first few nights with the Marines, Reckless was tied in her bunker. This didn't last long as she was soon given free rein to roam around. She visited the Marines in their tents and even spent some restless nights with them. They would just move their sleeping bags to one side or the other and make room for their new friend. On very cold nights, Sgt Latham would invite her into his tent to sleep standing up next to the stove. Sometimes she'd even lie down and stretch out.
The days were filled with Sgt Latham putting his new recruit through recruit training. He taught her how to get in and out of a jeep trailer. Reckless had to be quite nimble since the trailer was only 36" by 72." "She'd jump in the trailer and go in catty-cornered, and I'd tie her down," recalled the retired Marine.
Latham taught Reckless how to take cover while on the front lines. When tapped on the front leg, she would know to hit the deck or get down. The training proved invaluable on many occasions. Latham also trained Reckless to head toward a bunker when incoming rounds hit behind the lines. "We'd get incoming there too, and they'd [the enemy] lay it on you. If Reckless was back in the back, she'd go to a bunker. All I had to do was yell, "Incoming, incoming!' and she'd go."
The training of Reckless continued, but was somewhat hindered until the arrival of a pack saddle. Even before the platoon had a horse, Lt Pedersen had written his wife, Katherine, in California asking her to send a pack saddle.
Thanks to Lt Pedersen's foresight and his wife's quick actions, it wasn't too long before the saddle for Reckless arrived. Reckless was becoming quite comfortable around her instructor Sgt Latham. He had gained her trust. It was now time to really go to work.
Reckless was to carry loads of six rounds. With adjustments to the saddle she could carry eight to 10, but Lt Pedersen was not in favor of her carrying a heavier load unless it was absolutely necessary. When the loaded pack was first placed on her back, she accepted it and set off for the hills with the Marines for more training.
It was after this training that Latham offered Reckless her first Coke. After drinking all the soda from his helmet, the young horse eagerly nudged Latham's arm for more of the "real thing." Before fulfilling her request, naval hospital corpsman George Mitchell would be consulted. He advised that she not be given more than a couple of bottles a day. Though not a veterinarian, "Doc" Mitchell became the one to consult when issues of Reckless' health came up.
Reckless had her first chance to prove to her platoon members just how much of a Marine she was when the platoon was next assigned a fire mission. Because the distance from Changdan to the firing site was 21/2 miles, vehicles transported a recoilless rifle, ammunition and the squad to the site. And with them went Reckless in her jeep trailer.
Upon arriving at the site, Sgt Ralph Sherman and his gun crew started the ascent up the hill with the heavy weapon. Reckless, led by PFC Coleman, eventually overtook them. Sherman and his crew were close behind. Coleman and Reckless dropped off their first load of ammo.
While Coleman and Reckless were on their way back with their second load, Sherman fired the weapon. A loud roar echoed through the hills. Reckless went straight up in the air. Even with the six shells she was carrying, she completely left the ground. When she came back down, she was trembling with fright. Coleman tried to soothe Reckless, but Sherman's weapon fired again. Reckless snorted. Coleman spoke to her again. Again the weapon fired, and again. By this time, Reckless was little fazed. It was time for Sherman and his gun crew to move to another firing position.
The tactics used by the recoilless rifle gun crew were to fire four or five times from one spot, then move to another spot, fire four or five times from there, and continue on in this fashion until the mission was completed. This was supposed to give the gun crew time to move to another position before the enemy located them from the back blast of the weapon and returned fire.
Reckless and Coleman continued to supply the gun crew with ammo at the various firing positions. By the last firing position, Reckless seemed to be calm. She was looking around for grass to eat. PltSgt Latham later spied her trying to eat an old helmet liner she'd found.
Reportedly Reckless was rewarded with a beer back at camp by Sgt Latham. She drank it all and asked for more. When she wanted something more to drink or eat, she would usually get his attention by nudging him or pinching his arm.
She spent that night in the staff NCO tent. After Latham rubbed her down and covered her with a dry blanket, she was fast asleep by the stove.
Winter soon arrived, bringing colder weather and snow. The 5th Marines was relieved for a brief period and moved into positions as the division reserve.
Although there wasn't any ammunition for Reckless to haul while behind the lines, there were other jobs for her to do. One was stringing communications wire. The reels of wire were fastened to her pack, paying out as she walked along. This turned out to be an ingenious idea. It was said that Reckless could string more telephone wire in a day than almost a dozen Marines. Reckless also carried grenades, small-arms ammunition, rations, sleeping bags, and even barbed wire, but her primary purpose was as a pack horse for the recoilless rifle ammo, explained Latham.
The 30 days that the regiment stayed in reserve went by quickly, but even so it was welcomed by the Marines as a time for some relaxation and recreation. On several occasions, a few of the Marines from the RR Plt. would get together with members of an Australian unit. Talk always seemed to get around to Reckless. During one evening get-together, one of the Australians presented his bush hat as a present for Reckless.
The Marines took the hat back to Reckless, who didn't seem too impressed by the Australian's gesture. Holes were cut out for her ears for a better fit, but she still wasn't anxious to be seen wearing the hat. One of Reckless' platoon members felt that it wasn't dignified enough for her. The platoon decided that she'd wear the hat only among them.
Reckless wore the hat on several occasions, but wasn't thrilled about doing so. One night she fixed it so she wouldn't have to wear the hat ever again. All that was left of the hat the next morning was the sweatband, a short piece of brim and about half the crown.
When those who remember Reckless say that she would eat anything, they're not exaggerating. During a poker game in Latham's tent one very cold night, Reckless, after inviting herself in, tried to snatch a pack of cigarettes off the makeshift playing table. Fortunately for her, they were grabbed just in time.
The poker chips were another story though. After Latham won several hands in a row, his stack of chips began to grow. Reckless, standing behind the sergeant, grew interested in the chips. She leaned over and grabbed a mouthful. Latham tried desperately to retrieve all the chips, but failed. It was estimated that Reckless ate $30 worth of chips that night.
Time in reserve was up, and the 5th Marines moved back to the line, relieving the 7th Marines. This time, Reckless and her regiment would move east to fight the enemy near Outposts East Berlin, Berlin, Vegas, Reno, Carson and Ava.
Col Lewis W. Walt (later Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps) was the new commander of the 5th Marines. Walt came up with the idea of a series of daylight raids against the Chinese. Major General Edwin A. Pollock, then commanding general of the division, agreed with his regimental commander and plans for the raids began.
"Raid Tex" was the first one to take place in January 1953. A platoon from "Dog" Company led by Lt Tom Bulger conducted the raid north of Outpost Berlin. Staff Sergeant John Lisenby and his gun section from the RR Plt. supported the raid, and Reckless hauled ammunition all day long.
Reckless went on "Raid Charlie" in February. Captain Dick Kurth's Fox Co. took the enemy on a hill mass known as Detroit. Again Lisenby's guns kept up an intense fire. Reckless made 24 trips while carrying six rounds each trip from the ammunition supply point (ASP) to the firing sites. Lt Pedersen estimated she traveled over 20 miles and carried a total of 3,500 pounds during the day. She returned to her pasture and bunker after dark with head hanging.
The lieutenant met Reckless at the bunker and fed her a bucket of warm bran mash. As she ate, the Marines, two on each side, gave her a thorough rubdown. When they finished, Pedersen covered her with a blanket. Before her friends left, she was sound asleep.
Not all days were that tough. Reckless spent many a day eating and resting in her pasture between missions.
However, the inactivity for Reckless didn't last too long. The Marines learned from a prisoner that a Chinese attack was planned against the 2d Army Division and the Marine lines. By midnight of March 26, Reno and Vegas were lost to the enemy. my. At 2:00 the next morning, Walt requested permission to withdraw all troops to the rear in order to reorganize and prepare an attack to retake the lost ground during daylight.
What Reckless did at the retaking of Vegas made her not only respected and loved by her platoon and the regiment, but by the whole 1stMarDiv. It was still dark when Coleman went to the pasture to get Reckless. He tried to calm her since she was nervous from the loud noise of all the enemy incoming fire. Coleman talked to her in a soothing voice as he led her to the ASP where Latham was waiting for them.
Reckless' pack was loaded with eight rounds-six smoke and two HE. Both Latham and Coleman went on the first few trips with Reckless, showing her the way from the ASP to the firing site and back again to the ASP, where she would pick up load after load. One section of the trail they took had an incline of 45-degrees with 250 feet of turning, twisting pathway before a resting place was even reached. Latham had taught Reckless "not to come in behind the guns, but to come in on the flanks."
Reckless worked alongside members of the squad who were packing three rounds per trip. As the day wore on, the Marines grew weary and she was making two trips to one Marine's. The gun crews continued to follow the established tactic of firing five rounds and moving to another site. The farthest position from the supply point was 700 yards and the nearest was 550. The terrain was rugged, but Reckless made the long trek in 20 minutes and the shorter one in 12.
After her 21st trip, Latham took off the pack and watered and fed her. He rubbed her down, carefully examining her legs and hooves. Reckless rested for a short while after her meal. When the loaded pack was replaced, she took to the trail without any urging. Reckless continued her trips throughout the day, sometimes making them with Coleman and other Marines and other times alone.
On one trip a piece of shrapnel cut her over the left eye and blood ran into the white blaze on her face. Lt Pedersen wiped off the blood and applied iodine to the cut. Later that day she was cut on her left flank. Neither wound prevented her from continuing her task.
By the afternoon her load was lightened to six rounds. She drank water from Latham's helmet, ate some grain, and replenished her energy supply with chocolate candy from his rations. Reckless and her Marine counterparts supplied Lisenby's section with ammunition so well that one gun grew hot and crystallized. Fortunately, this happened near dark, which prevented further shooting anyway.
Reckless made 51 trips from the ASP to the gun sites that day, carrying 386 rounds. More than 9,000 pounds of explosives! Lt Pedersen estimated that she had traveled more than 35 miles.
"Reckless was pretty smart. She was no dummy, but you had to show her where to go," said Latham. "We walked with her the first couple of times. If she got tired, she'd take a little break, and then she'd move on. Everyone was good to her. They'd talk to her and give her treats." The platoon sergeant kept an eye on her at all times, but she'd usually take to the trail by herself. "That was some hill," he recalled recently. "There were some tired boys when that was over." And there was one tired little horse as well.
Reckless was taken back to the bunker, fed and again given a good rubdown. She was covered with a blanket and given time to rest.
The next morning, she appeared a little lame, but she worked out of this condition and continued to take ammo to the firing sites.
After 72 hours of fighting, the Battle of Vegas had ended. After many months on the line, the 1stMarDiv was to leave it for a rest.
Reckless and her regiment crossed the Imjim River to Camp Casey. Shortly after arriving at the camp, Lt Pedersen received orders to a new duty station. Sgt Latham took up a collection among the men to pay back Pedersen the money he spent to buy Reckless, but the Lieutenant accepted only a portion of it. Latham and Pedersen both talked about how they hoped that Reckless would go Stateside when the war was over. Then they said goodbye to one another.
The regiment had spent only a few days at Camp Casey before being assigned to an amphibious exercise. There was no hesitation among the Marines about taking Reckless with them. "When the Navy saw a horse on the manifest, they liked to go wild," said Latham. The LST had won an award two years in a row for being the cleanest ship in the fleet.
Much to the dismay of the captain and his crew, Reckless ended up getting seasick on the voyage. She did not get off the ship to help haul ammo as planned because a storm had forced a change in plans for the exercise.
On the way back to Inchon, Reckless ran out of rations, so the two Marines who accompanied her on the return voyage fed her cabbage and oatmeal from the ship's galley. She became ill again. A small boat later brought hay and barley to the ship, and everything went smoothly after that. But no one remembered the Navy ever extending an invitation for Reckless to return for another trip.
Reckless and the regiment returned to Camp Casey for another rest period before being ordered back into the lines. It was summer and the rains were heavy. Reckless found herself once again under fire near Changdan where she and the platoon first started out together.
In July 1953 the truce was signed. Reckless and the RR Pit. moved south with the 2d Battalion where it took up new positions from the Panmunjom corridor to the Imjin River. Reckless strung communication wire to the new positions.
During this time, the CO of the 2d Bn, LtCol Andrew C. Geer, would invite Lt Bill Riley (who took over the platoon from Pedersen), Latham and Reckless to his bunker to talk about her. LtCol Geer gathered information for a book and two articles he would later write about her. The book, published in 1955, was titled "Reckless: Pride of the Marines." The two articles appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, one in the April 17, 1954, issue and the other on Oct. 22, 1955.
In October 1953, both Latham and Coleman received orders to return Stateside. Reckless lost many other friends as well to transfers.
Unfortunately those friends were not with her when she was recognized publicly for her bravery on the battlefield during a formal ceremony. Others were there, however, as Gen Pate pinned sergeant's stripes to a new scarlet and gold blanket that she was wearing. Her Marines had taken up a collection for it.
A good many Marines expressed their desire to see Reckless sent to the States after the war. LtCol Geer wrote a letter to Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps requesting it. The answer that came back was that government funds could not be used to bring the horse to the States because she was not government property.
Stan Coppel, the executive vice-president of Pacific Transport Lines, had read about Reckless in The Saturday Evening Post. When told of the problem of getting her to the States, he made the decision to let Reckless ride free of charge from Yokohama to San Francisco on one of the company's ships.
The night before the ship was to dock, a call came through from the ship's captain who informed LtCol Geer that Reckless had eaten her blanket, even the ribbons! Several of her old friends who had gathered in San Francisco to meet her obtained a new blanket complete with chevrons and ribbons just in time for her arrival.
When the ship finally arrived in port, Reckless was greeted by news media personnel and Marines. Pedersen and SSgt Elmer Lively came up from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Coleman (discharged from the Corps) drove to the West Coast from Utah. Geer was already in San Francisco. Latham, however, was unable to make the trip west from Camp Lejeune, N.C.
A big fuss was made over the little horse. Even California Governor Goodwin Knight issued a proclamation welcoming the war hero to the state.
Reckless stepped onto American soil on the 10th of November, 1954. After posing for the cameras in the morning, she later met the media on a stage at the Marines' Memorial Club where she toasted and was toasted by many well-wishers.
That night she rode an elevator up to the 10th floor to attend the Marines' 179th birthday celebration at the club where she was the guest of honor. She stood at the head table and ate cake. When she finished that, she started in on the floral centerpieces. Later she rode the elevator up one more deck to the ballroom where she participated in the official cake-cutting ceremony. Reckless took the slice of cake reserved for the most-honored Marine present from the hand of Katherine Pedersen.
Two days later she went by trailer to Vista, Calif., where she would stay with the Pedersens and their two children for a period of time before being stabled at Camp Pendleton.
Reckless became the property of the First Marine Division Association, but she was cared for by the 5th Marines. Guest appearances and 100-mile marches with her beloved 5th Marines were put on hold whenever she gave birth to her foals, three colts and one filly. Fearless was born in 1957, Dauntless in 1959, and Chesty (named after LtGen Lewis B. Puller, who, incidentally, was one of only a few Marines ever allowed to ride Reckless while in Korea) in 1964. Her fourth, born one or two years after Chesty, died a month after birth.
On Aug. 31, 1959, Reckless was promoted to staff sergeant by her good friend Gen Pate in a ceremony attended by the 5th Marines, friends and her two sons, Fearless and Dauntless. The 21st Commandant, Gen Pate, earlier had written: "In my career I have seen many animals that have been adopted by Marines, but never in all my experience have I seen one which won the hearts of so many as did. . .Reckless."
She was retired on Nov. 10, 1960, with full military honors, according to an article in The San Diego Union. The article also stated that Gen David M. Shoup, then-Commandant of the Marine Corps, had issued this order: "SSgt Reckless will be provided quarters and messing at the Camp Pendleton Stables in lieu of retired pay."
Reckless' decorations included two Purple Hearts, Good Conduct Medal, Presidential Unit Citation with star, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, and Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, all of which she proudly wore on her scarlet and gold blanket.
On May 13, 1968, the Corps lost a dear friend with the passing away of SSgt Reckless. Some reports state she was 19 and others say 20 when she was injured and had to be put to sleep.
But, the legend of Reckless lives on. In 1971 Reckless was again honored when the First Marine Division Association erected a memorial at the entrance to the base stables. On Nov. 10, 1989, the first race at Aqueduct racetrack in New York was named "The Sgt Reckless" through the efforts of former Marine Charlie Murphy, who worked at the track, and Bruce Lombardi, secretary of the New York Racing Association. What a fitting way for a Korean War veteran to remember Reckless and the Marine Corps birthday. It is hoped that a screenplay now in the research stages will find favor with a Hollywood producer and be yet another tribute to this great Marine.
Special thanks to the Camp Pendleton Joint Public Affairs Office, and especially history and museums officer, Kathie Graler. Also, Joe Latham, Katherine Pedersen, base stables manager Dave Blazer and the many Leatherneck readers who remember Reckless and sent in photos and other information for this story.
"Reckless: Pride of the Marines," by Andrew Geer, was a valuable reference and is highly recommended for further reading. The book, published by E. P. Dutton and Co., is out-of-print, but may be found in base or public libraries.