The Reckless Redhead

Reckless with best friend Latham.

Reckless under fire.

Reckless loaded with recoilless rifle and shells.

She was a good-lookin’ redhead. No one argued that point. She was small but had one of those put-together-right bodies. You know the kind. Plump and filled out in all the right places; lean and hollow in all the other right places.

Those who knew her well said she had a solid dose of piss ‘n vinegar….just like nearly every other redhead they’d ever met. And those who knew her even better said she also had heart and determination big enough to dwarf a 12-story building.

Stress never phased her. Throw a challenge at her and she dug in for the long haul. Maybe it was the piss ‘n vinegar part of her that kept her hanging on long after everyone else moseyed on down the trail.

She wasn’t prissy. She’d guzzle down a beer with the boys any time they invited her. She also had a voracious sweet tooth and the guys were more than happy to hand over their candy rations to satisfy her cravings.

In the vernacular of the early 1950s, she was, indeed, a babe….a dame with class.

Her name, in her native Korean language, was Ah Chim Hai. The English translation was “Flame of the Morning.” The name given to her by the guys in the Recoilless Rifle Platoon of the 5th Marines in the Korean “conflict” was Reckless. Just slightly larger than a pony, the blaze-faced Mongolian mare (some say her dam was a racing Thoroughbred) stood a diminutive 14-hands and weighed 750 to 850 pounds at her heaviest.

The 5th Marines’ search began after Capt. E.T. Pedersen’s superiors gave him permission to use a horse to carry ammunition for his platoon. It was up to Pedersen to figure out the best, and most logical, place to purchase such a horse. Logistically, his options were limited since he was standing in the middle of a vicious war in Korea.

After a short session of head-scratching, aided by choppy and difficult-to-interpret conversations with village locals, Pedersen set off for the old, rickety racetrack in Seoul. He roamed around, looking at the horses getting ready to participate in the day’s races. His roving gaze stopped when he saw the little redhead. He could almost feel her attitude. There was an air of confidence blasting out of that compact body, and he knew this was one of those times when size didn’t amount to a hill-of-beans.

Pedersen walked up to the mare’s owner, Korean stable boy Kim Huk Moon, and offered him $250 from his personal pocket. The lead rope changed hands. It was 1952 and the mare was four years old when she unwittingly swapped the world of racing for ear-splitting artillery fire, exploding grenades and the wild screams of mortars as they sought the flesh and blood of U.S. Marines.

It has often been reported that Reckless’ owner didn’t want to sell the mare. He had nicknamed her Flame and she definitely had a place in his heart, but the $250 meant his sister could finally have a prosthesis for the leg she lost after stepping on a land mine. One eyewitness reported seeing a tear slip from Moon’s eye before the young man turned his head to hide his emotions.

Reckless was drafted as a member of the Recoilless Rifle Platoon, Anti-Tank Company, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. Her assigned role was that of a pack horse, capable of carrying up to nine-at-a-time of the 24-pound shells that powered the recoilless rifle used by the unit. That equaled 216-pounds, which was a fourth of the mare’s body weight. The Marines in her unit renamed her Reckless, as a contraction of the word “recoilless.”

Let’s indulge in just a few words of digression here. There is nothing….absolutely nothing….romantic about war. Every aspect is horrible; including the horses, mules, dogs, and even pigeons, pressed into service and killed.

During WWII, the lifespan of a horse in the German army in 1940 was six months. That was reduced to six weeks by 1945. Most of us, especially those  with a tender heart for animals, have no desire to indulge in the graphic details of what happened to eight-million horses and mules in WWI, to tens of thousands of dogs and to more than 100,000 pigeons.

Approximately one-million American horses and mules served in Europe.Only 200 came home.

The stain of shame resting on our heads isn’t because we pulled these horses into service but, rather, in our treatment of them when that service was done. We’ll talk about that elsewhere. For now, the focus is Reckless.

Just like every other raw recruit, Reckless entered the equine version of boot camp under the close supervision of platoon Gunnery Sergeant Joseph Latham, who was her primary trainer. Private First Class Monroe Coleman was her main caretaker. Lieutenant Bill Riley and Sergeant Elmer Lively were also involved with her general well-being and training. The majority of her medical needs were tended to by Navy Hospitalman First Class George Doc Mitchell.

Reckless, like her human counterparts, needed to grasp the intricacies basic survival skills. Her willingness, along with her quick intelligence, impressed everyone who worked with her.

The little mare became adept at avoiding deadly entanglements with barbed wire. She perfected dropping to the ground and lying  prone when under fire. And she knew to run for a bunker when someone yelled the word “incoming.”

The Marines fell in love with the mare who seemed innately courageous but, at the same time, gentle and affectionate. She roamed the camp without halter or lead rope, frequently going inside tents and making herself at home. Latham, her closest friend, never objected when he found her sleeping next to his tent stove on cold nights.

Reckless was the original “foodie.” She loved dining on scrambled eggs, washing them down with a Coca-Cola or beer. Bacon, buttered toast, chocolate bars, hard candy, shredded wheat, peanut butter sandwiches and mashed potatoes were also on her “preferred menu.” Doc Mitchell, however, put his foot down when it came to the Cokes; giving orders that she was to have no more than two per day.

The love story between Reckless and the Marines in her unit grew stronger each day but, when duty called, neither the men nor the mare shirked the dangers.

The mare’s primary duty was to transport the 24-pound shells to wherever they were needed. There were delivery routes to be memorized. All she needed was to be led the first few times and, after that, she made the trips on her own. The way she picked and dodged, loaded down with the cumbersome shells and with no one at her head to show the way, was almost magical. She was a lady with a mission and she did it while mortars hit around her. Her Marine comrades breathed a collective sigh of relief each time she returned safely.

It was March 26, 1952, when Reckless earned her legendary status.

It was the Battle of Panmunjom-Vegas (also known as the Battle of Outpost Vegas/Vegas Hill). The struggle between the Marines and the Red Chinese was bloody and intense. The pint-sized lady made her way through “the rockets’ red glare” in 51 solo trips in a single day. She packed four to eight shells each time, for a cumulative total of 9,000 pounds, delivering them so those recoilless rifles could continue their death-dealing barrage of bullets. In that one day, she logged a total of 35 miles and was wounded twice. Each time, she delivered her load, returned to base and was loaded again. She didn’t make those returns empty-loaded. The shells were replaced with wounded Marines, tied to the mare and clinging to her as she navigated rice paddies and steep 45-degree mountain trails. She crossed 1,800-yards of brutal No Man’s Land on each one of those 51 missions, with artillery exploding at the rate of 500 incoming rounds and hour. The mare was exhausted but no one needed to remind her, or to ask her twice, to make those 51 trips..

Her heroic performance earned her a promotion to the rank of corporal. And, while there’s no written record attesting to the fact, she probably enjoyed a beer or two that night before settling down for a much-deserved sleep. She also moved from being the pride of her platoon to the pride of the entire Corps. She was a legitimate heroine.

Reckless packed other things when she wasn’t in the thick of battle. She was especially adept at carrying wheels of telephone wire on her pack, stringing as much wire as twelve men on foot. She was also the first horse in the Marine Corps to participate in an amphibious landing. After that, her unit was given a rest. That was when the mare’s fellow Marines issued a challenge to the famous Thoroughbred Native Dancer. The conditions were somewhat different from a usual race,  stipulating 1.5 miles over paddies and hills, carrying 192 pounds of ammunition and no riders. Native Dancer’s connections never responded. Reckless’ connections figured they were scared.

The Korean Conflict ended and it was time for Reckless to retire. An outpouring of support for the mare paved the way for her to come to the U.S. as a bona fide Marine.

Now known as the “Pride of the Marines,” Reckless made her way to California’s Camp Pendleton, 7,000 miles from her native Korea. Her owner, Capt. E.T. Pederson who purchased her with that $250 from his own pocket, sold her for $1 to the First Marine Division Association. Some folks would say Pederson lost $249 but he didn’t look at it that way.

Reckless’ final military promotion came after she reached Camp Pendleton, when she was officially elevated to staff sergeant. She was also officially listed as retired, with orders to be cared for with respect and dignity for the rest of her days.

The most passionate, eye witness account of Reckless and her unparalled courage came in 1995 from Harold Wadley, a veteran of the 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. Wadley was one of the lucky few to make it out of “Hill Vegas” alive. This is his vivid recollection, as quoted in the July, 2011 issue of Cowboys & Indians magazine.

“Marines passed stories up and down the line on the ridges. We’d heard the recoilless rifle boys had a horse, for crying out loud! They trained her to pack the rounds as well as the gun. That gun was six feet long and heavy; it took two guys to handle it. They would strap that on one side of her and strap ammunition on the other side to balance the load.”

Wadley will never forget what he saw on March 26, 1953. His unit was holding Outpost Vegas, about a mile from the front line. It was worse than brutal. Then, out of nowhere, the Chinese threw a full-on assault.

“The artillery mortars were unspeakable,” remembered Wadley. “It was horrific. I was taking wounded Marines to the command post when I saw Reckless. She was coming up that ridge where the recoilless rifle boys had a big foxhole. I couldn’t believe it!

“There was no one leading her. She made that trip all night long by herself. They would tie a wounded Marine on her and turn her around and she’d head down that ridge with all this artillery and mortar coming in. The guys down there would unload the wounded off her and tie gun ammo on her. She’d turn around on her own and head right back up.

“I remember in the flare light, looking back and seeing that little Mongolian mare heading up that slope without anybody leading her and going up to that gun pit. She knew exactly what her job was. There’s not another horse in war history that could even touch that mare.”

Wadley became deeply emotional when he spoke his last words about Reckless.

“Here’s the part that still gets me (referring to Reckless after her retirement to Camp Pendleton). Knowing what that mare had done, the order was that there was never to be any more weight than a blanket put on that mare’s back again – and that order stood.”

That order did, indeed, stand. When Reckless set out on her daily jog, the Marine who went with her jogged on foot.

The little blaze-faced mare died in 1968. She was 20. She’s buried at Camp Pendleton at Stepp Stables. There’s a monument marking her final resting place, but Wadley doesn’t think it’s nearly enough.

Reckless was honored with a full-sized statue a few years later. Wadley was there for the unveiling.

No one who knows about Reckless will argue that the little redhead was a classy dame. She was fueled by piss and vinegar pumping into her enormous heart until it was over-flowing.

She was fierce.

She is still loved.