On July 26, 2013, a statue was unveiled at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia. The statue was of a hero, of course, but a most unusual hero . . . a heroine, actually—a diminutive mare named Reckless. During the Korean War she earned two Purple Hearts for her wounds and rose to the rank of sergeant, an honor never bestowed—before or since—on an animal. In fact, she’s the only animal to hold an official rank in any branch of the U.S. Military. In 1997, Life magazine honored her (again, the only animal) in a “Celebrating our Heroes” edition that included people such as George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa.
As the Korean War of the 1950s faded into history, so did the remarkable story of Reckless. When I read the news and saw the images of the statue, I was intrigued. The play and movie, “War Horse,” based on Michael Morpurgo’s work of fiction about World War I, were wildly popular. How could a true-to-life war horse like Reckless have been forgotten?
Fortunately, two new books hit the shelves this summer—Reckless: the Racehorse Who Became a Marine Corps Hero, by Tom Clavin; and Sgt. Reckless: America’s War Horse, by Robin Hutton.
Both tell the tale of a Korean horse (pony, really—she was under 14 hands) bred to run at the racetrack in Seoul. A four-year-old chestnut, she was named Ah-Chim-Hai (Flame of the Morning) by her young Korean owner/jockey, Kim Huk Moon. The war curtailed racing and made it hard for Kim’s family to survive, much less support a horse. When an American Marine offered him $250 for his horse, he accepted. Kim’s sister had lost a leg in the conflict and the money would buy her a prosthesis.
Flame became “Reckless,” and was quickly trained to carry heavy ammunition for the Recoilless Rifle Platoon. This is where the story becomes extraordinary—and sometimes even comical, despite the grim battlefield conditions. Reckless learned to “hit the deck” on a signal and crawl into the nearest bunker. On cold nights she would leave her shelter and enter a Marine’s tent to sleep by the fire. She joined the men in dining on coffee and scrambled eggs in the mornings and drank beer with the best of them when off duty. She loved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Most of all, she was a combat Marine, hauling heavy ammo to the gunners across bomb-blasted terrain while under fire. On the return trips she carried wounded men back to aid stations. It soon became unnecessary to lead her; Reckless knew what she was doing, and kept going beyond the point of exhaustion. In just one day of battle she made 51 trips carrying 386 rounds (almost five tons) of ammunition, walking over 35 miles through rice paddies and up steep hills while enemy fire came in at the rate of 500 rounds per minute. Imagine a 13-hand pony doing this!
Reckless was wounded twice, but miraculously survived the war and was brought to the States to live out her life in Camp Pendleton, California.
Which account of Reckless’ life should you read? First, let’s take a look at the authors.
Tom Clavin is a former New York Times staff writer who co-authored bestselling historical works such as Halsey’s Typhoon and The Heart of Everything That Is, along with The Last Stand of Fox Company, winner of the 2010 General Wallace M. Greene Jr. Award for the best book on the Marine Corps. Clavin’s book about Reckless reflects his knowledge of warfare, in that he details the strategy, armament and troop movements by both sides during the bloody conflict among the rice paddies of Korea. If you’re a fan of military history, you’ll love this book.
Robin Hutton’s career of more than 30 years has been in major event production and the motion picture industry. She was a long-time writing partner of the late Tom Laughlin, best known for the Billy Jack series. In 2006 she learned of the Reckless story and vowed “to make Sgt. Reckless as famous as the other two acclaimed “S” horses—Secretariat and Seabiscuit. I felt a biography, documentary and screenplay were certainly in order,” she says, “but something was missing, something more tangible. Why not a national monument to honor this uniquely American heroine?”
Hutton has devoted the past eight years to bringing those goals to fruition. She is the founder and president of Angels Without Wings, Inc. the non-profit organization that raised the funds for the creation and dedication of the national memorial to Sgt. Reckless and the exhibit in the National Museum of the Marine Corps. Memorials will also be placed at Camp Pendleton, where Reckless is buried, and in South Korea. Hutton has also written the book and screenplay, and is campaigning for a movie on Reckless.
While Hutton describes the battles, it is with less blood and gore than Clavin’s book, which makes it suitable for teenaged readers. Hutton’s book also contains 200 images of Reckless that help bring the story to life. Clavell’s book ends after Reckless reaches California, while Hutton’s continues on with the previously untold story of the mare’s offspring—and an epilogue describing the nail-biting process of making the statue a reality.
So, for reading by a wider age-range and for more detail on Reckless after the war and the background on the memorial, I recommend Robin Hutton’s 368-page Sgt. Reckless: America’s War Horse, published by Regnery History. It's available on Amazon in hard cover, $17.70; and Kindle, $14.99.
For more battle detail, I recommend Tom Clavin’s 313-page Reckless, the Racehorse Who Became a Marine Corps Hero, published by New American Library and available from Amazon in hard cover, $21.53; and Kindle, $11.99