Sgt Reckless: The racehorse that became a war horse

Followers of Stat of the Day might have spotted a horse called Sgt Reckless making his debut alongside Buckhorn Tom in the bumper at Wincanton yesterday. Of course, there’s nothing remarkable about that in itself – there are horses having their first run just about every day. And despite his win, there’s no chance that Mick Channon’s Sgt Reckless will achieve anything like his predecessor of that name, who was a truly remarkable animal.

Sgt Reckless was a small chestnut coloured mare that became a US Marine during the Korean War. She was recruited into the Marine Corps late in 1952 by Lt Eric Pedersen, who had recognised a horse could bring great benefit to a team that had to be swiftly mobile whilst carrying heavy ammunition. Individual soldiers could carry just two or three of the shells fired from the recoilless rifle anti-tank gun, a horse as many as ten.

Pedersen searched for a suitable animal at Seoul racetrack, and found one owned by a young Korean who wanted money to pay for an artificial leg for his wounded sister. $250 saw a horse called Ah-Chim-Hai, “Flame of the Morning”, change hands. On their return to camp she was enlisted as Reckless, the nickname for the anti-tank rifle she was to help keep in service.

There was much to do before she could move up to the front. She had to learn how to take cover when under fire. Day to day care was in the hands of Platoon Sergeant Joseph Latham. He taught her that a tap on the front leg meant, “Get down.” He also trained her to make for a bunker when shells came over behind the lines. “We’d get incoming there, and they’d (the enemy) lay it on you. All I had to do was yell, ‘Incoming, incoming’ and she’d go.”

Generally, Reckless would carry six rounds of ammunition, more in extremis. On her first taste of action she travelled in a jeep trailer from the marines’ base at Changdan up to the firing zone. She soon overtook the soldiers hauling the gun up a hillside, and had delivered two loads of shells by the time they had set up. A problem with this weapon was that it had a huge back blast area where the hot gases were expelled when the rifle was fired. This made it impossible to conceal its firing position, and as a result, batteries would fire three or four rounds and move to another spot before the enemy could range in on them.

That wasn’t a problem for Reckless, but it did take her some time to calm down after firing because the noise of the guns spooked her. In time though, she settled, and it’s reported that at night she enjoyed a beer back at camp with the troops.

There was also plenty of work for Reckless when the platoon was out of the line for R+R. Reckless kept busy carrying reels of communication wire, which were paid out as she walked along.

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By early 1953 the American troops were involved in many daylight raids, and on one day in February, Reckless is recorded as making 24 trips from the ammunition supply point up to the guns, carrying six rounds each time. Lt Pedersen reckoned she had covered 20 miles and carried 3,500lbs of ammunition. She was making two trips for each one by a marine, and carrying twice as much ammunition every time.

On an even longer day the mare managed 51 trips, carrying 386 rounds, or 9,000 lbs of explosive, covering a distance of over 35 miles. She picked up a couple of shrapnel wounds too, one over her eye and one on her flank.

Latham explained that the whole platoon came to love Reckless. “Reckless was pretty smart. She was no dummy, but you had to show her where to go. We walked with her the first couple of times, then she’d find her own way. 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.”

Pedersen was posted to another division, so his association with Reckless came to an end. He had bought her with his own money, but a whip round amongst the men raised more than enough to repay him. Although he accepted some of the money, most he left to be spent on Reckless herself. He and Latham discussed whether it would be possible for Reckless to be brought over to America once the war finished.

An early taste of sailing during an exercise led Latham to doubt it. First, Reckless was seasick, and when her rations ran out and she was reduced to a diet of cabbage and oatmeal she fell sick again. Somehow word reached land, and a small boat brought out fresh hay and barley and these soon led to a recovery.

In July 1953 a truce was signed, bringing the Korean War to an end, and by October, Pedersen and Latham had both returned home. They missed the ceremony in which Reckless was awarded her stripes. The marines had used some of the left over money collected to repay Pedersen to buy a scarlet and gold blanket, and at a parade, General Pate formally promoted Reckless to Sergeant.

Her exploits had also caught the attention of battalion commander Lt Col Andrew Geer, now in command of the unit to which Latham and Reckless were attached. His book Reckless: Pride of the Marines is the source of much of the material for this article.

Could a way be found to enable her to travel to America and be reunited with the marines she had served with? Letters to the Marine Corps HQ brought the response that as she was not government property, government funds could not be used to bring her there. But she was able to hitch a freebie from Yokohama to San Francisco on a ship of the Pacific Transport Lines after the company vice-president Stan Coppel read about her exploits.

On 10 November 1954 she landed, though there was a last minute hiatus when it was found she had eaten her blanket and decorations the night before reaching America. Fortunately there was enough time to have a replacement ready for her as she stepped ashore, where her former comrade Eric Pedersen was on hand to greet her.

Further accolades followed, and on 31 Aug Gen Pate again promoted Reckless, this time to Staff Sergeant. During her service she had been awarded two Purple Hearts, a Good Conduct Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation with star, the Korean Service Medal, National Defence Service Medal, Unites Nations Service Medal and the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation. Like any other service member, Reckless wore her ribbons when on parade.

After her retirement with full military hours in November 1960 Reckless enjoyed eight years of retirement in line with the orders from Gen Shoup, head of the Marine Corps when she retired. “SSgt Reckless will be provided quarters and messing at Camp Pendleton Stables in lieu of retired pay.”

But her association with racing wasn’t over. On 10 November 1989, the 214th anniversary of the founding of the US Marine Corps, and 35 years on from her arrival in America, the first race at New York’s Aqueduct racecourse was named “The Sgt Reckless” in memory of Sgt Reckless, Korean War veteran.

Yesterday, another Sgt Reckless stepped out onto the turf and made a winning start. But he’ll have nothing like the life of the horse whose name he has taken.

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