The play War Horse is based on a children's fiction book, but there was a real war horse.
Her name was Sgt. Reckless, and during the Korean War, the Marines "drafted" her to pack ammunition to the battlefield and carry the wounded to safety. But here's the thing: She did it on her own. And she kept climbing those jagged hills even after she herself was wounded. The Marines came to love her so much that they brought her home from Korea after the war to live out her life at Camp Pendleton in California.
At the time, Sgt. Reckless was a celebrity, featured in the Saturday Evening Post, a ticker-tape parade and the biography Reckless: Pride of the Marines. But over time Reckless was forgotten, until 2009, when writer Robin Hutton of Ventura, Calif., created SgtReckless.com and a fan club dedicated to reviving Reckless' story.
To the Marines, "she wasn't a horse, she was a Marine," said Hutton, whose book on the military mare is scheduled to be published next year. "What she did was amazing."
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Hutton and hundreds of Korean War veterans, Sgt. Reckless fans and other horse lovers traveled to Quantico, Va., in July to dedicate a life-size statue and memorial of their war hero at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
Among them was Paul Hammersley of Bowling Green, who showed off his 1950s-era snapshots of Reckless as if he were a proud grandpa. A photo of Hammersley letting Reckless have a slurp of his beer is enlarged on a museum wall.
"All my life, I've heard tales about this horse," said his son, Rex, of Indianapolis. "This has brought a really important part of my dad to life for me."
According to Lt. Col. Andrew Geer, a Marine who served alongside Sgt. Reckless and wrote her biography, she was stabled at a Seoul racetrack when the Korean War broke out in June 1950. Seeking a pack animal, a Marine instead found the Mongolian mare, known then as Flame, and bought her for $250. She was renamed in honor of the Recoilless Rifle Platoon of the 5th Marines, her new home. (The powerful anti-tank rifle often was shortened to "rec-less.")
The equine recruit was a quick study. She learned to step over communication wires, lie down on command and kneel. Her main caretaker, Sgt. Joseph Latham, said, "Tell her what you want and let her look the situation over and she'll do it, if she's with someone she trusts."
At the same time, Reckless began to endear herself to her platoon, Geer wrote. She was lavished with attention and never lacked volunteers for grooming duty. On cold nights, she was allowed to bunk in Latham's tent. Her appetite was legendary, too. She devoured carrots and apples but also loved candy bars, scrambled eggs, Wheaties and Coca-Cola.
But when the going got tough, Reckless did, too. After Marines led her a few times up and down to battle stations, she remembered the way and traveled the route by herself. In one hellish firefight in March 1953, she made 51 trips from an ammunition supply depot to the hillside front line, carrying a total more than 9,000 pounds of explosives up rutted and winding trails.
"One night I looked up in the light from flares and white phosphorus. It was eerie light, and I could see Reckless making her way up the ridge," said Harold Wadley of St. Maries, Idaho, who sported his dress blues uniform at the memorial dedication. "I thought, surely there had to have been an angel riding that mare."
By the end of the war, Sgt. Reckless had earned many military decorations, including two Purple Hearts. After her retirement at Camp Pendleton, she made more Marine friends as a base celebrity. The old war horse died peacefully in 1968.
Video: A video overview of Sgt. Reckless' story is at Youtube.com/watch?v=YIo3ZfA9da0.