U.S. Marines weren’t sure what they would find upon pulling into the racetrack at Seoul in 1952, a trailer attached to their jeep.
They were on a mission: to find a horse to carry heavy ammunition in this Korean War, up steep hills over terrain where trucks could not go. They spied a filly, chestnut colored and spirited. She was smallish, almost the size of a large pony at 13 hands, or about 4 1/2 feet, at her shoulders. She was nothing like the Thoroughbred racehorses, a good foot taller, that these Americans were used to seeing back home. But for their purposes, she looked a good fit.
The commander of the unit reached into his pocket and paid $250 of his own money for the filly. And so began one of the unique stories of the Korean War, one that will be memorialized in a life-size bronze, named Sergeant Reckless, to go up in 2018 at the Kentucky Horse Park.
The filly named Sergeant Reckless spent the remainder of the war dodging shrapnel and land mines, carrying ammunition for the recoil-less rifle — that the marines called “rec-less,” known for its deadly back blast, and hence her name. She brought wounded back to base camp. Many times she made the trip without a human handler.
She herself was wounded, earning two Purple Hearts. She earned sergeant’s stripes, sewn onto her blanket, and she was the only horse to be commissioned an officer. “She wasn’t a horse — she was a Marine,” goes a saying made popular in a biography by Robin Hutton, titled “Sgt. Reckless: America’s War Horse.”
“If she were a human, she would be wearing the Congressional Medal of Honor,” declared Ted Bassett, former chairman of Keeneland, of Breeders’ Cup Ltd., and of the Kentucky Horse Park. Bassett a Marine Corps veteran from World War II, will be involved in a fund drive for the Reckless memorial. The bronze will be paid for entirely with private money and has received a $25,000 anonymous challenge grant.
“This is very meaningful to me not only as a Marine but as one who has a deep respect and love for the horse,” Bassett said with characteristic desk-pounding emphasis. “It’s got a movie possibility.”
Some racetracks have joined the Reckless movement: Pimlico Racecourse in Baltimore holds an annual Sgt. Reckless Memorial Dash, now on Preakness day; Del Mar near San Diego has held a race; and at Churchill Downs in 2014, Sergeant Reckless sponsored the Eight Belles race. Keeneland recognized Sgt. Reckless on Military Day this past spring. Two Thoroughbred racehorses have been named after Sergeant Reckless. Some in the Thoroughbred industry have contributed to the memorial funds.
Reckless began life with a Korean name, Ah-Chim-Hai, that translated into Flame-in-the-Morning. Although she was not a Thoroughbred, she was bred to race: Her mother, Flame-of-the-Morning, had been a successful runner. Her owner, known as Kim Huk Moon (a pseudonym, at his request), was a jockey and horse trainer during Japan’s occupation of Korea before World War II. He rode Flame-of-the Morning, the mother, and was able to take ownership of her after that war. Thus he was the breeder of Flame-in-the-Morning and was training that filly to race at Seoul when North Koreans invaded the city on June 25, 1950.
The younger Flame apparently never raced, and as the war gained momentum, Flame pulled a cart carrying Moon’s family as they escaped Seoul. Hutton wrote of how Flame assisted the family in multiple trips across the raging Han River: Moon grabbing hold of the filly’s mane and his sister the tail on one crossing. Their mother died a few days later, likely from a chill she caught in the river.
For a while, Flame worked alongside Moon, unloading American ships at Pusan and hauling military supplies. Two years later they returned to Seoul, where the young man and his horse worked in the rice fields. During that time, Moon’s sister lost a leg in a land mine explosion. Moon wanted to buy his sister a prosthesis. But he had no way to raise the money. Then the Marines pulled in to the track where Flame lived, looking for a good horse.
Reckless immediately went through “hoof camp,” where she proved a fast study. She adjusted to the explosions of gunfire. Her handlers taught her to lie down — to “hit the deck” when under enemy fire. She learned to step over wire and how to string communications wire. She learned to kneel to crawl into a bunker. The men built her a bunker at base camp.
From the start, Reckless was no ordinary horse as she proved to the Recoilless Rifle Platoon, Anti-Tank Company, 5th Marine Regiment. The men gave her free run of their base camp, where she endeared herself to the unit, eating what the men ate and wandering into their tents to sleep at night. A snack might consist of a half-loaf of bread with strawberry jam.
Her most exemplary moment occurred March 26 to 30, 1953, in the brutal battle of the Nevada Complex, as the Marines defended outposts Reno and Vegas. Chinese Communists had targeted those two outposts and a third, Carson, and a defeat of United Nations forces there would have placed the Chinese in position to pull out of peace talks and attack Seoul.
To the rear of the outposts lay the MLR — the Main Line of Resistance, where supplies were held. Marine Sgt. Harold Wadley, who was a demolitionist at the Nevada complex, was down at the MLR on the first night when he saw Outpost Vegas light up with flares and gunfire. The fighting had begun.
Reckless was hunkered down in her bunker, nervous and sweating, Hutton wrote in her book. Handlers packed Reckless with eight canisters of 75 mm rounds for the rec-less rifle, her pack totaling close to 200 pounds of dead weight. On one portion of her journeys up to the guns, she had to tackle a 45-degree incline. She made 51 round trips during one day. She shielded soldiers who walked beside her. On return trips she would carry the wounded down to the rear. The noise was deafening. Reckless was wounded twice.
Wadley, 83, now works a small ranch near St. Mary’s, Idaho. He said in a recent phone call that he can still see Reckless in his mind’s eye, “hauling ammo up to the gun positions.”
“I saw her several times in that battle,” Wadley said, “and with the flare light, it’s like a floodlight on a misty night, and there’s so much smoke in the air … I will never ever forget this image. I looked back to the rear where the main line of resistance was and her gun team was firing in support of us, and in the wispy light of that flare I see a horse really, really loaded.
“I was raised with horses,” Wadley said, “and when a horse stretches its neck out and nose nearly to the ground, coming up a slope, it’s wishing it had four-wheel drive. I looked back and it looked like a ghost of a horse, in and out, as the flares came down: shadows and then light. She’s coming in and out of our vision, and being a ranch kid I thought, ‘Good grief, there’s no way that mare’s going to live through this.’ But she did.
“That’s the image I have in that flare light,” he said. “Like I’ve told others, there had to be an angel riding that mare, because nobody was with her. She knew where her gun team was.”
The image of Reckless with her body bent nearly double, shouldering canisters of ammunition and struggling up the 45-degree angle of Outpost Vegas, was the image chosen for her bronze memorials. In advance of the Horse Park memorial, a display case inside the International Museum of the Horse has been fitted with a small model of the bronze along with Reckless memorabilia.
“She must have been one heck of a horse, to learn to do it on her own with bombs exploding all around her,” said Bill Cooke, director of the International Museum of the Horse at the Horse Park. He said he has been in communication with Hutton about the new memorial and is excited to see it going up at the Horse Park.
This will be the third memorial, all similar and sculpted by Jocelyn Russell of Friday Harbor, Wash. The first statue went in place in 2013 at the National Museum of the Marine Corps at Triangle, Va., and the second last year at the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton at Oceanside, Calif. where Reckless lived out her life to about age 20.
“This is the third, but it’s in the world of the horse among the world’s outstanding horses,” Bassett said. He said he will be involved in the fund drive, a role he served some years ago when he raised money to bring the Calumet Farm racing trophies to the park when they were headed to New York.
Hutton, the biographer of “Reckless,” has become perhaps her greatest booster in recent years. She led the fundraisers for the first two memorials and will lead the drive for the bronze at the Horse Park.
“I can’t get the story out enough,” she said, adding that Reckless became forgotten to a once-adoring public after her death on May 13, 1968, at Camp Pendleton. “Of course, it helps book sales,” she said.
“But more than that, I just love people learning about her story. I know whenever I give a talk, people are going to walk out of that room stepping a little lighter and having a wonderful smile in their hearts because they were given an incredible hero.”
Maryjean Wall retired from the Lexington Herald-Leader in 2008 after 35 years as an award-winning turf writer. She is the author of two books on Kentucky history: “How Kentucky Became Southern: a Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders” and “Madam Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel.”