As a special tribute on Memorial Day, David Hill recounts the story of a U.S. Marine known as Sergeant Reckless for America's Best Racing.
The recoilless rifle was six feet long and weighed over a hundred pounds. It often required three or four Marines to carry it across the battlefields during the Korean War. Lugging it was dangerous, but it was necessary, because that rifle, which the soldiers nicknamed "reckless," could fire a 75mm shell thousands of yards with surgical-like precision. It was one of the U.S. Marine Corps' finest munitions. But the commander of the Recoilless Rifle Platoon, Eric Pedersen, knew there had to be a better way to use it on the battlefield in Korea.
That better way came to Lieutenant Pedersen in the form of an offer from a stable boy from the racetrack in Seoul. The boy's sister had stepped on a land mine and lost her leg, but the family couldn't afford a prostethic. The boy offered Pedersen a horse he owned and was training to race. He had named it "Ah Chim Hai," or "Morning Flame." Pedersen paid $250 of his own money for the small chestnut mare. He wouldn't be racing her. He was going to train her to carry that giant gun.
Pedersen had a number of men in his unit who knew horses, and together they trained the horse to carry the gun and nine of the heavy 24-pound shells, but also to lie down when under fire, avoid barbed wire and crouch in foxholes, and to run for cover when there was incoming fire. They nicknamed their horse "Sergeant Reckless," and though she wasn't actually a sergeant, after two years of service, the commander of the 1st Marine Division was so impressed and grateful to the horse that he gave her an official battlefield promotion to the rank of sergeant. Her fellow soldiers took the rank serious enough to threaten others with court martial for disrespecting her rank. There was a standing order that no soldier was allowed to ride on her, not only out of respect for her rank, but because she was too valuable of an asset to risk injuring.
Sergeant Reckless served in many battles during the Korean War. Her role and responsibilities grew beyond just hauling the heavy recoilless rifle. She carried supplies and ammunition to dangerous outposts, and carried wounded soliders from the battlefield to safety. In 1953 she was present at one of the most storied battles of the Korean War, the Battle for Outpost Vegas, that saw over a thousand American soldiers and twice as many Chinese soldiers killed in three days of fighting. In one single day of the battle, Sergeant Reckless made over 50 trips across rice paddies and up steep mountain trails to the front lines and back. At first she would make the trek with a Marine leading her, but after casualties grew so great that the Marines couldn't spare any extra hands, Reckless made the trips on her own without any Marine, save for the occasional wounded laid across her back. She was wounded twice, hit both above her eye and in her left flank. Yet she continued to make the trip back and forth while under fire and without any urging by a human being.
Sergeant Reckless was written about back home in the Saturday Evening Post, and the public grew to love the horse. At the conclusion of the war, Reckless's fans in America lobbied to bring her back to the United States. An executive at Pacific Transport Lines was so moved by the story that he offered to transport her to San Francisco on one of his ships for free. Once in America, she lived at Camp Pendleton and was treated as a hero. More than just the only horse ever made a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, she was also awarded two Purple Hearts, a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation with bronze star, the National Defense Service Medal, a Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Korea Medal, a Navy Unit Commendation, and a Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation. She would wear these awards on her horse blanket, plus a French Fourragere that the 5th Marines earned in World War I. She died at Camp Pendleton in 1968.
James "Ted" Bassett was an infantry officer in the Fourth Marine Regiment, Sixth Division during World War II, and a recipient of the Purple Heart and Presidential Unit Citation Medal himself. The year that Sergeant Reckless died, Bassett went to work at the Keeneland Association, and rose quickly to the role of President in 1969. He led Keeneland for many years, both as President and Chairman of the Board, and to this day serves as trustee emeritus.
At the 2016 26th Marine Corps Coordinating Council of Kentucky annual breakfast to celebrate the birth of the Marine Corps, Bassett was held in thrall of the event's invited guest speaker. Robin Hutton had authored a book about Sergeant Reckless titled "Sgt. Reckless: America's War Horse" and was regaling the assembled Marines with stories about the horse's adventures and exploits. Bassett couldn't believe he was hearing this story for the first time. This horse represented the two bookends of his life—the Marines and horses. The fact that Reckless had initially trained to be a racehorse made it all the more amazing to him.
"The combination of those two factors plus Reckless's compelling courage and determination ignited my interest and determination to do something," Bassett said.
He had served as the first chairman of the Kentucky Horse Park and felt strongly that the park's International Museum of the Horse should honor Sergeant Reckless.
"It should be about more than Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, and quarter horses," Bassett said. "There should be a place for a military horse."
He put the idea to the Park and they agreed that Reckless deserved a spot on their grounds. The one they picked out, on a knoll overlooking the park, was "irresistible" to Bassett, and motivated him even more to raise the funds necessary to bring a monument to Reckless to Kentucky.
There are already two statues of Sergeant Reckless in America. One is at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia. The other is at Camp Pendleton. But while the Marines have honored Reckless twice, the American horse industry had not. And the cost to erect the bronze statue was substantial: a quarter of a million dollars. So Bassett partnered with Hutton to raise the money to make the monument a reality.
The two of them did more than just raise money, they also raised awareness about Sergeant Reckless. Just like the Saturday Evening Post article in 1954, Hutton's book and subsequent campaign to build a monument at the Kentucky Horse Park won Sergeant Reckless new fans across the country. Some of those fans were also veterans, like the executives at UPS who were former Marines who contacted Bassett and wanted to know how they could help. So history repeated itself, as UPS agreed to transport the Reckless statue from Colorado to Kentucky free of charge, just as the real Reckless rode across the Pacific Ocean for free on Pacific Transport Lines.
The statue was dedicated at the Kentucky Horse Park in May 2018. It is by California native Jocelyn Russell, whose love of animals began during childhood and who worked with a veterinarian starting in her preteen years for 14 years before becoming a full-time artist.