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Semper-Fi on Four Legs

A 900-pound lean, green fighting machine.

By 8.19.14

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Reckless: The Racehorse Who Became a Marine Corps Hero
By Tom Clavin
(NAL/Penguin, 308 pages, $28.95)

Tom Clavin’s Reckless is a story of courage and sacrifice and suffering and of the remarkable bond that can develop between man and animals. It’s the story of brave Marines who gave their all in a brutal war that was called a “police action,” a war which few Americans paid much attention to, or gave much due to the warriors who fought it on their behalf.

There are many heroes in this book, Americans who can never be thanked enough for their sacrifice and their service. Central to the story is a 900-pound, female Marine with four legs, a former Korean racehorse named Reckless, who eventually ran for much higher stakes than she ever would have on any racetrack.

Depending on her performance were the lives of American Marines, badly outnumbered by determined Chinese troops in the vicious and long-running battle of the Nevada Cities in March of 1953 in Korea. The outcome of the battle, and the positioning of troops on each side that came out of it, was strategically important to the long-winded negotiators at Panmunjom, who finally managed to arrive at a truce just months after the battle in which Reckless and her fellow Marines so distinguished themselves. A truce, uneasy for more than a half century, which is still in force.

I lift this inspirational book up to TAS readers. It illuminates a little known chapter in American military history. And it contains great personal stories. But it comes with a warning. Much of it is not for the faint of heart. Clavin does not dwell on the horrors of combat. But he doesn’t airbrush anything out either. He tells a story -- which includes every aspect of infantry combat – straight. (Clavin performed the same service in Halsey’s Typhoon of 2007, the story of Admiral Halsey’s Pacific Fleet at war with a monster Pacific typhoon in 1944. Clavin co-authored this one with Bob Drury. It’s still available and well worth the time.)

Reckless came to be a Marine through the efforts of Lieutenant Eric Pederson, a WWII enlisted veteran who retired as a captain after Korea. The way infantry combat shaped up in Korea, the American 75-millimeter recoilless rifle was an extremely effective weapon, in fact, an equalizer for the always outnumbered Marines. Not an ordinary rifle, but a smallish and portable piece of artillery, the recoilless rifle packed an explosive wallop. Its shells could pierce just about anything, including tanks. And unlike regular artillery that is called in from over the horizon, recoilless rifle gunners could see what they were shooting at. The Chinese hated it.

The major downside to the recoilless rifle was that the projectiles it fired were two feet long and weighed 24 pounds each, not including the case they came in. Few Marines could schlep more than two rounds over the rugged Korean terrain with all the personal gear they were also obliged to carry. So it was always a challenge for recoilless gunners to keep up a steady rate of fire. There was always insufficient manpower to keep sending a string of Marines back to the ammunition depot to fetch more projectiles.

The answer to this deadly supply problem, Pederson thought, might be a horse that could carry many more rounds at one time, and travel quickly to and from the depot. Soon the former Ah-Chim-Hai (Flame of the Morning), renamed Reckless, became a Marine after being purchased from her Korean family, whose dramatic story Clavin also tells.

Reckless was bright, willing, and took to training. (She was also charming, and the Marines took to her.) So she was ready, able, and more than willing when she was needed. Despite being wounded twice by shrapnel, Reckless made dozens of trips up rocky hillsides to bring six and eight projectiles at a time to her Marine friends (an estimated 51 trips on the worst day of the battle). The idea at first was she was to be led and escorted on her trips by regular two-footed Marines. But these were soon exhausted and unable to keep up with Reckless, who made her last trips on her own. She did this while being shot at by small arms and artillery. She knew where she was going and what her duty was. She performed it admirably.

Reckless’s heroism and devotion to duty earned her several medals, including two purple hearts, the presidential Unit Citation with Bronze Star, and the Korean Service Medal. She was officially promoted to the rank of staff sergeant. For her service she enjoyed a comfortable stateside retirement where she was well looked after at Camp Pendleton, California. In 2013, the day after the 60th anniversary of the truce that ended the shooting in Korea, a life-size statue of Reckless doing her dangerous work was unveiled at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia.

Readers who do not know what semper fidelis means, will know after finishing Reckless, a moving story of a great combat Marine and her friends.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.