Lt. Erick Pederson, leader of the 5th Marine Regiment’s recoilless rifle platoon, paid $250 for a small chestnut Mongolian horse at a Seoul racetrack during the Korean War.
In Marine jargon, recoilless rifles were known as “reckless rifles.” And that’s how the mare got her name – Reckless. The Marines trained her to carry 75mm recoilless rifle rounds. She would lie down during incoming fire and pick her way through barbed wire.
Reckless would go into mess halls and eat pancakes with maple syrup, and she’d hang out with Marines in tents and drink beer. She earned more than her stripes when the Chinese attacked the Vegas outpost about 60 miles north of Seoul in March 1953.
Few Marines who serve at Camp Pendleton know the story of Staff Sgt. Reckless – a heroic horse who some consider the symbol of an often-forgotten conflict.
But in October, a bronze likeness of the highly decorated mare, who served beginning in 1952 with Camp Pendleton’s 5th Marine Regiment in Korea and later at the base, will be unveiled. Reckless is the only horse to be buried with full military honors at the Stepp Stables on the base.
She also was awarded two Purple Hearts and is the only animal ever awarded an official rank in the .
“She came to be the symbol of the real heroic actions in that difficult war,” said retired Marine Col. Richard B. Rothwell, president of the Camp Pendleton Historical Society. “She persevered and didn’t give up.”
The statue will be placed on a knoll overlooking the ocean at the Pacific View Events Center near the base’s main gate. The statue is similar to one unveiled in honor of Reckless in July 2013 at the National Museum of the in Virginia. It was dedicated as part of a 60-year anniversary commemoration marking the end of the Korean War.
For Robin Hutton, a Camarillo-based writer who uncovered the horse’s story and in 2014 wrote a book, “Sgt. Reckless: America’s War Horse,” the quiet unofficial groundbreaking Aug. 29 at the base meant everything.
In January 2014, after helping pay for the statue at the National Museum of the , she approached Rothwell with plans to permanently honor Reckless on the base where she last served and is buried.
Rothwell knew the horse’s legacy well. It was his father, Col. Richard Rothwell, then commanding officer of the 5th Marine Regiment, who promoted Reckless to staff sergeant at Camp Pendleton.
It took more than two years to secure the funds and get authorization from the base commander, the headquarters and the secretary of the Navy, but the $165,000 statue will be dedicated on Oct. 26 – the day, 63 years ago, that Reckless started her service in the .
“The night before the groundbreaking, I thanked God and Reckless,” said Hutton, who will contribute more than $50,000 from book sale proceeds and from her Staff Sgt. Reckless online store. Rothwell and the historical society will have raised at least $95,000. The Dana Point 5th Marine Regiment Support Group has contributed $5,000.
“Even at the groundbreaking, I was thanking everyone and the new base commander, Brig. Gen. Kevin Killea, for coming,” Hutton said. “To see the love and support for her on the base is so exciting.”
Hutton considers Reckless’ story the “greatest horse story ever,” surpassing those of Seabiscuit, an undersized Depression-era racehorse, and Triple Crown winner Secretariat.
She came across the story 10 years ago in “Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover’s Soul” and was stunned to find only a few references to the horse from the 1960s and ’70s. She started a website and tracked down Marines who served with Reckless in Korea or at Camp Pendleton.
In 2012, she spearheaded the campaign for the monument at the museum and hired Washington state artist Jocelyn Russell to create it. Hutton remembers seeing Marines at the ceremony who served with Reckless choking back tears when they saw her statue.
For Rothwell, Reckless is not only a poignant reminder of heroism but part of his family legacy. He remembers the stories his father told him about the horse when he was a teen.
One of his father’s favorites was about the Battle for Outpost Vegas in March 1953, when the Chinese attacked the strategic position. The battle raged for five days, and more than 150 Marines were killed and 701 wounded and evacuated.
Reckless went to the battlefront on her own. She had been taught to memorize the route, Rothwell said.
“During one of these days, Reckless took 51 trips carrying ammunition to the front lines and wounded Marines back,” he said. “She was wounded twice and she never stopped. It was such a heroic effort, her Marines made her a corporal.”
Later, she was promoted to sergeant. In 1954, the 1st Marine Division returned from Korea. Reckless was put on a ship and arrived in San Francisco on Nov. 9. She left the ship on Nov. 10 – the ‘ birthday – bound forCamp Pendleton.
That’s when Rothwell’s father became part of Reckless’ story. He promoted her to staff sergeant. When she had her first foal, he held a naming contest among his Marines. He didn’t like the selections and made himself the chief namer, calling the foal Fearless.
Reckless would go on to have two more foals, Dauntless and Chesty. In 1959, Gen. Randolph McCall Pate, then commandant of the , awarded her a final promotion to a higher level of staff sergeant.
Reckless continued to take part in regimental ceremonies until she died at nearly 20 years old, on May 13, 1968, after an injury on the base.
Reckless recently was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal, considered “the animal equivalent of the United Kingdom’s Victoria Cross” and the highest honor an animal can receive for military service. U.S. Embassy attaché Lt. Col. Michael Skaggs accepted the award on behalf of the U.S. on July 27, marking the 63rd anniversary of the end of the Korean War.
Lucca, a Camp Pendleton war dog that served in Iraq and Afghanistan, also was recently honored with the medal. The German shepherd had 400 successful missions protecting the lives of thousands of troops during her six years of service. She is retired and lives with her handler, Gunnery Sgt. Chris Willingham, and his family in Vista.
“I love that animals are getting this kind of notice,” Hutton said. “They both gave their all for their country. Both did what the men around them did. For Reckless, the Marines became her herd she followed anywhere. For Lucca, theMarines were her pack.”
Hutton said she has plans to work with Russell to create a statue to honor Lucca.
But beyond the recognition for Reckless, both Hutton and Rothwell say, her statue will mean something broader.
“In a larger sense, it symbolizes the contributions of all Marines who fought in this forgotten war,” Rothwell said. “It’s not just a representation of her but of the many men who fought and died in Korea.”