The Racehorse Who Became a Marine Corps Hero
New American Library Caliber, New York, 2014, 308 pages
Book Review published on: January 9, 2017
Warfare, for all its horrors, forges the strongest bond possible between soldiers. The oft-quoted battle speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V perhaps puts it best, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his blood with me, Shall be my brother.” Since antiquity, soldiers also developed equally strong ties with the dogs, horses, birds, and even elephants that joined them on the battlefield. Tom Clavin’s latest book, Reckless, relates the story of an unlikely marine—a former South Korean racehorse—and her pivotal role in a U.S. Marines platoon during the final months of the Korean War.
Born with the Hangul name Ah-Chim-Hai (Flame of the Morning), she began her career as an award-winning racehorse in the interwar years between the fall of the Axis powers and North Korea’s surprise invasion of the south in 1950. Like so many South Korean refugees, Ah-Chim-Hai fled with her owners to the Pusan perimeter, where they eked out a meager living using her as a workhorse, before eventually returning to Seoul in 1952. The horse’s return was short-lived as the exigencies of war forced her family to offer her for sale. At the same time, 2nd Lt. Eric Pedersen, a sharp-thinking marine recoilless rifle platoon leader, recognized the critical need for a dedicated pack animal to haul heavy ammunition loads up the steep Korean mountainsides in support of infantry offensive operations. Through fate or chance, Pedersen bought An-Chim-Hai, renamed her Reckless, and drafted her into the Marine Corps.
After an abbreviated boot camp (for both horse and handlers), Reckless repeatedly proved her worth on the battlefield until the cease-fire in 1953. Reckless’s strength, bravery, and character soon endeared her to the marines she soldiered alongside. During the Battle of Hill 120, for example, Reckless carried some nine thousand pounds of recoilless rifle ammunition about thirty-five miles while also hauling wounded marines to medical care despite being twice wounded herself. The marines loved her and insisted she return in glory to the United States at the end of conflict. By the time of her “retirement,” Reckless earned a bevy of awards, including promotion to staff sergeant, two Purple Hearts, the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Service Medal, and two unit citations. Until her passing in 1968, Reckless was a key figure in the official ceremonies at her new home in Camp Pendleton, California. Today, Reckless’s service is commemorated by a memorial statue at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia.
Reckless is much more than another story about the Korean War. The book provides three critical lessons for military leaders at all levels. First, it accurately captures and explains the unique bonds exclusively developed among soldiers in combat. Second, Clavin painstakingly describes the duty to return home and care for our wartime animal companions upon the conclusion of their honorable service. This particular lesson was all but forgotten during the Vietnam conflict. If not for the combined efforts of soldiers and nonprofit groups, animals used in Iraq and Afghanistan might have been left behind. The final, and perhaps most important, lesson to be gleaned is the role critical thinking plays in solving complex problems. Pedersen found a successful, if seemingly unorthodox, means to improve his platoon’s ability to accomplish the mission. Pedersen’s chain of command, up to the commandant of the Marine Corps, not only avoided the pitfall of micromanagement but also gave their full support to his solution. Given the level of unnecessary oversight to the individual soldier level extant in today’s military, this is a lesson worth remembering lest we be forced to relearn it.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Chris Heatherly, U.S. Army, Pullman, Washington