Photography: Courtesy Susan Brown Matsumoto
Photography: Courtesy Susan Brown Matsumoto

The one-time racehorse-turned-Marine whose heroism in battle earned her the Purple Heart with Gold Star and a spot in Life magazine continues to receive well-deserved accolades.

Sixty-four years to the day after a little Mongolian mare was bought to carry munitions for the antitank division of the 5th Marines Recoilless Rifle (“Reckless”) Platoon in the Korean War, some 600 people gathered on October 26, 2016, at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California, to witness the unveiling of a monument of Staff Sgt. Reckless, the one-time racehorse-turned-Marine whose heroism in battle earned the Purple Heart with Gold Star and landed her on Life magazine’s “Celebrating Our Heroes” list alongside George Washington and Martin Luther King.

“When this cover is taken off [the statue], you will see a rendition of Reckless climbing a steep hill about 30 miles north of Seoul. ... She’s under heavy enemy fire, carrying ammunition,” said Col. Richard Rothwell, USMC (Ret.) and president of Camp Pendleton Historical Society, in his opening remarks at the monument dedication ceremony at the base’s Pacific Views Event Center, where the 12-foot statue stands. “What you won’t see is her coming down that same hill — still under fire — carrying wounded Marines,” he added. “She symbolizes the thousands ... who fought in what has been called ‘America’s Forgotten War.’ My hope is it will be forgotten no more.”

Photography: Courtesy Susan Brown Matsumoto
Photography: Courtesy Susan Brown Matsumoto

During the pivotal Battle of Outpost Vegas, Reckless made 51 round trips from the ammunition supply point to the firing sites in a single day, carrying 386 rounds of ammunition — more than 9,000 pounds — through open rice paddies and up steep mountains amid heavy enemy fire. She walked more than 35 miles, mostly alone. “I looked back at the eastern skyline through all the smoke and could hardly believe my eyes,” described Sgt. Harold Wadley, USMC (Ret.), of St. Maries, Idaho, at the dedication. “The silhouette of a heavily laden horse came in and out of view along the ridge. It was Reckless — all alone, scrambling in the torn earth to keep her footing.” One of two survivors of “Hill Vegas” and a lifelong horseman, Wadley served as technical advisor on weapons and tack to the monument’s artist, Jocelyn Russell, who spent a year sculpting Reckless in her studio in Friday Harbor, Washington.

“Reckless slowly came to life, guiding my hands as I worked,” Russell said at the dedication. “After a year, I got pretty attached to her. She had a life of her own.” The day the crated sculpture left Russell’s studio for the foundry was unexpectedly emotional. “I turned around and the shop was empty and it hit me like a wave. I was so overcome. ... I just broke down crying.” Besides capturing the attributes of the horse, the stunning bronze monument contains in its base actual hair from the mare’s tail, which was preserved upon her death in 1968. After her wartime service, Sgt. Reckless was shipped from Korea to the States and lived out her retirement at Camp Pendleton. When she died, she was buried with full military honors on base at Stepp Stables.

Bestselling author of Sgt. Reckless: America’s War Horse Robin Hutton — she coined “She wasn’t a horse — she was a Marine!” and has championed the resurgence of Reckless in the public eye — gave a heartfelt presentation at the ceremony. “This has been a five-year journey,” Hutton said of her dream to bring a monument of Reckless to Camp Pendleton. The band, color guard, and haunting rendition of “Echo Taps” at Reckless’ dedication came about from Hutton’s requests. A film-industry veteran and president of Angels Without Wings, Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit, Hutton has made a mission of promoting Reckless since hearing about her a decade ago. Thanks to Hutton’s efforts, Reckless was posthumously awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal (the animals’ Victoria Cross) in England in July 2016.

Photography: Courtesy Susan Brown Matsumoto
Photography: Courtesy Susan Brown Matsumoto

First erected at the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Virginia, in 2013, Camp Pendleton’s Sgt. Reckless monument cost $185,000 (including landscaping). Funds were raised through donations to the Camp Pendleton Historical Society and Hutton’s Angels Without Wings nonprofit. In 2017, another Sgt. Reckless monument will be erected in South Korea’s Yeon Chon County. And, Hutton says, plans are underway to erect yet another Sgt. Reckless statue at the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Kentucky.

The final moments of Camp Pendleton’s monument dedication ceremony saw the presentation of South Korea’s Ambassador for Peace Medal to Reckless alongside her statue. Made of barbed wire and mortar shells from the DMZ, the medal honors and remembers veterans who served in Korea.

Military Decorations Bestowed On Staff Sgt. Reckless

Purple Heart with Gold Star
Presidential Unit Citation with 1 Bronze Star
Navy Unit Commendation
Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal
National Defense Service Medal
Korean Service Medal with 3 Bronze Stars
Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation
United Nations Service Medal Korea

PDSA Dickin Medal was awarded posthumously in England on July 2016. The medal is recognized worldwide as animals’ Victoria Cross. It acknowledges outstanding acts of bravery or devotion to duty by animals serving with armed forces or civil defense units in any theater of war throughout the world.

Ambassador for Peace Medal was awarded at the monument dedication ceremony on October 26, 2016, at Camp Pendleton. It is an honor bestowed by the Republic of Korea to Americans who served in the Korean War.


Photography courtesy Susan Brown Matsumoto. See more of her photographs at www.susanbrownmatsumotophotography.com.

Read C&I’s Sgt. Reckless feature here.

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