RECKLESS: The Racehorse Who Became a Marine Hero, by Tom Clavin. NAL Caliber, 308 pp., $28.95.
By the middle of the 20th century, the cavalry charge was a thing of the past, but four-legged, equine fighters didn't completely vanish from combat. One even rose to the rank of staff sergeant -- and it wasn't a he. She was a Mongolian filly named Reckless, and she went down in legend for her hard-charging bravery in the Korean War.
She was "America's own true warhorse," Sag Harbor author Tom Clavin writes in "Reckless: The Racehorse Who Became a Marine Corps Hero." The horse earned her stripes in fierce fighting, hauling heavy shells up steep hills and rocky terrain for the famed Fifth Regiment. Her job: keeping units armed with the recoilless rifle, a bazooka-like weapon that could inflict heavy damage on the enemy, fed with a constant supply of ammunition. It was a job a horse could do better than a soldier.
The idea came from 2nd Lt. Eric Pedersen, "a slender, beetle-browed man" who "resembled a professor more than a warrior." Perhaps an eccentric notion, but Pedersen was vindicated by Reckless' performance under fire.
Pedersen paid $250 for her at a Seoul racetrack. Born Ah-Chim-Hai ("Flame in the Morning"), sorrel in color and sporting three distinctive white "socks" on her legs, she had survived the outbreak of war, tended to by a loving family that had also endured the harshness of Japanese occupation during World War II. Though it was a poignant parting, Flame, soon renamed "Reckless" (after the nickname for a recoilless rifle), was in good hands with Pedersen. His fellow soldiers embraced her as one of their own.
Clavin is passionate about his subject but is often prone to cornball writing straight out of a B-movie. ("The Communists would have weighty leverage at the Panmunjom truce talks -- pretty much game over for the allies." ) Clavin also goes heavy on the historical context and military details -- so much so that Reckless sometimes disappears for stretches at a time.
Clavin's book works best when he recounts Reckless' battlefield heroics. (She also had quite a personality -- "sometimes she forgot she was a horse," recalled one officer.) Though the Korean War ended in a stalemate, the fighting was harsh and horrific as the Marines and the Chinese Army, North Korea's ally, fought bitterlyfor desolate bits of hill and ravine. In one battle, Reckless walked 20 miles and hauled 3,500 pounds of shells. In another, she hauled a wounded Marine away from the fighting; she worked, relentlessly without complaint, even when she was wounded by shrapnel. This was a horse as tough as any Marine, a special veteran of America's forgotten war.