Fresh off best-seller success last year with The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, Tom Clavin—with amazing speed and meticulous research—has come out with Reckless: The Racehorse Who Became a Marine Corps Hero (NAL), the story of a smart 14-hand, 900-pound Korean sorrel mare who became an American legend.
A Mongolian racehorse (“born to be a champion”), sired by a stallion, she raced as a 4-year-old in Seoul until the war brought racing to a stop, and poverty to her owner. Originally called Ah-Chim-Hai (“Flame-of-the-Morning”), she was reluctantly sold to a Marine, Second Lieutenant Eric Pedersen, and trained to serve as a pack animal, repeatedly hauling heavy loads of artillery shells up steep hills, dodging bombs and bullets. As Clavin says, and as his selected bibliography shows, he is not the first to tell the story, but his book is likely to be the most reliable and most affecting account of this extraordinary and beloved horse that became a decorated full staff sergeant in the Marines. Just last July, almost to the day of the 60th anniversary of the armistice that brought a halt to the bitter, grinding Korean War, Reckless was honored at the National Museum of the Marine Corps with a life-size memorial statue. It was just one of many well-deserved tributes.
Though “fearless” better describes her bravery, loyalty, strength and tenacity, “reckless” suggests what the author describes as her sweet spirit and playfulness (she loved to hang out with the guys, drinking beer). She “expected to be treated like any other Marine, which included not being ignored,” pinching the arms of men nearest her when she wanted more to drink or eat. She also had a surprising tolerance for different handlers and extreme weather. “Reckless” also references the nickname given to the 24-pound shells of recoilless rifles upon which the 5th Marine Regiment relied when Pedersen bought the horse in October 1952 (one wishes for an explanation of how he got the idea of using a horse rather than a mule).
It’s clear that Clavin feels honored to be celebrating the brave Marines who fought and died in this protracted conflict (by July 1953, there were 4,262 killed, 26,038 wounded and 221 taken prisoner). But the book as a whole seems like an extended article on a horse that has been interwoven with a larger story about “the forgotten war.” For sure, there are some interesting histories—about horses in the military, treaty negotiations (Panmunjom was known as “Yak Yak Town”), battles won and lost, men saved and lost—but as a sustained narrative about Reckless, it’s a bit much at times, with prose that can get too anthropomorphic (“Flame was practically chortling with joy”). Readers not familiar with the various battles that shifted the advantage back and forth between North and South may find themselves glazing over at the amount of you-are-here military detail and biographical sketches of brave but secondary characters. The sections on Reckless, however, are deeply moving.