This article originally appeared on the Historical Novel Society website. The link to that site is here.
Tom Clavin’s latest book, Reckless – The Racehorse who Became a Marine Corps Hero, details the life of a sorrel mare that played a major role during the “Battle of the Vegas Cities”, a relentless five-day siege in which the U.S. 1st Marine Division repelled the advances of the Chinese in the closing days of the Korean War. Purchased on a Korean racetrack for $250, the horse went from winning races to hauling ammunition up steep inclines under heavy artillery fire, and was renamed “Reckless”, the same nickname given to the recoilless rifle used by the unit. With only some basic training, the mare proved to be unflappable, brave, and resilient, as she carried more than 250 lbs of shells at a time, stepping over communication lines, avoiding barbed wire, and traveling the equivalent of forty miles during a single engagement.
Yet Reckless is far from the only animal that has valiantly served this country’s armed services. Animal military heroes have been an integral part of our fighting forces in combat theaters from Europe to Asia and the Middle East. The Civil War gives us two such equine examples: “Cincinnati”, a thoroughbred gifted to General Ulysses S. Grant, and “Traveller”, an American Saddlebred owned by Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Cincinnati was a gift from a mysterious supporter, and became Grant’s most cherished mount. At the time, Cincinnati’s sire was the nation’s fastest four-mile thoroughbred.Grant, a horseman his entire life, later called his horse the finest he’d ever seen, and refused $10,000 in gold to sell him. Cincinnati was Grant’s constant companion until the war ended at Appomattox Courthouse. If you see a picture, portrait, or statue of Grant, chances are he’s astride Cincinnati and that includes Grant’s presidential monument in Washington D.C. Cincinnati lived a long life, dying on the farm of a Grant family friend in 1878.
Traveller, originally named “Jeff Davis”, was purchased by Lee in 1861, and was his favorite and most reliable mount during the war. Traveller was best known for his endurance, and he carried Lee across most of the battlefields of the war until Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Lee claimed that of all his mounts, Traveller was the only one to retain his “vigor”. Lee’s “patient follower” trailed his master’s hearse during the funeral and outlived him by less than a year. The horse is now buried outside the Lee Chapel on the grounds of Washington and Lee University.
Not all military animals served as officers’ mounts, however, and many assumed roles, like Reckless, that were more directly involved in combat. Thanks to Stephen Spielberg, nearly everyone is familiar with the story of “War Horse”, but dogs and even pigeons played vital parts in World War I. The best-known pigeon hero was named “Cher Ami” or “dear friend”. In October of 1918, the 77th Division of the U.S. Signal Corps was surrounded by the German army during the Argonne offensive. Trapped, exposed to friendly fire, and pressured to surrender, the men used their last pigeon, Cher Ami, to call for help. Carrying a message which read in part, “for heaven’s sake, stop”, Cher Ami was seriously wounded but continued flying the 25-mile route to deliver the cease-fire notice. Cher Ami saved the “Lost Battalion”, a group so famous that a movie of the same name was made to record the event. Blinded and lame, the pigeon was fitted with a wooden leg but eventually died of his injuries in 1919. Now, Cher Ami’s remains are preserved and displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
A bulldog terrier named Stubby also did his part to aid World War I soldiers. After preparing for war with the 102nd Infantry at Yale, he crossed the Atlantic and found a place in the French trenches. Stubby made himself useful by alerting soldiers to incoming artillery fire, helping to locate wounded American soldiers by listening for English-speaking voices, and assisting in the capture of German prisoners. Stubby could even sniff out poison gas, barking to save the soldiers before it reached them. Awarded medals in both France and America, he was the first dog to ever achieve a military rank. Stubby met several presidents and became America’s most famous animal until his death in 1926, an event that was marked by an obituary in The New York Times. Stubby’s remains can now be viewed next to those of Cher Ami at the Smithsonian.
In 1942, a German Shepherd was donated by a private citizen to help the war effort. “Chips” served with the 3rd Infantry Division throughout Europe and North Africa, acting as a POW sentry and tank guard dog. He also served as a sentry at the Roosevelt-Churchill summit of 1943 and became the most decorated war dog of WWII, winning the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart for injuries sustained during battle, and the Silver Star for bravery. The six-year-old dog eventually returned to the family who had donated him, but sadly, Chips died from his wounds several months later. In 1990, Disney made a movie to commemorate the dog’s heroic achievements.
Like a few of the military animal heroes mentioned here, Reckless lived to enjoy a well-earned retirement. Clavin’s story concludes, as Reckless’ story does, with her trip across the Pacific to live out her life at Camp Pendleton. Her retirement was anything but dull and included events such as a TV appearance, newspaper “interviews”, and a Marine Corps ball when she wasn’t caring for the four foals she produced. Reckless was awarded numerous medals, all of which she wore pinned to her blanket. Reckless was honored with the rank of staff sergeant in 1959 and remained the darling of the Marines until her death in 1968, when she was buried with full military honors. Yet as we know, no story of a military animal hero ends there. Reckless and her fellow animal heroes live on, their stories inspiring dozens of films, websites, and books like Clavin’s that commemorate their bravery and keep their memories alive.