Two Sergeants with four legs

By Pete Mecca

Two decorated combat veterans, both sergeants, one a brindle short-tailed mongrel puppy of Pit Bull ancestries of World War One renown, the other a chestnut-colored Mongolian mare with a blaze and three white stockings and a Korean War icon, became household names and national heroes during their respective conflicts.  Like all warriors, they did their job courageously under treacherous conditions and under fire.  And these are their stories.

In July of 1917, a stray mutt moseyed into the Yale Bowl in New Haven, CT.  The Yale Bowl, renamed Camp Yale, was a basic training site of the 102nd Infantry, a part of the 26th ‘Yankee’ Division making plans for their deployment to the World War One killing fields in France.  The dog was not the cutest of canines: barrel shaped, short, a docked tail, white and brown brindled stripes, homely as hominy.  The soldiers called the stray Stubby.  A private named J. Robert Conroy took a liking to the mutt and the two soon became inseparable, yet a problem arose in September of 1917: the 102nd received orders to ship out.  Conroy was not leaving his adopted buddy behind, therefore Stubby became a stowaway.  Conroy tucked Stubby under his Army-issue greatcoat and slipped by the troop ship’s guards, then hustled the dog down to the hold and hid him in the vessel’s coal bin.

Sgt. Stubby – contributed photo

Unfortunately, Stubby’s hiding place was discovered during the crossing by officers of the 102nd.  Fortunately, Stubby had been trained well and lifted his right paw in a salute which guaranteed his station as the 102nd Infantry’s unofficial mascot.  Popular with the soldiers and crew, one of the ship’s machinists crafted a set of metal ‘dog tags’ for Stubby.  When the ship docked at Saint-Nazaire, France, the 102nd and their restrained mascot were ready for war.

Many of the participants in World War One had developed dog training schools, including Russia, England, Belgium, France, and Germany, but Uncle Sam did not have nor maintain canine units.  The Army borrowed French-trained dogs for sentry duty, which were useless since the dogs only responded to commands in French.  Stubby, however, was an All-American mutt, and just like the green American soldiers, a product of mixed-genes, raw to combat, and considered an underdog, pardon the pun.  Both would soon prove their mettle in The Great War.

Led by Colonel John Parker, a Spanish-American War veteran, crotchety and considered a browbeater, he was nevertheless a brave man and led the ‘Yankee’ Division through 4 major offensives and 17 engagements.  It was Parker that issued special orders for Stubby to stay with the unit, plus Stubby was the only member of the regiment that could ‘talk back’ to Colonel Parker without repercussions.  Parker, Stubby, and the 26th would endure more combat than any other American unit, a total of 210 days of sheer hell.

Sgt Stubby with General John ‘Blackjack’ Pershing. Contributed photo

On St. Patrick’s Day 1918 in the trenches at Chemin des Dames, a signal indicated incoming poison gas.  Private Conroy and Stubby survived 24 straight hours of a German gas attack, most likely due to the usage of a gas mask, although Stubby facial characteristics often made a gas mask nearly useless.  During one particular gas attack, Stubby smelled the gas and ran up and down the trenches barking and nipping sleeping soldiers to warn them of the attack.  On April 5, Stubby was officially awarded the rank of private first class.

On April 20 near the towns of Seicheprey and Saint-Mihiel, 3,000 shock troops of German infantry overwhelmed about 600 men of the 26th.  It was a brutal battle, with clerks, cooks, even band members thrown into the melee.  The Americans suffered heavy casualties, including Conroy and Stubby who was hit by a shell fragment that imbedded in his left foreleg.

Hospitalized with other injured soldiers, Stubby slowly recovered while visiting wounded men with a ‘bedside manner’ that boosted morale in bleak conditions.  By June, Conroy and Stubby were both back in action.  Stubby learned to recognize the different clothing of combatants, khaki for Americans, dull gray for the Germans, and had to be refrained from ripping out the seats of the pants of German prisoners of war.  Attuned to different smells, Stubby ‘sniffed out’ a German soldier hiding in some bushes in the Argonne, attacked and gave chase, then finally wrestled the man to the ground before dragging his ‘prisoner’ back to the 102nd.  The Iron Cross medal pinned on the German’s uniform soon adorned Stubby’s Army ‘coat’, right under his tail.

Back home, Stubby’s exploits graced the front pages of newspapers all across America.  The adopted orphan pit bull four-legged World War One trooper had become a national hero.  He survived the cruel battles and offensives of the Aisne-Marne, Saint-Mihiel, and the Champagne-Marne.  At war’s end, Stubby was in Meuse-Argonne and remained in France for several months with his owner, Robert Conroy.  Christmas Day, 1918, visiting President Woodrow Wilson met and ‘shook hands’ with the famous dog, the first of three Presidents to do so.  Plus, the four-legged hero held the rank of sergeant.

Stubby and Conroy were demobilized at Camp Devens in Massachusetts on April 29, 1919.  A dog’s life was not in Stubby’s future.  He attended the 1920 Republican National Convention, was officially received at the White House by the newly elected President Warren G. Harding, passed review for the next President, Calvin Coolidge, three times.  For the first time, the exclusive Hotel Majestic in New York broke its own ‘pet’ rules and allowed Stubby to spend the night.  Sergeant Stubby was granted a membership in the Red Cross, American Legion, and the YMCA awarded him a lifetime membership including entitlement to a bed and 3 bones per day.

When Robert Conway attended Georgetown University to study law, of course Stubby was by his side and became the college’s official mascot, the predecessor to the Hoya ‘bulldogs’.  During the ‘break’ between the second and third quarters of football games, Stubby would fetch, push, and play with a ball to entertain the fans.  Evidence suggests his antics were the predecessor to the now predictable and celebrated halftime shows at all football games.

Sgt. Stubby leads an American Legion Parade. Contributed

The little mutt that could, died in his sleep in his owner’s arms in 1926.  Sergeant Stubby is the only WWI veteran still to be seen.  Taxidermied, the sergeant stands ramrod straight donned in his Army coat covered in war medals, including the Purple Heart and the captured German Iron Cross near his tailbone, at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC.

Ever since our ancestors theoretically scampered down from trees and started tossing rocks at each other before developing gunpowder and nuclear weapons, our two-legged comrades (carrier pigeons) and four-legged warriors like elephants, camels, and canines have participated in combat from ancient times.  But none can hold a candle to the millions of steeds saddled up for war, few of which are ever remembered much less mentioned.  Such is not the case of Sergeant Reckless.

A Korean stableboy’s sister lost a leg to a land mine during the Korean War.  His name was Kim Huk Moon, and he needed an artificial leg for his injured sibling.  Reluctantly, he sold his favorite mount, a Mongolian horse named Ah Chim Hai (Morning Flame) to a US Marine Lieutenant named Eric Pederson for $250.00.  The Marines named the smallish 14 hands mare ‘Reckless’, a reduction of the name of the Recoilless Rifle and the brave leathernecks who manned the weapon.

 

Reckless next to a recoilless rifle. Contributed

Gunnery Sergeant Joe Latham was chosen to train Reckless and a young private became her caretaker.  Medical needs were provided by a Navy corpsman.  With the help of others, Gunnery Sergeant Latham taught Reckless to avoid barbed wire, to lie down if under fire, even to run for the bunker upon hearing the word ‘incoming’!  The Marines grew fond of the horse and allowed her to freely roam the camp and enter a tent of her choosing.  She slept with Marines, and on cold nights slept near Latham’s tent stove.

Her varied appetite was legendary: scrambled eggs, bacon, beer, even Coca-Cola.  The Marines promptly learned not to leave food, any chow, unattended.  Reckless was fond of hard candy, chocolate, peanut butter sandwiches, buttered toast, shredded wheat, mashed potatoes, and at one point ate her blanket and $30.00 worth of winning poker chips.

At a location called Hedy’s Crotch, Reckless received her baptism under fire.  Although loaded down with six heavy 24 lb. each recoilless shells, she went straight up, off all four hooves, when the first Recoilless Rifle fired.  On the second firing, she only snorted.  By the end of the mission Reckless was eating a discarded helmet liner and developed an interest in the operation of the Recoilless Rifle.  Unbelievably intelligent, a new delivery route would be remembered after a couple trips then Reckless delivered the munitions on her own.  Once unloaded, she transported wounded Marines out of Harm’s Way.

During the Battle of Outpost Vegas (Panmunjom), a fight lasting over 3 days, Reckless humped a total of 386 recoilless rounds an average of 35 miles a day, 51 trips per day.  She was wounded twice by shrapnel, over her left eye and once on her left flank.  After the Battle of Outpost Vegas, Reckless was promoted to corporal.

Reckless under training not to be spooked by fire. Contributed photo

Corporal Reckless was the first horse to participate in an amphibious landing with the Marines.  The transport ship’s captain refused to let Reckless aboard his clean vessel, which had won ‘the cleanest vessel’ award for two years running.  The Marines showed him the loading list, approved by him, which clearly listed Reckless and her equipment.  She was allowed aboard the ship.  Once underway, Reckless got seasick and messed the ship’s decks.  She also helped string telephone wire, hauling reels of wire on her pack which helped string wire quicker than 12 men on foot.

A tribute to Reckless

After the war, Reckless was promoted to sergeant in a formal ceremony on April 19, 1954.  On August 31, 1959, she received another promotion to staff sergeant awarded by General Randolph M. Pate, Commandant of the Marine Corps, including a 19-gun salute and 1,700 man parade of Marines who served with her in Korea.  Interestingly, Reckless arrived in America on November 10, 1954, the birthday of the US Marine Corps.

Reckless was the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles plus the subject of the book Reckless: Pride of the Marines.  Well-cared for at Camp Pendleton, she birthed four foals: Fearless, Dauntless, and Chesty.  A filly died shortly after birth and was unnamed.  ‘Chesty’, of course, was named after the most decorated Marine of all time, Chesty Puller, a Medal of Honor recipient and Marine Corps legend.

Suffering from arthritis in her back, Reckless fell against a barbed wire fence on May 13, 1968 and died while under sedation for treatment.  She was approximately 20 years old.  A plaque and photo honors her at the Camp Pendleton stables, a statue of Reckless carrying ammunition was unveiled in July of 2013 in the Semper Fidelis Park at the National Museum of the Marine Corps and another memorial dedicated at Camp Pendleton on October 26, 2016.

Marines do not refer to Reckless as a horse.  She is a Marine.  Period.

A Tribute to Reckless.

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at aveteransstory@gmail.com or aveteransstory.us.

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