Korean War

The Korean Racehorse Who Joined the US Marines

Since I started writing this blog a few years ago, there has been one particular horse that I’ve received more correspondence about than any other. Receiving more just before the Lunar New Year holiday, I thought it about time I write about her.

It’s not J.S.Hold or Feel So Good, nor even Smarty Moonhak with his sire Smarty Jones’ legion of followers. In fact, she wasn’t even famous for her exploits on the track. It is, however, back at the old Sinseol-dong Racecourse where her story begins.

A race at Sinseol-dong in the late 1940s

A race at Sinseol-dong in the late 1940s

It was 1952 and the Korean War had been raging for over two years. Although the northern invaders had been expelled from Seoul, the track, in the Dongdaemun area of the city had long since stopped hosting racing. The horses were mainly gone – killed in the fighting or taken by the invading force – and the safe had been looted. Among other things, the track was now being used as a landing strip for US aircraft.

With nowhere else to go, however, some of the racing fraternity had returned, some of them with horses. Korean racing didn’t use thoroughbreds until the 1970’s and the majority of runners at the Sinseol-dong track had been ponies; some Mongolian and some from Jeju Island, and almost all had been fillies or mares. One of the most successful runners of the 1940’s was reportedly a mare named Achimhai or “Morning Flame.”

Although Achimhai most likely perished at the start of the war, she was survived by a daughter and it was this filly who was at Sinseol-dong and was bought by US Marine Lt. Eric Pedersen for the rather princely sum of $250 from her owner, a Korean teenager by the name of Kim Huk Moon (not his real name). As the legend goes, Kim needed the money to support his sister, Kim Chung Soon, who had lost her leg stepping on a land mine.

Lt. Pedersen bought her for a reason and the filly was put to work. Her task was to carry ammunition to the frontline for the 75mm Recoilless Rifle (anti-tank) Platoon of the 5th Marine Corp. From the time she was bought until the end of the war, “Reckless,” as the US soldiers called her – after the weapon they used – carried out this task with distinction, remaining calm when the platoon’s gun was fired while all other animals were spooked.

Sgt Reckless in Korea

Sgt Reckless in Korea

Her finest hour was in the 5-day battle known as “Outpost Vegas” during which she made 51 trips from the ammunition supply point to the firing sites. Almost always travelling alone, she carried a total of almost 5 tons of ammunition a total of 35 miles in the open and under enemy fire. She was wounded twice but continued in her task. More often than not, on the return journey from the front, she would carry wounded soldiers and thus was responsible for saving a number of American lives.

The horse showed bravery in battle

The horse showed bravery in battle

After the battle the US Marine Corp. made the horse the first ever animal to hold an official rank in any military service as she became a Sergeant. Reckless was well taken of by the Marines and became something of a mascot – albeit one well-versed in combat. Guzzling beer and Coca-Cola, Reckless essentially became one of the boys.

After becoming the subject of an article in the Saturday Evening Post which made her famous back home in the States, a campaign was launched to bring Reckless to the USA. With the Korean War over in 1953 – ending in the armistice, not a peace treaty, along the original 38th parallel that lasts until this day, the Marine Corp. duly obliged.

Reckless drinking with Marines

Reckless drinking with Marines

In total, Sgt. Reckless was awarded two purple-hearts, a Good Conduct Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation with star, the National Defense Service Medal, a Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, a Navy Unit Commendation, and a Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation.

Sgt. Reckless was brought to Camp Pendleton in California where, after giving birth four times and being promoted twice – the second time by the Commandant of the US Marine Corp, to the rank of Staff Sergeant – she died in 1968 aged 19 and was buried at the base. Outranking the soldier who cared for her, she always caused a problem on official occasions as he wasn’t allowed to walk in front of her!

Back at Camp Pendleton, Sgt Reckless was promoted twice

Back at Camp Pendleton, Sgt Reckless was promoted twice

Later this year, Sgt. Reckless will be honoured with a memorial which will be unveiled at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico on July 26. She has a website here and a Facebook group here both of which have lots more information about her life and the memorial. A Youtube video has received nearly 1.4 Million views.

Interestingly, in the UK, a horse named Sgt. Reckless can be backed at 33/1 for the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival next month. Get on it!

* While the early parts of her story remain hazy due to a lack of Korean sources, what happened after she was bought at Sinseol-dong is not in doubt. The story was first noticed in Korea in 2006 with an article in the Korea Racing Authority’s in-house newsletter and has since been covered here by a number of major media outlets. However, none of them add anything to the American sources they – and indeed this article – are based upon. All pictures above, with the exception of the one of Sinseol-dong Racecourse, are from http://www.sgtreckless.com

Kim Gu – “Baek Beom” – Independence Fighter, Writer, Politician and Punter

A few years ago, Korean lawmakers were asked to vote on who they respected the most in Korean history. The results were the same as an earlier poll among the general population to find who was considered the greatest Korean leader since independence.

Kim Gu

In the greater scheme of things, polls may be meaningless but there is no doubt that the man who topped both, Kim Gu – also known by his pen-name of “Baek Beom” (“Ordinary Man”), was one of the most important Koreans of the twentieth century.

His life story and role in the fight for Korean independence is well-known. Also well-known, but less celebrated, is that when he got the opportunity, Kim Gu liked nothing better than betting on the horses.

Born in Hwanghae (now North Korea) in 1876, Kim Gu first came to prominence in 1896 for the murder – and murder it was – of a Japanese man he suspected of being involved in the Japan-ordered assassination of Korean Queen Myeongseong (better known to history as Queen Min). Kim was sentenced to death but escaped from prison and, after a short spell at a Buddhist temple, became a teacher.

In 1905, the Japanese Empire formally annexed Korea. Kim joined anti-Japanese protests and eventually became  one of the leading figures of the Independence movement, spending the next fifteen years in and out of prison. After the suppression of the March 1 Movement in 1919 and subsequent humiliation a Korean delegation suffered at the post-World War 1 Paris Peace Conference, Kim exiled himself to China.

The betting hall at Sinseol-Dong Racecourse, Kim Gu would still have been in exile when this picture was taken

Joining the Korean government in exile he rose to become President of the “Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea” in 1927. This group carried out regular insurgencies against the Japanese before joining with the Allies in World War 2.

In 1945, after 26 years away from home, Kim and the rest of his group finally returned to Seoul to form the new government of a once more free Korea. Unfortunately, the country would immediately be divided into the Soviet backed North and the US backed South.

A year later, the remains of Kim’s mother, Kwak Nak Won, who died in Chongqing, were repatriated. It is said that Jockeys from Seoul Racecourse escorted her funeral procession from Seoul to her final resting place. From that moment on, “without fail”, Kim Gu, already known for his fondness for horses and racing, attended the races at Sinseol-dong every weekend.

In those few short years between independence and the outbreak of the Korea War, the racetrack at Sinseol-dong was the place to be. Kim Gu was the President, however, in reality the US Military Government ran the country up until 1948 and Archer Lerch, the third head of that government, was also often to be found at the track with his senior staff.

With them as enthusiastic punters were Kim’s Provisional government colleagues Shin Ik Hee, Speaker of the National Assembly, and most significantly, Syngman Rhee along with his Austrian wife Francesca Donner. Rhee would go on to defeat Kim in the 1948 election and rule South Korea throughout the Korean War and, increasingly despotically, up until 1960.

A race at Sinseol-dong in the late 1940s when Kim Gu, Syngman Rhee and Shin Ik Hee were track regulars

Kim Gu was, by all accounts, a flamboyant figure at Sinseol-dong. In his regular place in the VIP lounge on the 3rd floor and always dressed in Hanbok – the traditional flowing Korean robes – he would bark his bets at bookmakers (which even then was illegal as the tote has always had a monopoly in Korea) and then ferociously wave his betting slips over his head as the horses entered the home straight.

The racing authorities, taken somewhat by surprise at being graced with the presence of such high-profile figures, quickly arranged for some races to be renamed in honour of their illustrious patrons. Trophy races named after Syngman Rhee, Shin Ik Hee and Kim Gu were all held, right up until Sinseol-dong’s last day as Seoul Racecourse.

Kim Gu was assassinated in his office in 1949. To this day, there is speculation as to who may have been involved (the assassin himself was murdered in 1996 not long after claiming that Kim’s death had indirectly been ordered by the Rhee administration – and therefore even more indirectly by the CIA). Korea had lost one of its modern founding fathers. Less significantly, Korean horse racing had lost perhaps its greatest ever supporter.

Sinseol-dong Racecourse was destroyed during the early days of the Korean War. Syngman Rhee, who was very much a committed punter, did attend the new Ttukseom Racecourse although nowhere near as regularly as he did Sinseol-dong. His eventual successor Park Chung Hee who, just like Rhee before him, became increasingly authoritarian as his Presidencey wore on, was an occasional visitor to the track.

President Park Chung Hee (centre) in the VIP box at Ttukseom

Park recognised horse-racing as very much a common working-people’s sport and therefore something he should be seen to be supporting. Indeed, he lent his title to the first running of the President’s Cup – a race which, despite undergoing several reincarnations, is still run for today.

Park was the last President to be known as a racing fan. Just like Kim Gu, Park Chung Hee also met his end at the hands of an assassin. His successor Chun Doo Hwan (another military dictator), was recorded as having toured the Ttukseom Stables one morning in the early 1980s but did not stay for the racing. Subsequent Presidents have not been seen at the track. Current President Lee Myung Bak’s signature may appear on the back page of the Korean Racing journal every weekend granting that publication the Presidential charter, but it’s the Agriculture Minister who is the only government member who is ever required to actually show up at the track.

It’s no great loss and President Lee has, however,  signed off on the new racecourse being built in Yeongcheon – close to his main power base. Apropos of nothing, the last new racecourse, Busan, was built in former President Roh Moo Hyun’s hometown of Gimhae.

Having said that, given that these days, attending the racing is not something that one will readily admit to in polite Korean society, it is worth contemplating that once upon a time, everyone who was anyone in Korea spent their Sundays on the 3rd floor at Sinseol-dong cheering their horse home.

* Kim Gu is buried in Seoul’s Hyochang Park next to a charming but crumbling soccer stadium. The small park and the museum dedicated to Kim is worth visiting if you are in Seoul. There are not many English language resources on Kim but his Wikipedia page is quite detailed. His most famous piece of writing is a passage at the end of his autobiography called “My Desire” which is reproduced in full here.

Pictures on this post are from the KRA’s archive while additional sources (Korean) are Herald Kyeongje, 1 April 2010; Chosun Ilbo June 2, 1999.

* See here for a look at what is on the site of both the Sinseol-dong and Ttukseom racecourses today.