MARINE CORPS RECRUIT DEPOT PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. -- Editor's Note: In addition to the interviews, factual information for this article was gathered from "Court-Martial at Parris Island", by John C. Stevens III, and "The U.S. Marine Corps in Crisis", by Keith Fleming.
Though the waters of Ribbon Creek now run still, Parris Island still feels the ripples from April 8, 1956.
That night, the fervent splashes of six recruits would rock the Marine Corps when they drowned in Ribbon Creek after their drill instructor, SSgt. Matthew McKeon, led them on an ill-fated disciplinary night hike into the swamp.
To help Marines to remember the lessons learned during that dark period of time, John C. Stevens III, author of the book Court-Martial at Parris Island, gave several briefs to the Marines of Parris Island May 29-30, on the Ribbon Creek incident.
Stevens performed two years of research and two site visits to Parris Island from his Massachusetts home in preparation for writing the book, including interviews with key players in the case.
Stevens gave drill instructors, drill instructor students and members of the command who attended the brief a look into the dark side of the Depot's history. Stevens stressed the pivotal role of the drill instructor in the making of Marines and the preservation of proper Marine traditions.
"The training you get here never leaves you," said Stevens. "It's where you find your character. So much of that relies on the D.I."
It was a very different world for the drill instructor in 1956. "The D.I. was running the show," said Stevens. The drill instructor had almost absolute power with very little supervision.
Ribbon Creek exacerbated the Marine Corps' already precarious position, according to Stevens. The United States was at peace, but the Marine Corps was already fighting a new battle- it's very existence. Decision-makers questioned the need for the Marine Corps. Ideas of disbanding the Marine Corps or making it a part of the Army roamed around Washington, D.C.
McKeon was assigned to Platoon 71, Able Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion. McKeon had served in the South Pacific with the Navy during World War II, and after a brief stint as a civilian, returned to active service, enlisting this time in the Marine Corps in 1948. He had undergone the five-week drill instructor's course and Psychiatric Observation Unit report dated January 3, 1956, found McKeon a "mature, stable appearing career Marine." There were no indications of sadism or other mental instabilities.
McKeon was second in charge of three drill instructors and was on duty the night of the incident.
The Buildup to Tragedy
It was a Sunday afternoon in building 761 at Weapons Training Battalion (now Weapons and Field Training Battalion). The recruits were on the rifle range, practicing for their qualifying shoot.
It was apparent to McKeon that discipline in the platoon was lax, according to Stevens' research. The recruits had been caught "crapped out" (lounging) in the grass outside when they were supposed to be cleaning their weapons and rifle jackets. McKeon immediately held a disciplinary field day, or a barracks clean-up.
While the recruits cleaned, McKeon began to drink in the barracks with the junior drill instructor in the platoon and a range instructor. All three men would eventually be charged for drinking in the barracks. After taking a trip to the Staff NCO club and picking up the recruits' mail, McKeon left the platoon with the junior drill instructor in charge to take a nap. He had been having chronic pains in his leg.
He slept until it was time to take the recruits to chow. Here, the platoon fowled up again. Despite being given explicit orders by the senior drill instructor not to get seconds through the chow line, several of the recruits did so anyway.
After chow, McKeon made the decision for the platoon to fall out for a marsh march. He had never marched in Ribbon Creek itself and had full knowledge that some of the recruits in his platoon were non-swimmers. Against better judgment, he proceeded.
In the Creek
McKeon marched the platoon behind Charlie Range, now known as Chosin Range, and marched Platoon 76 into the waters of Ribbon Creek.
As the march progressed, McKeon led the platoon in a "U" shaped pattern, turning left and left again.
Out of earshot of McKeon, several recruits in the back began goofing off. Someone cried "Gator!" and others were splashing water around.
Still others were genuinely concerned, stealthily falling behind and seeking comfort in what they hoped were shallower waters. There were 10-15 non-swimmers, and they were beginning to worry about the depth.
The platoon was on its way back when panic broke out in the rear of the formation. Some thought it was more goofing off, but this time, the trouble was real. Several of the recruits had fallen into a "trout-hole," a sudden depression under the water that increased the depth of the creek well over their heads. This, combined with the force of the receding tide, threw the platoon into utter confusion.
McKeon ordered the recruits out of the water. Slowly, the remaining recruits made it back to the shoreline. McKeon was the last man alive out of the water.
In a matter of minutes, six recruits had drowned.
Prior to trial, McKeon underwent sobriety tests, which initially showed him to be under the influence of alcohol. The medical examiner eventually reversed his opinion at the trial, believing the test had not been administered properly. However, the initial results gave fuel to the press to show McKeon as a drunken sadist.
The incident wasn't helping the Marine Corps' case with lawmakers, either. Demands for a congressional investigation were initially staved off by a visit by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Randolph McCall Pate, to Parris Island.
The visit proved to be a mixed blessing. Though it helped show Congress that the Marine Corps was capable of handling its own matters, a statement by Gen. Pate caused severe legal complications. When asked by a reporter what would happen to McKeon, Gen. Pate told them that McKeon would be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
The statement effectively found McKeon guilty before the trial. Among other procedural complexities this caused, it gave the appearance of a man damned no matter what the facts were.
Fearful that a man was going to be made a scapegoat for an institution, a well-known New York trial lawyer by the name Emile Zola Berman took the case for no fee. Berman was instrumental in McKeon's case to help curb the tide of public opinion.
Under the banner of defending the Marine Corps as well as McKeon, Berman was able to pull the Commandant back to Parris Island and have him testify on McKeon's behalf. In court, Berman portrayed McKeon not as a drunken monster as the press had said, but rather a family man who had simply made a horrible lapse of judgment.
Indeed, McKeon had not only a good record prior to Ribbon Creek but had claimed that he himself had been through a swamp marsh hike when he was a recruit, though not through Ribbon Creek. Stevens said he was unable to ascertain the frequency of swamp marsh hikes in recruit training prior to 1956 but said that it was probably infrequent due to the time needed for the platoon to clean themselves up afterward.
McKeon's case was also bolstered by the fact that there was no direct order against marching in Ribbon Creek.
As part of the reforms made to recruit training, the creation of a Recruit Training Command was ordered. This command was under the direct scrutiny of an inspector-general who answered directly to the Commandant of the Marine Corps.
Several changes to improve the quality of life for the drill instructors were also implemented. Incentive pay was added to drill instructor duty. Bachelor drill instructors, who up to that time were forced to stay in the "D.I. huts" of the squadbays, were moved into a renovated barracks next to Page Field, an unused airstrip on Parris Island. This allowed them a more relaxed atmosphere when coming off duty and gave them the chance to escape the recruits for a while. They also began to receive free laundry, which helped alleviate the expense of cleaning uniforms worn in the humid Parris Island weather. Finally, the drill instructors, who wore pith helmets at the time, were given back the signature campaign cover of the turn of the century Marine.
The feared congressional investigation that would take away the Corps' identity was never conducted.
McKeon was convicted and sentenced to being reduced in rank to private, forfeiture of $30 a month in pay, nine months of hard labor and a bad conduct discharge. After a review of the case, McKeon was allowed to remain in the Marine Corps, and the time in hard labor would be reduced to three months.
As for modern-day recruit training, RTC is now Recruit Training Regiment, and once under the supervision of an inspector-general, is now under the operational control of the Depot. Drill Instructor School is 11.2 weeks. Another book on the Ribbon Creek incident, Marine Corps in Crisis by another former Marine, Keith Fleming, is now read in Drill Instructor School as part of its curriculum. On top of the book, class time and in-depth discussions of Ribbon Creek are included.
"Every drill instructor gets this period of instruction," said GySgt. Ricky Williams, Drill Instructor School chief instructor.
The lesson of Ribbon Creek rests in the hands of today's drill instructors.
"What I do can have a big impact over my future and the future of the Marine Corps," said Williams. "That's what's in the back of [the drill instructors'] heads."
Ribbon Creek emphasized the need for good judgment in recruit training.
"I don't think [McKeon] knew what he did could jeopardize the future of the Marine Corps," said Williams. "But it did."
Ribbon Creek, like time, continues to flow through Parris Island. The splashes of drowning recruits are long silent, but they ripple through the Marine Corps to this day.