Ribbon Creek incident
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The Ribbon Creek incident occurred on the night of April 8, 1956, when Staff Sergeant Matthew McKeon, a junior drill instructor at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, marched his assigned platoon into Ribbon Creek, a swampy tidal creek. The incident resulted in the deaths of six United States Marine Corps recruits. McKeon was found guilty of possession and use of alcoholic beverage.
On April 8, 1956, at 12 A.M., Staff Sergeant Matthew McKeon, a combat veteran of World War II and the Korean War, led Platoon 71, his assigned platoon of 74 recruits, on an extra exercise to Ribbon Creek while intoxicated. McKeon led the platoon toward a swampy tidal creek on Parris Island, near the Marine Corps recruit depot. Upon arriving 45 minutes later, McKeon jumped into the creek and ordered the platoon to follow. From that point forward, the platoon marched along the creek bed and into deep water. Some of the men could not swim, however, and six drowned during the incident.
McKeon was brought to a court of inquiry directly on the following day. At first, he was classified mentally and "emotionally stable" and "a mature, stable appearing career Marine." Later, the court recognized that the detailed directives regarding and prohibiting certain Marine training methods were "correct and adequate," and that McKeon had launched an unnecessary and unauthorized disciplinary action. It was revealed that McKeon had consumed a few alcoholic beverages the afternoon before the evening of the march but was determined that he was no longer drunk as he led the recruits into the water. It was recommended that McKeon be court-martialled. Although McKeon himself claimed he held a minor degree of guilt, he admitted to being only "part of the system," and argued that the supervision regarding basic training should be restructured.
Staff Sergeant McKeon was brought to court martial amidst a howl of public condemnation about the "brutality" of Marine Corps training. Many Marines came to McKeon's defense pointing out such training was necessary for survival in combat. McKeon's supervisor, Staff Sergeant E. H. Huff, testified in his defense. He called McKeon an outstanding drill instructor and said that night marches were very common on Parris Island. He said the discipline in the platoon was so poor that he would have taken the recruits on the march himself if he had the time.
McKeon was defended by colorful civilian attorney Emile Zola Berman, who would later go on to defend Sirhan Sirhan. Berman put on a vigorous defense that swayed both the court and public opinion. Marine Corps Commandant General Randolph Pate testified. One reporter pointed out this was like "calling J. Edgar Hoover to testify about a problem within the FBI". The trial's most dramatic moment, however, was the arrival of General Lewis "Chesty" Puller, the most decorated Marine in the history of the Corps. Berman called Puller to testify about training methods. Although having some very harsh private words for McKeon, Puller called the incident in Ribbon Creek "a deplorable accident", but one that did not warrant court martial. He said that discipline was the most important factor in military training. He quoted Napoleon in saying that an army becomes a "mob" without it. He mentioned his experiences in the Korean War and one of the reasons troops failed was because of lack of night training. General Puller felt that the press had blown this incident out of proportion because of prejudice they had against the Marine Corps. He mentioned a similar accident at an Army post where ten soldiers drowned and pointed out that none of their superiors had been charged and that it had never made headlines the way Ribbon Creek did.
In the end, McKeon was acquitted of manslaughter and oppression of troops. He was found guilty of negligent homicide and drinking on duty. The sentence was a $270 fine, nine months of confinement at hard labor, rank reduced to private and a bad conduct discharge.
The Secretary of the Navy later reduced the sentence to three months in the brig, reduction to private with no discharge and no fine. McKeon went back on active duty. He was never able to regain his former rank and was medically retired from the Marine Corps in 1959 by claiming a back injury. He worked as an inspector of standards for his home state of Massachusetts. In a 1970 Newsweek interview, he talked of his lifelong burden of guilt and how he prayed to God every day to keep the boys in his safekeeping and for forgiveness. Matthew McKeon died on November 11, 2003, at the age of 79.
John C. Stevens wrote a book about the Ribbon Creek incident called Court Martial At Parris Island. He tracked down and interviewed many of McKeon's recruits. Stevens pointed out that, with one exception, all of them spoke in favorable terms about their former drill instructor. They claimed he was not the sadist portrayed by the prosecution.
The incident led to several changes in Marine Corps recruit training, following on reforms that had begun in the early 1950s, in the wake of the Korean War and a large influx of recruits into the Corps. Recruit Training Commands (RTC), commanded by Brigadier Generals directly appointed by and answering to the Commandant, was established aboard both Parris Island and MCRD San Diego. Within these commands, officers were selected to oversee recruit training down to the Series level. New Drill Instructor schools were established within each command, and DIs were more carefully selected. The number of Drill Instructors assigned to each platoon was expanded to three, rather than two, and the role of the Drill Instructor was reformed to emphasize example, leadership, persuasion and psychology in the process of recruit training. Special Training Company (STC) was also established to provide remedial training to recruits needing additional physical conditioning, motivation, or education and rehabilitation to recruits suffering from medical conditions. The campaign cover was introduced as a distinctive element of Drill Instructor dress, in part to recognize a new norm of professionalism and specialization within the Drill Instructor billet, and in part to signify a break from the "old" era of recruit training and the "new".
Public opinion and media coverage
The Ribbon Creek incident was the subject of significant media coverage. Several publications, including Time Magazine reported thoroughly on the development of the trial. Additionally, the U.S. Congress launched its own investigation. The 1957 film The D.I., directed and starring Jack Webb as the title character, may have been made [according to whom?] to provide the U.S. Marine Corps's view on the need for high pressure basic training. The film was written by James Lee Barrett and based on his teleplay for Kraft Television Theatre, Death of a Sand Flea.
- John C. Stevens III. Court-Martial at Parris Island: The Ribbon Creek Incident. ISBN 1-55750-814-3.
- Ribbon Creek by William Baggarley McKean BG USMC (Ret)The Dial Press 1958. LOC #58-12776
- A Brief History Of The Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina (includes a few pages on the Ribbon Creek Incident)
- Information regarding Lieutenant General Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller and his testimony after the incident
- News article on courtmartial