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64 years ago, a drill instructor marched Marine recruits to their death at boot camp
While many argue that their basic training or boot camp was “treacherous” and harder than those of military personnel to follow, a general consensus is that these perceptions are often personal exaggerations that are as old as soldiery itself.
However, one cannot deny the harshness of training when it costs a significant number of human lives in a single moment- a moment that -64 years ago to this very day- would forever change the course of history for the US Marine Corps.
In the chilly darkness of April 8, 1956, US Marine Staff Sergeant Matthew McKeon growled at members of Platoon 71, a class of recruits training at South Carolina’s Parris Island.
Feeling unsatisfied with the quality of his recruits and having had a few drinks of vodka prior, he decided to toughen them up by ordering them to grab their equipment and march into the darkness until he determined they were worn out enough to learn a lesson in discipline.
Platoon 71, just one of many platoons in “A” Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, would change history as they disappeared from view of the camp’s lit area.
With almost no moonlight to speak of, the recruits followed McKeon, who was often considered a superb leader. A former Navy man who served aboard the USS Essex in World War II, McKeon later joined the Marines and spent fourteen months in the Korean War as a heavy weapons squad leader.
Something was different on the night of April 8, however, and as the unit approached one of the many tidal streams on Parris Island, a lack of alertness would turn to tragedy.
Ordering his men to follow him across Ribbon Creek, McKeon likely did not fully appreciate the swift waters that occur when the tide changes, resulting in some men vanishing into the water- many who couldn’t swim.
“Anyone who can’t swim will drown,” he shouted. “Anyone who can swim will be eaten by the sharks!”
Moments later, six Marine recruits -Private Thomas Curtis Hardeman, Private First Class Donald Francis O’Shea, Private Charles Francis Reilly, Private Jerry Lamonte Thomas, Private Leroy Thompson and Private Norman Alfred Wood- were missing, presumed dead.
In the immediate aftermath, the Beaufort County Sheriff and several Marines were dispatched to locate the missing. The following day, Beaufort County Sheriff J. Ed McTeer furnished dragging equipment to a shrimp boat, dredging the creek and pulling up five of the recruits. The day after, a Marine DI donned diving gear and discovered the last Marine, stuck in a hole of water around 15 feet deep.
The reaction from the press was relentless and brutal, and no sooner than the bodies were shipped off to their respective families, a court of inquiry was assembled.
Soon, the entire nation was divided- there were those who despised McKeon for what had happened and those who felt he was just trying to toughen up his men.
McKeon was given pro-bono defense by Emile Zola Berman, a savvy attorney and highly-decorated World War II veteran from New York City who pointed out that harsh treatment by DIs was common, and that McKeon was simply a scapegoat.
The highest-profile moment of the case was an appearance by Marine legend retired Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller.
On the stand, Puller referred to the Ribbon Creek Incident as a “deplorable accident,” but noted that Marines must be trained to a high standard of discipline, lest they resort to mob-like behavior.
In private, however, Puller allegedly gave McKeon a verbal lashing.
McKeon was charged with Drinking in enlisted barracks, oppression of 74 recruits, culpable negligence in the deaths of six recruits, oppression of the six dead recruits, drinking in front of a recruit and negligent homicide.
By the end of the trial, then-Secretary of the Navy Charles S. Thomas sentenced the DI to three months in the brig and reduction to private. Given that the original sentencing was much harsher and involved a Bad-Conduct Discharge, the now-former staff sergeant took his punishment.
Thomas noted in his decision that McKeon’s recruits stood up for him and spoke well of his character.
“I could not help but be impressed how recruit after recruit, who were in his platoon, who had followed him on that fatal night march, testified concerning his character,” he said. “They were initially prosecution witnesses, and their testimony had the ring of sincerity. All of them, college men and men with little schooling, described him as a ‘very patient man’, an ‘extremely patient man’. A number of them stated he helped them with their personal problems. He was always ready to give his recruits ‘the breaks.’”
“I, in my mind, am sure that Sergeant McKeon never meant to harm his men,” Thomas continued. “I am convinced that a punitive separation from the service is not necessary as punishment for this man, nor would the interests of the Marine Corps be served by such a separation. For him, I believe that the real punishment will be always the memory of Ribbon Creek on Sunday night, April 8, 1956. Remorse will never leave him.”
Private McKeon served out his brig time and returned to the Marines, often doing side jobs to make ends meet due to his pay reduction. Eventually, he returned to the rank of corporal, but was medically retired due to a back injury. It was reported that he was well-respected by most Marines who knew of him, and many never brought up what had happened in 1956.
True to Naval Secretary Thomas’ words, McKeon was haunted by the Ribbon Creek Incident for the rest of his life. In 1970, he told Newsweek that he prayed for the lost recruits’ souls nightly, and begged God for forgiveness.
In an effort to re-vitalize the tarnished image brought upon them by the incident, the USMC introduced the distinctive DI campaign cover and Recruit Training Commands, among other reformations designed to separate the “old Corps” from the “new Corps.”
In popular culture, the 1957 film “The D.I.,” directed and starring Jack Webb as the title character with a screenplay written by a Marine veteran, was made with the support of the USMC in hopes that it would highlight the need for hard training.
Retired Corporal Matthew McKeon would later work for the state of Massachusetts as an inspector of standards. He died on November 11, 2003.