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04-06-06, 08:32 AM #1
Ribbon Creek Marines returning 50 years later
Ribbon Creek Marines returning 50 years later
Six members of Platoon 71 died in 1956
Published Thursday April 6 2006
By LORI YOUNT
The Beaufort Gazette
When Staff Sgt. Matthew McKeon decided to march Platoon 71 into the swampy Ribbon Creek the night of April 8, 1956, to instill some discipline in lacking recruits, he was unaware of the deep water and deadly current in the marsh waters -- and unaware his decision would cost the lives of six Parris Island recruits and shake the Marine Corps to its core.
Fifty years later, the forced march on the marsh is seen as a turning point in the Marine Corps' philosophy on recruit training.
"Much of the hazing, or thumping, had reduced because there was much more oversight," John Stevens said of his boot camp experience on Parris Island just a year after the Ribbon Creek drownings. He remembered receiving a punch in the stomach for a minor infraction, though.
Though there are no base-sponsored memorial services for the 50th anniversary of the Ribbon Creek drownings, on Friday, about a dozen survivors of Platoon 71 will return to Ribbon Creek when they tour Parris Island for a reunion.
Stevens, a family court judge in Massachusetts and soon-to-be Beaufort resident, wrote one of the most recent accounts of the tragedy in his 1999 book "Court-Martial at Parris Island: The Ribbon Creek Incident" and said he has helped facilitate this year's reunion through contacts he made during his research.
Through interviews with 28 of the 75 recruits on the roster for Platoon 71, extensive meetings with McKeon, the transcript of McKeon's court-martial and interviews of other key players, Stevens recreated a detailed oral and documented history of the night of April 8 and the fallout in the following months.
"One of the rewards in talking with Matt McKeon is it allowed him to tell his story," said Stevens, adding that the now-deceased McKeon agreed to talk with him because he was also a Marine.
"It was really therapeutic for him. It released a lot of old demons."
McKeon had expressed his remorse since the beginning, though, and released a public statement a few days after the drownings, saying he couldn't find words for his grief, according to an article in The Beaufort Gazette on April 12, 1956.
He explained how he decided to take the platoon, the first and last he trained as a drill instructor, into the swampy area behind the rifle range to instill discipline, as he heard had been done by other instructors.
McKeon then said he led the recruits parallel to the bank in water he didn't realize was a tidal stream or was unusually deep until it was too late. According to Stevens' book, McKeon knew some men in the platoon couldn't swim.
Some recruits near the back fanned out too far away from the shore, and not much later, panic broke out. McKeon said in his statement that he scrambled to help some distressed swimmers to land and was unable to rescue others.
"I was the last one alive out of the water," he said, according to The Gazette article. "Some of the men undoubtedly died trying to save others."
McKeon was imprisoned in the brig, where he confessed, according to Stevens. The march took place Sunday, and it wasn't until Tuesday that a search effort made up of expert divers and helicopters retrieved the bodies of all six recruits who died: Thomas Curtis Hardeman, 20, of Vidalia, Ga.; Charles Francis Reilly, 18, of Clyde, N.Y.; Jerry Lamonte Thomas, 17, of Alexandria, Va., Leroy Thompson, 18 of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Norman Alfred Wood, 17, of Bay Shore, N.Y.; and Donald Francis O'Shea, 18, of Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Randolph McCall Pate, a Port Royal native, hurried down to Parris Island to condemn McKeon the day after the drownings, according to Stevens' book, and an inquiry began just 20 hours after the incident in an effort to head off a congressional investigation.
McKeon soon faced charges of manslaughter, oppression of recruits, drinking in the barracks and drinking in the presence of recruits under the new Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The drill instructor had admitted to consuming a few drinks of vodka the afternoon before the night march in the barracks, but in Stevens' research he found little evidence that McKeon was still under the influence at the time of the march.
The lead defense attorney, Emile Zola Berman, a prominent New York civilian attorney who went on to defend Sirhan Sirhan in the assassination of Robert Kennedy, orchestrated the media circus that was McKeon's grueling court-martial that began July 17 and ended with sentencing Aug. 4. The panel, or jury, trial was held in an auditorium because of national media interest.
In the end, a seven-member panel of officers convicted McKeon of involuntary manslaughter and drinking in an enlisted barracks. The jury recommended that McKeon be reduced to the rank of private and dishonorably discharged, but a review by a higher officer allowed McKeon to stay in the Marine Corps as a private to retain his livelihood and benefits.
Cleaning up training
Just as swiftly as it tried to dole out punishment in the Ribbon Creek drownings, the Marine Corps tried to revamp its training program.
Pate ordered a restructuring of the entire Corps' training program, including switching commanding officers at Parris Island and Camp Lejeune, N.C., weeks after the drownings and creating a position of training inspector to provide more oversight.
"It's one of the reasons they opened the gates," former drill instructor Eugene Alvarez said, adding that the public wasn't allowed on base until after the drownings. "They wanted to show the world they're not killing recruits."
Graduations didn't involve a parade or family members until soon after Ribbon Creek, he said.
At the depot, the new commanding officer, Gen. Wallace Greene, began making life better for drill instructors, said Alvarez, who worked as a drill instructor from 1953-54 and 1956-59.
A four-point program was launched in May 1956 in which recruit training periods were expanded from 10 to 12 weeks so drill instructors could work fewer hours per day, according to a Gazette article at the time. The plan also issued cars for the instructors to use, as well as an increased clothing allowance and free laundry and dry cleaning.
Campaign hats, which are the hats drill instructors wear that resemble that of "Smokey Bear," were re-instituted, Alvarez added, and single instructors no longer lived in the barracks with recruits but had their own housing on Page Field.
"I was right on top of them" while living with recruits, Alvarez said. "It greatly improved with Page Field. It was a big morale booster."
Though Alvarez said recruit training greatly improved since Ribbon Creek or even the Vietnam era, dangers still exist.
The 50th anniversary of the Ribbon Creek drownings comes on the heels of a court-martial of Staff Sgt. Nadya Lopez, a drill instructor who was acquitted in February of a negligent homicide charge in the drowning death of a recruit, Jason Tharp, while training in the depot's pool.
Two more drill instructors at the recruit depot in San Diego face charges in the August drowning death of a fellow drill instructor during combat water survival instructor training.
"Military training is dangerous," Alvarez said. "Persons will be lost. It has always been that way. The powers that be are careful to avoid mishaps. But they happen."
Thousands of young men and women continue to enlist and graduate from Parris Island every year, though, a process that Alvarez said amazes him to this day.
"We weren't very nice to them, but by the end of recruit training, they'd die for you," he said, adding that he receives nicer compliments from former recruits than from students from when he was a college professor.
04-08-06, 08:49 AM #2
Former Marines remember recruit deaths 50 years ago
BEAUFORT, S.C. - A handful of members of Platoon 71 are meeting in Beaufort to remember the six Marine Corps recruits who drowned 50 years ago during a training exercise at Parris Island.
The men died during a late-night march through an unexpectedly deep marsh.
Sgt. Matthew McKeon was court-martialed for taking his recruits through Ribbon Creek to instill discipline he thought was lacking. The deaths also marked a supposed end to the Marine hazing method of training recruits.
John Stevens, a Family Court judge in Massachusetts, trained at Parris Island a year after the six recruits drowned in Ribbon Creek.
He wrote a history of deaths in 1999 called "Court-Martial at Parris Island: The Ribbon Creek Incident." He interviewed 28 of the 75 recruits in Platoon 71 and even spoke with drill instructor McKeon, who has since died.
He also helped organize Friday's informal reunion in Beaufort.
"One of the rewards in talking with Matt McKeon is it allowed him to tell his story," Stevens said. "It was really therapeutic for him. It released a lot of old demons."
It was the only platoon McKeon trained as a drill instructor. He said he decided to take the recruits into the swampy area behind the rifle range to instill discipline. He said he had heard that other drill instructors had done the same thing in previous year.
McKeon didn't realize how deep the tidal stream was, but he did know that some men in his platoon couldn't swim, according to Stevens' book.
"I was the last one alive out of the water," he said, according to an article in The Beaufort Gazette on April 12, 1956. "Some of the men undoubtedly died trying to save others."
McKeon said he could not find words for his grief and regretted his decision.
Those who died were Thomas Curtis Hardeman, 20, of Vidalia, Ga.; Charles Francis Reilly, 18, of Clyde, N.Y.; Jerry Lamonte Thomas, 17, of Alexandria, Va., Leroy Thompson, 18 of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Norman Alfred Wood, 17, of Bay Shore, N.Y.; and Donald Francis O'Shea, 18, of Brooklyn, N.Y.
McKeon was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and drinking in an enlisted barracks. He was reduced to the rank of private, but allowed to remain in the Marine Corps to keep his benefits.
The Marines also revamped their training.
Marine Commandant Gen. Randolph McCall Pate ordered a restructuring of the Corps' entire training program, including creating a position of training inspector to provide oversight.
Former drill instructor Eugene Alvarez said the public was allowed to enter the gates at Parris Island after the deaths. "They wanted to show the world they're not killing recruits."
Alvarez said drill instructors also were given their own quarters and their daily work hours were reduced as training was expanded to 12 weeks from 10.
"I was right on top of them," Alvarez said of living with the recruits. "It greatly improved with (separate housing). It was a big morale booster."
Instructors also got an increased clothing allowance and free laundry and dry cleaning.
Despite the improvements, Alvarez said, there still are dangers.
Just last year, a recruit drowned in a Parris Island training pool. An instructor was acquitted in February of a negligent homicide charge in that case. In San Diego, two drill instructors face charges in the August drowning death of a fellow drill instructor during combat water survival instructor training.
"Military training is dangerous," Alvarez said. "It has always been that way. The powers that be are careful to avoid mishaps. But they happen."
04-08-06, 08:52 AM #3
DRILL INSTRUCTOR CREED
The Ribbon Creek Incident prompted the Marine Corps to examine and revamp its training methods. One result was adoption of the following creed for drill instructors:
“These are my recruits. I will train them to the best of my ability. I will develop them into smartly disciplined, physically fit, basically trained Marines, thoroughly indoctrinated in love of Corps and country. I will demand of them, and demonstrate by my own example, the highest standards of personal conduct, morality, and professional skill.”
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