Platoon 71 survivors return to Ribbon Creek to find peace
Published Saturday April 8 2006
By LORI YOUNT
The Beaufort Gazette
Though John Martinez was able to escape the powerful currents and paralyzing mud of Ribbon Creek on April 8, 1956, when six of his fellow recruits drowned, he was unable to escape the feeling that the survivors from Platoon 71 had a "bad rap" in the Marine Corps.
"Nobody ever said how many guys would've died if it weren't for the guys swimming" back into the creek to save others, Martinez reiterated throughout his return Friday to Parris Island. "We did a pretty good job. When it hit the fan, we did our job."
But a trip back to the base and the creek with six other survivors provided Martinez some relief.
"This I didn't expect," he said of a warm reception by Parris Island officials. "I'm very glad I came to this. At least we feel the upper echelon understands."
Fifty years ago today, Staff Sgt. Matthew McKeon, Platoon 71's inexperienced drill instructor, marched his platoon, including men he knew couldn't swim, into the swampy waters of Ribbon Creek at night to instill discipline. Unbeknownst to McKeon, the water was deeper and the tides stronger than usual, causing chaos that resulted in the loss of six lives.
McKeon was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and drinking in an enlisted barracks because he admitted to drinking vodka the afternoon before the march. He received a short prison sentence and stayed in the Corps with the reduced rank of private.
More than wanting to put themselves at peace, the returning members of Platoon 71 wanted to honor the six who died.
"The reason we didn't do it before was because McKeon was still alive," said Gene Ervin, who said he wrote his former drill instructor a letter shortly before his death a few years ago and didn't want to open old wounds for him. "It's time to say hello and goodbye and finalize it -- to remember six young guys didn't make it to 20 years old."
Friday morning, the men marveled at the pomp and circumstance surrounding a modern Marine Corps graduation -- an elaborate colors ceremony followed by a crowd of family and friends cheering graduating recruits as they march on the parade deck. The open graduations were an indirect result of the drownings and the scrutiny they brought.
"I just hope what has transpired has made their life a little more bearable," Gerald Langone, the platoon's section leader, said of watching the recruits march across the parade deck.
The Platoon 71 recruits couldn't agree on whether they had any formal graduation ceremony.
"They just shipped us out," said Ervin, adding though the platoon continued a training schedule after the drownings, they were sequestered and isolated from the rest of the recruits.
Bob Dombo remembers a dramatic farewell from Parris Island's new commanding officer, Gen. Wallace Greene. Speaking privately to the platoon, the general took off his stars to demonstrate he was talking to the new Marines as equals, warning them of possible questions they may face from friends and media, he said.
"He told us to tell the truth and don't make up any stories because" we were coming back for assignments, said Dombo, a retired New York firefighter who drove up from Orlando, Fla., with best friend and fellow Platoon 71 member Tom Vaughn.
Dramatic and systematic changes to improve training also impressed the men who had endured Parris Island in an era where drill instructors weren't questioned and thumping, or hazing, ran rampant.
"If they had this when we were in, this never would've happened," Martinez said in the middle of an explanation of the week of combat water survival training at the pool. In 1956, recruits weren't required to pass any water survival qualifications before moving on in training.
Ervin said he remembers April 8, 1956, well. During the day, the platoon was doing laundry and was goofing off outside the building, Ervin said, and the next thing he knew they were scrubbing down decks and later went for a "walk."
"I was frightened because I couldn't see," said Ervin, who knew how to swim. "I was concerned about what was going on in the back of platoon."
If they knew the cries for "help" were panic and not horseplay, more may have been saved, he said.
"Everyone here helped pull someone out," Ervin said.
Vaughn said he quickly found his shorter best friend, Dombo, who was farther back in the formation and more susceptible to the high waters and pulled him out. Tony Moran said he and Martinez, both strong swimmers, kept diving back in until there was no one visible to save.
"What broke my heart was leaving those guys behind," Martinez said.
On Friday afternoon, they made their way back to behind the rifle range on Parris Island and to Ribbon Creek for the first time in 50 years, where they last left six fellow recruits: Thomas Hardeman, Donald Francis O'Shea, Charles Francis Reilly, Jerry Lamonte Thomas, Leroy Thompson and Norman Alfred Wood.
In the daylight and at a lower tide, the creek didn't seem nearly as large or formidable. Without hesitation, the men climbed down the bank and jumped into the mud and marsh grass that had haunted their memories for half a century.
Moran brought two packages of tobacco to scatter in the water, which he said is a American Indian tradition. Each grabbed a pinch, and some ventured close to the water.
"You will live forever," Moran said as he released his tobacco leaves.
Walking around base, nobody could distinguish the seven men from the swarm of parents and former Marines touring during the weekly graduation. However, Chief of Staff Col. John Valentin did visit them at the creek, thanking them for continuing to support the Corps "irrespective of things we didn't do right."
"We're not proud of it," he said. "But we better talk about every stinkin' mistake. We are proud of you. We got it wrong and have to talk about it because it lacked professionalism."
Langone said he thinks forgiveness for the incident lies with the families of the drowned recruits, especially after feeling the pain of losing his own child.
"But nobody here says, 'I'm not a Marine anymore,'" he said. No one could think of any platoon members who went on to have a military career, though.
Platoon 71 seemed particularly touched by their tour guide for the day, Staff Sgt. Lance Oufnac, a senior drill instructor who told them the history of the horrific night is studied in the 13-week drill instructor school.
"For me, you're legends -- the history of Parris Island and the Marine Corps," he said. "It's because of you that I'm standing right here."
As a final stop, the men visited the depot chapel for a moment of reflection, and for a few minutes, everything was still except the fans whirring above them.
"We've come full circle," Ervin said as he boarded the bus to leave, shoes and trousers crusted with plough mud from Ribbon Creek. "The boys are going to rest in peace now."
Copyright 2006 The Beaufort Gazette ï¿½ May not be republished in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.
R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GnySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952 (Plt #437)--'72
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