The following is from
"Despite the great care thus used in the selection of men assigned to
train recruits, a tragedy resulting from the grievous errors of judgment of a
junior drill instructor occurred on Parris Island in April 1956. Various
regulations and standing orders of the post were violated at the same time.
The offending DI was Staff Sergeant Matthew C. McKeon, assigned to Platoon 71,
"A" Company, 3d Recruit Training Battalion.<81> On Sunday night, 8 April,
between 2000 and 2045, he marched 74 men of Platoon 71 from their barracks to
Ribbon Creek, one of the tidal streams on Parris Island, and led the men into
the water. Some of them got into depths over their heads, panic ensued, and
six recruits drowned in the resulting confusion.
The ostensible purpose of
the march was to teach the recruits discipline.<82> A court of inquiry was convened the next day by Major General Joseph C.
Burger, Commanding General, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, to
investigate the circumstances. Evidence presented to the court showed that
Sergeant McKeon had graduated from the Drill Instructors' School in February
1956, ranking 14th in a class of 55 graduates; a total of 90 students had
begun the course in his class.
He had been screened by the Psychiatric
Observation Unit on 3 January 1956 and given the highest possible rating on
"motivation," "emotional stability," and "hostility factors," and a
better-than-average rating on "achievement." The conclusion of the
psychiatric unit was that McKeon was a mature, stable appearing career
The court was of the opinion, after considering all the evidence brought
before it, that the directives governing the recruit-training program were
correct and adequate.<84> These directives, which went into some detail in
prohibiting oppression of recruits and in forbidding training operations in
the nature of punishment, were repeatedly impressed upon students in the Drill
Instructor's School and upon senior and junior drill instructors.<85> In the
opinion of the court, supervision of the training program was adequate.<86>
The court's findings of fact and its opinions based on these findings placed
the blame for the accident squarely on Sergeant McKeon, who, "in conducting an
unauthorized and unnecessary march by night into an area of hazard...which
resulted in the deaths of six brother Marines, not only broke established
regulations but violated the fine traditions of the noncommissioned officers
of the United States Marine Corps and betrayed the trust reposed in him by his
Country, his Corps, his lost comrades and the families of the dead."<87> It
recommended, among other that the sergeant be tried by general
court-martial.<88> After making certain clarifying and supplementary remarks, General Burger
approved the proceedings, findings, opinions, and recommendations.<89>
When the record of proceedings of the court of inquiry was reviewed by
the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Randolph McC. Pate, he was of the
opinion that the court's action in the case had not gone as far as it should
have. The degree of guilt attributable to Sergeant McKeon, he believed, was
only part of the question.
The Marine Corps itself was on trial in a moral
sense for the death of the six recruits, in his opinion, and he believed that
a reorganization of training procedures at Parris Island, "insofar as the
supervision thereof is concerned," was necessary.<90> Thus, a separate recruit training command was established at Parris
Island, to be commanded by a brigadier general selected by the Commandant and
reporting directly to him.
In this way, the Commandant could "personally
control and monitor the steps which must be taken to insure more effective
supervision of our recruit training system." A similar recruit training
command was to be established at San Diego. Each of these recruit training
commands was to be staffed with specially selected officers "to supervise and
monitor but not to supplant the drill instructors" in the training of
At Headquarters Marine Corps, in Washington, the Commandant
appointed an Inspector General of Recruit Training to assist him in the close
supervision of this new administrative machinery. These extraordinary
measures would remain in effect, he said, until he was convinced that no
reasonable objection could be made to the Marine Corps training program.<91> 17
Thus Sergeant McKeon's ill-fated march set off immediate repercussions
which shook Marine Corps training from top to bottom. Moreover, an
uninterrupted flood of publicity by the press, radio, and television literally
divided the entire country into two opposing camps, those who condemmed McKeon
for what had happened and those who sympathized with him.
It was in this glare of public gaze that McKeon's court-martial began at
Parris Island on 16 July 1956. A noted New York trial counsel, Emile Zola
Berman, undertook the sergeant's defense before the military court. For three
weeks, the battle ebbed and flowed, concerned as much with the propriety of
the rationale and practices of Marine Corps training as with McKeon's
responsibility for the Ribbon Creek affair. Witnesses came forward to defend
Marine training, others came forth to condemn it.
The defense presentation
culminated in the appearance on the stand of retired Lieutenant General Lewis
B. Puller and the Commandant of the Marine Corps himself.
Finally, on 4 August 1956, the court handed down its decision: McKeon
was acquitted of charges of manslaughter and oppression of troops; he was
found guilty of negligent homicide and drinking on duty. The sentence was a
fine of $270, nine months confinement at hard labor as a private and a
bad-conduct discharge from the Marine Corps. Upon review by the Secretary of
the Navy, the sentence was reduced to three months hard labor and reduction to
the rank of private; the discharge was set aside and the fine remitted.
Having already served part of his term prior to sentencing, McKeon was
released from custody on 19 October 1956 and restored to duty commensurate
with his reduced rank. By then, most of the public tumult had died, but there
was little doubt that 8 April 1956 had become an historic date in the history
of Marine Corps training, whether it be at Parris Island or elsewhere. The
drownings at Ribbon Creek had brought the training system of the Corps to
public attention in an exceedingly unfavorable light. The Marine Corps,
normally a strictly voluntary organization, had always derived much of its
strength and prestige from the confidence reposed in it by the general
citizenry of the United States.
If this confidence, which had been seriously
shaken in many sectors of the populace, could not be restored, the general
cause of the Corps would suffer. In the 41 years of its existence as a major
center of Marine training, Parris Island had never faced a more serious
challenge; for now, in addition to its primary mission of training new
Marines, it was of utmost importance to assure the American people, by the
power of example, that the rigors of recruit discipline and work were
sufficiently tempered by humanity and common sense as to prevent the
recurrence of tragedies such as Ribbon Creek.
Basically, nothing was wrong with recruit training at Parris Island, but
some changes were instituted in training procedures, customs, and philosophy.
Most of the changes can be traced to the objective of saving for the drill
instructor his over-all authority while eliminating every reason that might
cause him to abuse it.<92> Drill instructors were more carefully selected, and a special school was
established to assure that only the best of them became recruit trainers.
Three instructors were assigned each recruit platoon instead of two, while
extra pay of $30 a month was provided each DI to help compensate him for the
extra hours his job required. All training was closely supervised by a team
of officers to seek ways of improving procedures so as to best provide the
type of Marine recruit graduate desired. Drill instructors were directed to
put a greater premium on example, persuasion, psychology, and leadership in
bringing a platoon of recruits into shape.<93>
A special training unit was set up at Parris Island to take care of
recruits with specific problems. A conditioning platoon, designed to take
care of those overweight, provided special diet and proper exercise to help
its members lose up to 30 pounds within three weeks. A motivation platoon for
the recalcitrants and a proficiency platoon for the slow learners were
A strength platoon provided for those requiring special
exercises to build up flabby muscles, and a hospital platoon took care of
those requiring medical attention. More than three-fourths of the recruits
sent to such special platoons return to their regular platoons to successfully
complete the training program.
The Marine Corps does not give up on a recruit
until he has had thorough physical and psychiatric examinations and has had
repeated interviews and careful study by a board of officers. Most of them
get through boot camp, with the rejection rate about 4-1/2 percent at Parris
Island in 1959.<94> There is general agreement that the basic training at Parris Island is
professionally excellent and that the physical training is the best in the
history of the Recruit Depot.
It may not be like the 'old Corps,' but Parris
Island is turning out Marines mentally and physically ready to maintain, and
even enhance, the reputation of the Marine Corps. In the words of Commandant
David M. Shoup, "The Marines we are turning out at Parris Island today can cut
the mustard with any Marine who ever lived and fought.<95>
From Gunny G's Maverick Marines....
R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GySgt USMC (Ret.)
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