Matthew C. McKeon, the man court-martialed for the Ribbon Creek drowning, died on Veterans Day.
The day the corps changed RIDGELAND: On April 8, 1956, six Marine Corps recruits drowned in a disciplinary march into Ribbon Creek. The aftermath caused an overhaul of basic training.
By William H. Whitten Special to the Carolina Morning News Matthew C. McKeon, the Parris Island drill instructor who received national attention when he was court-martialed after six of his recruits drowned during a disciplinary march into Ribbon Creek on April 8, 1956, has died at the age of 79.
Ironically, he died on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
For days, news of the death of the man whose actions caused an overhaul of Marine Corps basic training - some say the demise of the "Old Corps" - has circulated by word of mouth and e-mail throughout the Marine Corps community.
McKeon's obituary appeared in the Worchester (Mass.) Telegram &Gazette but without reference to the Ribbon Creek tragedy.
After the most publicized court martial in Marine Corps history - even Life magazine sent a sketch artist to the trial - McKeon was acquitted on Aug. 4, 1956, of charges 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, regained his sergeant's stripes in about a year and served another 16 years, retiring in 1972 with time credited for his Navy service during World War II.
But in a real sense it was the Marine Corps which had been on trial. For Gen. Randolph Pate, the only Marine Corps Commandant to have been born in the local area (Port Royal, Feb. 11, 1898), the failure of the training system was a larger issue than McKeon.
Pate ordered a separate recruit training command to be established at Parris Island, and in San Diego, Calif., to be commanded by a brigadier general selected by the commandant and answering directly to him.
Each of the recruit training commands was to be staffed with specially trained officers "to supervise and monitor but not to supplant the drill instructors" in the training of recruits.
An inspector general was established at Marine headquarters in Washington, D.C.
What has been described as an "uninterrupted flood of publicity by the press, radio and television" divided the nation into opposing camps - those who condemned McKeon and the perception of cruel, sometimes injurious, recruit training, and those who sympathized with him, not wanting to see the nation's premier military service "go soft."
The story began some minutes after 10 p.m. on Sunday, Apr. 8, 1956, when McKeon - a staff sergeant and drill instructor - marched the 74 men of Platoon 71, "A" Company, 3d Recruit Training Battalion from their barracks to Ribbon Creek.
After the recruits, with their individual equipment, entered the tidal stream under darkness some stepped or slid into water over their heads and panicked.
Later testimony indicated that McKeon knew the area and if the recruits had strictly followed his directions, they might not have drowned.
But because he had been drinking earlier, and he decided the platoon needed an unannounced disciplinary night march and was the DI in charge when the drownings took place, the court placed the blame squarely on McKeon.
"In conducting an unauthorized and unnecessary march by night into an area of hazard ... which resulted in the deaths of six brother Marines, (he) 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," said the Corps, in ordering a general court martial.
But, with national attention centered on the already historic courtroom building and DI facility at Parris Island (since destroyed by fire), a celebrated New York civilian lawyer, Emile Zola Berman - who later defended Robert Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan - volunteered to defend McKeon without pay.
He mounted a massive public relations campaign on behalf of McKeon.
For three weeks there was testimony, including defense testimony by one of the Corps' most renowned heroes, Lt. Gen. Lewis "Chesty" Puller, and the Marine Corps commandant himself.
There was also testimony that McKeon was graduated from the base's DI school just three months earlier, ranking 14th in a class which began with 90 men and ended up with 55.
Documentary evidence showed that McKeon had also undergone a routine psychiatric screening three months before and had been given the highest possible rating on "motivation," "emotional stability" and "hostility factors," and a better than average rating on "achievement."
The psychiatric unit's conclusion was that McKeon was a "mature, stable appearing Marine."
On Oct. 18, 1956, McKeon - having already served part of his time prior to sentencing - was released from custody and restored to active duty, but with reduced rank.
Over the years at least two books have been written about the Ribbon Creek tragedy and infrequent interviews were done with McKeon, who lived out his life in the Worchester suburb of West Boylston.
John Stevens III, a former Marine and now a Massachusetts judge, authored the most recent book, "Court-Martial at Parris Island: The Ribbon Creek Incident," and was at Parris Island in October signing copies.
McKeon is survived by his wife, five children and eight grandchildren. He remained a member of the Marine Corps League. Burial on Nov. 15 was in St. Joseph's Cemetery, Leicester, Mass.
Reporter Mark Kreuzwieser contributed to this report.