Matthew McKeon

On the afternoon of 8 April 1956, after drinking several shots of vodka, Staff Sgt. Matthew McKeon, a WWII and Korea veteran, chose to discipline Platoon 71 with a night march into Ribbon Creek, a swampy area of Parris Island. He knew that some recruits could not swim. He was unaware of the swamps deep water and strong currents. McKeon’s fatal decision led to six drowning deaths and a shake up in Marine Corps recruit training.

After entering the dark swamp, a few young men near the back of the line, spread out far from the shore, panicked. McKeon stated that he tried to help several of them back to land. He failed to rescue others.

Medic has obtained the releasable military records of Matthew McKeon from the National Personnel Records Center. In World War II McKeon served with the Navy on the USS Essex, an aircraft carrier assigned to combat support in several campaigns in the Pacific. During the Korean war, from 29 April 53 to 4 May 54 McKeon served with F Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Division. Various online sources state McKeon led a machine gun squad, however there is no MOS code or Combat Action Ribbon in the records provided to substantiate that claim. The unit did participate in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

“I was the last one alive out of the water,” he said. “Some of the men undoubtedly died trying to save others.”

Sergeant McKeon was sent to the brig. Two days passed before divers and helicopters found the six dead recruits. Most were 17 and 18 years old.

On 9 April 1956 Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Randolph Pate condemned McKeon. A Marine inquiry was begun to avoid a congressional investigation. Under the UCMJ McKeon was charged with manslaughter, oppression of recruits, drinking in the barracks, and drinking in the presence of recruits.

Emile Zola Berman, a highly decorated WWII Air Force intelligence officer and prominent New York civilian attorney (12 years later he represented the assassin of Robert F. Kennedy), was McKeon’s lead defense attorney. Berman organized the media fiasco of McKeon’s two week long General court-martial, which ended on August 4th, 1956.

Berman succeeded in obfuscating the issue of whether or not McKeon was drunk during the time of the incident. By accepting that McKeon would be convicted on a few of the lesser charges, Berman sought to acquit McKeon of manslaughter, hoping his client would lose rank and spend a few months in jail, rather than ten years at hard labor and a dishonorable discharge. Berman emphasized that McKeon may not have used good judgment, but otherwise followed boot camp SOP when disciplining recruits. According to Berman, the men drowned because they panicked, and not from McKeon’s negligence.

Berman called two witnesses to give their view of McKeon’s conduct. When asked what punishment he thought suitable, General Pate said, “I think maybe I would take a stripe away from him.… I would have him transferred away for stupidity … I would have probably written in his service record book that under no conditions would this Sergeant ever drill recruits again. I think I would let it go at that.” To the same question, General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, at the time the most decorated living Marine, replied, “I would say that this night march was a deplorable accident.… I think from what I read in the papers yesterday … [Pate] regrets that this man was ever ordered tried by a general court-martial.”

A panel of seven officers convicted McKeon of involuntary manslaughter and drinking in an enlisted barracks. He was sentenced to reduction in rank to private, nine months of hard labor, forfeiture of $30 per month in pay, and a bad-conduct discharge. Following a sentence review by the Secretary of the Navy McKeon was permitted to continue his Marine service at the reduced rank of private.

As a result of the Ribbon Creek debacle General Pate reorganized the Corps’ training program. Commanding officers at Parris Island and Camp Lejeune were replaced. A training inspector provided additional oversight. To rebuild the Corps tainted image, basic training graduations  included a parade and ceremony which family members could attend.

To improve DI morale, recruit training periods were extended from two and a half to three months, which shortened the drill instructors work day. DIs were issued cars, an increased clothing allowance, free laundry and dry cleaning. Smokey the Bear hat were re-issued, and base housing for single DIs replaced sharing barracks with recruits.

During the trial there were conflicting opinions regarding McKeon’s sobriety on the night of the drownings.

“…McKeon’s alcohol consumption was no more than – and perhaps less than – about three ounces of vodka near midday, a sip of whiskey and a few swallows of beer at about 1:30 P.M., and probably a swig of vodka near 8:00 P. M. [This last drink was a gesture of tipping a capped bottle to his lips and not a swig] In the meantime, he slept for about two hours in the afternoon and ate a full meal shortly before 6:00 PM.

It may be that McKeon had an odor of alcohol on his breath. It defies common experience to conclude that such a modest amount of alcohol, nearly all of which was consumed seven hours or more before he first set foot in Ribbon Creek, would have had the slightest influence on his judgement or conduct on the evening of April 8.”

So wrote John C. Stevens III in his book Court-Martial at Parris Island: The Ribbon Creek Affair. A former Marine, Stevens went through Parris Island boot camp a year after the incident. Given the court-martial evidence, would a congressional investigation have concluded differently had it not been supplanted by the Marines?

Long after Ribbon Creek McKeon expressed his deep remorse for the drowned men, for the promising futures they never had. On his passing, more than a few Marines held the former sergeant in high regard. Even so, the honor of Semper Fi in April 1956 was not well served.
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Sources

Wikipedia

Marine order of battle at Chosin Reservoir

Korean War MOS directory

USS Essex

Leatherneck

Law Library

The New York Times

Book review: Court-Martial at Ribbon Creek—The Army Lawyer

Book review: Court-Martial at Ribbon Creek—Bob Roher

Berman  New York Times obit

Find a Grave tributes to Matthew McKeon