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Matthew C. McKeon, the man court-martialed for the Ribbon Creek drowning, died

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  • Matthew C. McKeon, the man court-martialed for the Ribbon Creek drowning, died

    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.
    Semper Fidelis

    George T. Curtis

  • #2
    Regarding Matthew McKeon

    I remember at the time this happened, my dad was stationed at NAS Whiteing Field, near Milton Fla. At the E-Club and bowling ally there were jars that people were putting money into for his family and for defense attorney. If I remember correctly, even though some thought what he did was wrong, they still gave and supported his family. This was both Marine and Navy personnel.
    There was also a lot of talk regarding the testimony of Gen. Puller. Of course I was to young to remember much, but I do know it was the talk of the base for weeks to come.

    Gary Alls
    HMM-263 '66-'67


    • #3
      This horrible incident cost the lives of six recruits causing a number of overdue Policy changes at both MCRDs.

      I had the privilege of meeting Sgt. McKeon at a Marine Corps dedication in Worchester Massachusetts in 1980, it was clear from speaking with him that he was very remorseful and 100% MARINE!
      Semper Fidelis

      George T. Curtis


      • #4
        Staff Sgt. McKeown

        I entered recruit training at Parris Island in June of '57, about a year after the Ribbon Creek incident...I was 17 years old, 3 days out of high school, and I was very aware of the deaths of the 6 Marine recruits. I was also in the 3rd Battalion. There was never a hint or mention by our Drill Instructors about the deaths, or Staff Sgt. McKeown.

        After boot camp and a series of aviation schools I was assigned to the hydraulic shop (with my new Pfc chevrons) of H&MS 24 at MCAS Cherry Point.

        I met and spoke with then Cpl. McKeown a few times when he worked at the enlisted club. Everyone I knew supported him, and he was generally accepted for who he of us, a United States Marine.

        He did look a little tired and had put on some weight, but he seems to have made an adjustment. Just a little footnote. God bless, and...

        Senper Fi!

        Bill Miles
        God bless, and...

        Semper Fi!
        Bill Miles


        • #5
          Original Message -----
          From: S.Stefan
          To: Stef
          Sent: Wednesday, November 19, 2003 8:43 AM
          Subject: Fw: Obituary Matt McKeon

          Subject: Fw: Obituary Matt McKeon

          ----- Original Message -----
          Sent: Tuesday, November 18, 2003 11:43 AM
          Subject: Obituary Matt McKeon

          Tribute to a fallen Marine
          by John Stevens


          I thought you and the other Marines who knew or knew of Matt McKeon might be interested in the obituary I wrote after attending his funeral last Saturday:
          November 15, 2003

          On a hardscrabble hill overlooking the rural neighborhood where he was born, Matthew McKeon was buried today. More than a hundred of his friends and family huddled together in the face of the late autumn winds as an admixture of Catholic blessings and Marine Corps salutes paid final tribute to the flawed but noble spirit whose lifeless embodiment was laid to its final rest.

          Forty-seven years ago, this same man was reviled by all too many people as a heartless butcher, a sadist whose momentous error of judgment caused six Marine recruits to drown in the black waters of Ribbon Creek. His life thereafter was in many ways an effort to seek redemption for the act that he could never undo. At his court-martial he testified that had he been asked to walk to the gallows he would have done so. A devout man, he prayed every day of his life thereafter for the souls of his lost recruits and for forgiveness.

          But there was so much more to this man than was revealed by the publicity surrounding the events from which he derived such notoriety. Until that time he had an unblemished military record, serving in World War II aboard the carrier “Essex” and as a machine gunner on the frigid battlefields at the Chosin Reservoir. He was a battle-tested Marine who had faithfully and honorably served his country in the face of peril.

          Matt McKeon was a gregarious man without hint of guile or pretense. Tears flowed down his cheeks as he recounted to me the events of Ribbon Creek forty years earlier. He was faithful to his wife, Betty, loyal to his friends, and loving to his extended family. He never sought to escape responsibility or to cast the burden on others for the deaths at Parris Island. Say what one will, he was a man of character.

          Matt McKeon died at his home, quite appropriately on Veterans Day, his family at his side. May he rest in peace enjoying now the redemption never attainable in his lifetime. If there is a place beyond, may he forever be joined in serenity with the six young men who preceded him there.

          Former Marine John Stevens is the author of, "Court-martial At Parris Island: The Ribbon Creek Incisent"

          Posted on Nov 17, 2003, 7:33 PM
          Semper Fidelis

          George T. Curtis


          • #6
            Matthew C. McKeon, the man court-martialed for the Ribbon Creek drowning, died on Veterans Day.
            Image courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps photo achives
            Attached Files
            Semper Fidelis

            George T. Curtis


            • #7
              Lieutenant Geneneral Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, USMC (Ret.)

              Now, Chesty Puller is so well known to every Marine that just about anything that could be written here about him would be redundant. Outspoken and Outstanding, The Marine's Marine! What more could be said? Very little more, and much, much more, both answers would be correct at the same time.
              But here is one thing that might be mentioned here. This is in regard to the infamous Ribbon Creek incident and court-martial of the 1956 Marine Corps . The following is neither as well known nor as often quoted as most other stories about Chesty Puller, yet it stands as much as any other to present a clear picture as to who he was and what he stood for, and what he always will be in the eyes and hearts of Marines everywhere.

              "On the dimly moonlit night of April 8, 1956, a platoon of Marine recruits at Parris Island, South Carolina, was marched into a tidal arm of Broad River by a thirty-one-year-old veteran drill instructor, Staff Sergeant Matthew C. McKeon. Six recruits drowned."
              McKeon had had several drinks of vodka that day, the CMC relieved the commanding officer of the recruit depot, and told Congress that McKeon would be punished.
              McKeon was court-martialed.

              Amid a nationwide public outcry regarding the whole matter of the drownings in particular and Marine Corps training practices in general, LtGen Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller was recalled to active duty to testify at the trial regarding Marine training and tradition. Mrs. Puller protested to her husband citing previous trouble and controversy in Puller's career. Puller told her, "...The important thing is the Marine Corps. If we let 'em, they'll tear it to pieces. Headquarters won't speak up. It's my duty to do it."

              At the trial, Puller was asked questions pertaining to his own military service, the mission of the Marine Corps, the most important element of Marine training, etc. In part, Puller replied that:, "...The definition of military training is success in battle. In my opinion, it is the only objective of military training..."
              He quoted Napoleon. "He stated that the most important thing in military training is discipline. Without discipline an army becomes a mob."
              Puller was asked what he had learned here (PISC) as a recruit. He replied, "Well, the main thing--that I have rememberd all my life--is the definition of espirit de corps. Now my definition--that I was taught, that I've always believed in--is that espirit de corps means love for one's military legion. In my case the United States Marine Corps. I also learned that this loyalty to one's Corps travels both ways, up and down."

              "Q: Now, general, I want you to assume that what is the evidence in this case is a fact. That on a Sunday evening a drill instructor took a platoon that was undisciplined and lacked spirit and on whom he' tried other methods of discipline. And that for purposes of teaching discipline and instilling morale he took that platoon into a marsh or creek--all the way in front of his troops--would you consider that oppression?
              A: In my opinion it is not."
              "Q: So, in your opinion, was this act of this drill instructor in leading his troops, under those conditions and for that purpose, good or bad military practice?
              A: Good...
              ...I would train my troops as I thought--as I knew they should be trained--regardless of a directive."
              "Q: ...I lead these recruits into water over their heads and I lose six of those men by drowning. Would you say that some action should be taken against me?
              A: I would say that this night march was and is a deplorable accident."
              "Q: Would you take any action against me if I were the one who did that, if you were my Commanding Officer, sir?
              A: ...I think, from what I read in the papers yesterday of the testimony of General Pate before this court, that he agrees and regrets that this man was ever ordered tried by general court-martial."

              "Puller went into the noncom's club that night with Berman, two Marine generals and other officers; the big crowd stood, shouting until he spoke:
              'I've talked enough for today. This will be my last request. Do your duty and the Marine Corps will be as great as it has always been for another thousand years.'
              The applause was deafening."

              The book, " Marine, The Life of Lt. Gen. Lewis B. (Chesty) Puller, USMC (Ret.)"
              By Burke Davis, 1962, Bantam
              Semper Fidelis

              George T. Curtis


              • #8
                Re: Matthew C. McKeon, the man court-martialed for the Ribbon Creek drowning, died

                Thought this might be of interest to some of you. I enlisted in the USAF 4/9/56, the day after the "Ribbon Creek Tragedy". (Retired as USAF MSGT in 1977).

                It took about 4 or 5 weeks for the news of the SSGT McKeon's misfortune to filter down to us basic trainees and the "powers that be" at Lackland AFB, TX. The very next day, Air Force basic training suddenly got easier.

                By the way, my best friend in TX for many years was Regimental Sgt Major Gordon P. Michalk USMC Retired. He passed away last October, and I really miss him and the hours we spent telling each other war stories, and kidding each other about our respective branches of service.