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Matthew McKeon Court-Martial: 1956

Matthew McKeon Court-Martial: 1956

Defendant: Matthew McKeon
Crimes Charged: Drinking in enlisted barracks, oppression of 74 recruits, culpable negligence in the deaths of six recruits, oppression of the six dead recruits, drinking in front of a recruit
Chief Defense Lawyers: Emile Zola Berman, Thomas Costello
Chief Prosecutors: Charles B. Sevier, Frederick M. Haden, William Otten, Jr.
Judges: Edward L. Hutchinson (President), Nicholas A. Sisak, Robert D. Shaffer, Walter Gall, Edwin T. Carlton, John Demas, Hampton Huddard
Date of Trial: July 17-August 4, 1956
Verdict: Guilty of involuntary manslaughter and drinking in the barracks
Sentence: Nine months hard labor, reduction to the rank of private, forfeiture of $30 per month in pay, and a bad-conduct discharge from the Marine Corps; later reduced to four months hard labor and no severance from the service

SIGNIFICANCE: The McKeon court-martial was a public relations nightmare for the Marine Corps, which had to act quickly to reform its training methods in order to rehabilitate its public image.

On the night of April 8, 1956, at the Marine Corps training center at Parris Island, South Carolina, Staff Sergeant Matthew McKeon marched Platoon 71 into the swampy waters of Ribbon Creek. Six of the recruits did not emerge alive.

For five and a half weeks McKeon had been trying to instill the pride and discipline necessary to good marines in his "boots," but he was unhappy with the results he had gotten. In his opinion "about three-fourths of the platoon was squared away, but the remainder were foul balls." Earlier in the day he had decided to straighten out those unsatisfactory recruits by shocking them into working as a disciplined unit.

Panic in the Mud

After sunset McKeon told his platoon that he was going to take it to a place where the non-swimmers would drown and the swimmers would be eaten by sharks. He then marched his men into the flooded marshes leading to Ribbon Creek. McKeon himself had never been into the area before. Once he reached the creek he led the men into water that was knee-to waist-deep and ordered them to move parallel to the bank, pointing out that in combat, staying near the banks was essential to avoiding detection in the moonlight. The creek bed was covered with deep, suction-producing mud, which filled the men's boots.

McKeon then reversed the column's course and moved nearer to the middle of the creek, where the water was shoulder-deep. Ribbon Creek was a tidal stream and high tide had been two hours earlier. The tide was now ebbing, creating a strong undertow that tugged at the recruits who were trying to maintain their balance in the slimy mud. Several men found themselves in an area where the bottom dropped off suddenly. Panic broke out among the men who found themselves in water over their heads. McKeon, who now reacted quickly, was pulling one of the struggling men near him to shore when another one grabbed him and they all went under. Around them several panic-stricken men were latching onto anyone near them in a desperate effort to save themselves. Strong swimmers who tried to help the non-swimmers went under.

McKeon ordered the platoon out of the water. Dripping and disheveled recruits began straggling toward their barracks. Once news of the incident reached the officer of the day, lights were set up along the creek and a full-scale search for missing men began. A head count found seven men missing. One was found shivering on the far bank of the creek. Six remained unaccounted for. McKeon was arrested, and because there was evidence that he had been drinking earlier in the day, he was sent to the medical officer to be checked for signs of intoxication.

The following day the bodies of Norman Wood, Leroy Thompson, Donald O'Shea, Jerry Thomas, and Charles Reilly were pulled from the water. On April 10 a diver recovered the body of Thomas Hardeman.

Was the Drill Sergeant Drunk?

When the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Randolph Pate, arrived at Parris Island, he responded to a reporter's question by announcing that apparently McKeon had broken regulations and would be punished to the fullest extent of the law. Before all the bodies had been recovered a court of inquiry convened. A military court of inquiry is similar to a civilian inquest or grand jury proceeding. For several days the court heard testimony from 23 of the surviving 69 platoon members, asking several of them if they thought that McKeon had been drinking. Many men praised McKeon's attempts to save the drowning men and his work as a drill instructor. A medical officer testified about the results of the sobriety tests he conducted on McKeon. McKeon himself had said he had consumed "a few shots of vodka that afternoon." Extensive testimony dealt with the issue of whether the swamps were out of bounds for training. The court of inquiry recommended a general court-martial on charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter and oppression of recruits to drinking intoxicating liquor in the presence of a recruit.

During the preliminary hearing, McKeon was represented by his brother-in-law Thomas Costello. Through the intervention of a New York Supreme Court judge, Costello secured the services of Emile Zola Berman, a personal injury lawyer with a large civil practice. Berman accepted the case pro bono, and despite his lack of criminal experience he proved the ideal defense attorney for McKeon. In a case that would be conducted in the full glare of publicity, Berman immediately set to work trying to reform his client's image in the media by characterizing him as a loyal family man and a patriotic marine, rather than as the drunken sadist he currently seemed.

The court-martial was convened on July 17, 1956. The prosecution began an orderly presentation of witnesses to show that nothing was wrong with the Marine Corps training practices and that McKeon was a "bad apple" who deserved conviction for taking men who could not swim into a dangerous area.

Berman's defense was more subtle. He realized that his client was going to be convicted on at least some of the charges. He wanted to get an acquittal on the manslaughter charges in the hope McKeon would lose a stripe and get minimal brig time instead of being sentenced to ten years in prison and a dishonorable discharge. He ignored the alcohol charges and tried to establish that although McKeon may not have used good judgment, he was following a well-established boot camp procedure for instilling discipline in the recruits. He argued that the six men died as a result of panic rather than any circumstance McKeon could reasonably have anticipated.

In presenting the defense Berman hammered away at several themes. First, he claimed that McKeon was guilty of breaking regulations regarding drinking, but that he was not drunk on the day in question. To support this assertion he had the medical officer testify that he had incorrectly circled "yes" instead of "no" on the record next to the term "intoxicated." Second, Berman argued that the charge of oppression should fail because there was no clear definition of the crime. In historical contexts it connoted tyranny and cruelty. He cited Nero and Captain Bligh as examples, and claimed that a man who led his men into danger, shared their peril, and risked his own life attempting to save them could not be oppressing them. He put the defendant on the stand and let him explain his own actions and accept responsibility for them, hoping that McKeon's own remorse and demeanor would impress the court. Berman also introduced evidence to show that taking recruits into the swamps was not unusual or forbidden, but understood to be common practice.

As to manslaughter by negligence, Berman called two famous witnesses to give their opinions of McKeon's conduct. First he called Commandant of the Marine Corps General Pate, who had already publicly condemned the defendant. When asked what punishment he would recommend, 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." The second witness, Lieutenant General Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, was probably the best-known and most respected living marine. When Berman asked Puller what action he would take in these circum-stances, he 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."

McKeon was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter by simple negligence and of drinking in an enlisted barracks. He was acquitted of the two most serious crimes: oppression and manslaughter by culpable negligence and the lesser charge of drinking in front of a recruit. He was sentenced to reduction to the rank of private, nine months of hard labor, forfeiture of $30 per month in pay, and a bad-conduct discharge from the Marine Corps. This sentence was later reduced by the Secretary of the Navy, who cut the prison term to four months and remitted the bad-conduct discharge.

The Ribbon Creek incident and McKeon's court-martial highlighted some of the more brutal aspects of Marine training and revealed a low level of officers' supervision of recruit training. It ultimately resulted in the reform of marine training practices to rehabilitate the corps' badly damaged public image.

Carol Willcox Melton

Suggestions for Further Reading

McKean, William B. Ribbon Creek: The Marine Corps on Trial. New York: Dial, 1958.

Stevens, John C. III. Court-Martial at Parris Island: The Ribbon Creek Incident. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1999.

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