• U.S.

ARMED FORCES: Death in Ribbon Creek

6 minute read

Shortly after 8 o’clock on Sunday night, Staff Sergeant Matthew C. McKeon, favoring a pulled leg muscle, limped into the barracks of Platoon 71 at the U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C. As the shaven-headed Marine boots popped to attention, McKeon gazed coldly around and snapped: “Fall out in two minutes.” The men—mostly 17-and 18-year-olds—grabbed for their caps and fatigue jackets, scrambled for the door, formed outside the barracks. Lean, usually soft-spoken Matt McKeon, 31, rapped out a crisp command and, using a broomstick for support on his lame side, hobbled off briskly into the moonless South Carolina night. The 74 boots of Platoon 71 followed him toward the salt tidal marshes of Parris Island, where death was waiting.

Two Desserts. As Parris Island drill instructors go, McKeon had been gentle with the clumsy, eager boots of Platoon 71, whom he supervised as junior D.I. under saltier, tougher-talking Staff Sergeant E. H. Huff. It was McKeon’s first platoon after graduation from drill instructors’ school, and he aimed to make it the honor outfit of the famed Parris Island boot camp. He encouraged the lads when they shot low scores on the rifle range (“Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it”); he patiently repeated his drill instructions until even the dullest could understand; and he conscientiously passed on to the boots the lessons of his eight years in the Marine Corps. As a machine-gun section leader in Korean combat, McKeon had learned that survival depends on discipline. He had fresh in his mind the grim stricture of the D.I. school: “Let’s be damn sure that no man’s ghost will ever say, ‘If your training program had only done its job.'” And McKeon saw disturbing signs in Platoon 71. “There are still men in this platoon,” he fretted, “that could not have made the grade in Korea.”

That Sunday morning, during a smoke break, he had found some of the recruits stretched out on the grass, even sleeping, in totally un-bootlike posture. Although it was Sunday, he had ordered a “field day” —a complete cleanup of the barracks with swab, scrub brush, creosote and yellow soap. At supper that evening the watchful McKeon had noticed that some of his boots took second helpings of dessert, despite his warning (as one recruit recalled) “against overeating sweets, especially when out on the rifle range. It makes shooting more difficult.” With calm detachment, McKeon ordered another scrubdown of the already bleach-cleaned barracks, then decided to interrupt it with the night march—a form of stern discipline that had helped make a Marine out of many another boot.

Into the Muck. “We’re going to the boondocks,” the boots muttered to each other in the darkness. The column snaked in a northerly direction across Rifle Range Baker toward Ribbon Creek, a murky, treacherous tidal stream that ranges from 100 ft. wide and 4 ft. deep at low tide to 250 ft. wide and 12 ft. deep at high tide. To reach the stream, McKeon had to lead his men across a 100 ft. border of deep black mud carpeted by yard-high swamp grass.He did not hesitate, although he later admitted that he had “never been in the area before,” a tragic lapse from the basic rule that a troop leader must know his ground. Behind McKeon, the recruits sank deep in the mud, slipping and sliding and clutching each other for support.

McKeon reached the edge of Ribbon Creek—some 3,700 ft. from the platoon’s barracks—shortly after 8:30 p.m. The tide, with its strong current, was rising. McKeon stepped from the mudbank into the chill (58°) water and turned upstream, hugging the shoreline. Turning, he called out: “Everybody O.K.?” Behind him, the marching column was floundering. Again he shouted: “Everybody O.K.?” The answer came loud: “No!” Men were deep in the mud; Recruit Raymond Delgado yelled that he was up to his chest in the muck. McKeon turned to Recruit John Michael Maloof and ordered: “Go help them out.” Replied Maloof: “O.K., but let me have your stick.” Using McKeon’s broomstick, Maloof pulled Delgado on his way.

“Watch the Snake!” Moments later, McKeon took the occasion for a lecture. “Here’s something to remember,” he sang out. “When you’re in water in combat never go out in the middle. You make a perfect target, especially on a moonlight night. Keep close to the shore. Keep moving or you will bog down.” Not everyone heard him; there was too much confusion. Some of the boots tried to joke. One yelled: “Hey, something just swam between my legs!” Another found a short piece of rope and waved it, shouting: “Watch the snake! Watch the snake!”

McKeon turned left, away from the mudbank, then another left, downstream. Here the current was swift, and the column became a mass of bobbing men struggling desperately to keep their heads above water. Someone screamed for help. Then, in complete panic, there was a mad, clawing rush for the mudbank. Recruit Lew Brewer saw that big (6 ft. 3 in.) Norman Wood was in trouble. Brewer went to help, found himself pulled under water and fighting for his life against Wood’s frenzied embrace. Brewer freed himself and surfaced; Wood was nowhere to be seen. Recruit Thomas Doorhy dragged Donald O’Shea to sounder footing, then left to help others. That was the last time anybody saw O’Shea alive. Recruit John Edward Martinez pulled Charles Reilly shoreward to chest-deep water. Reilly gasped: “I’m O.K.” Martinez left him—and Reilly disappeared. Recruit Joseph Anthony Moran (son of Actress Thelma Ritter) brought Leroy Thompson to relative safety and went out again. Thompson went under. So did little Jerry Thomas. So did Tom Hardeman, the platoon’s best swimmer, who had been helping others.

The Squads Report. Out of the darkness came the shout of Recruit Melvin Barber: “Form a chain! Form a chain!”

Half a dozen men locked arms, others seized hold. One by one, the exhausted men of Platoon 71 reached the mudbank. The last two half dragged to safety Staff Sergeant Matthew McKeon, who had worked himself to near-exhaustion trying to correct his dreadful mistake.

McKeon staggered away to report the tragedy. On his own initiative. Recruit Leader Gerald Lagone ordered Platoon 71 to fall in and report. The reports came: “First squad, one man missing.” “Second squad, one man missing.” “Third squad, one man missing . . .” At that point McKeon returned and silently led his men back to their barracks.

This week Sergeant McKeon was in the Parris Island brig and Marine Commandant Randolph Pate was back in Washington after conducting a personal on-the-scene inquiry. Congressmen cried for an investigation into the basic training methods that have made the U.S. Marine Corps an elite. And. attended by Marine honor guards, off to home cities went flag-draped coffins bearing the bodies of the six men that Drill Instructor McKeon’s zeal and stupidity had left in the water of Ribbon Creek.

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