Parris Island drill instructor Matthew McKeon meant to instill discipline in his platoon when he led it into the chilly waters of Ribbon Creek.
But six recruits drowned, and the incident ended up instilling discipline in the U.S. Marine Corps. In the century that young "boots" have been training for war on Parris Island, the moonless night of April 8, 1956, still stands as the dividing line between the old and the new Corps.
Staff Sgt. McKeon knew precious little about the Lowcountry creek behind the rifle range -- its rushing tide, slippery shores, boot-sucking bottom, and deep drop-off.
But he knew that Marine Corps discipline was lacking in his Platoon 71. The recruits had embarrassed him earlier in the day when another drill instructor called them slackers. A "field day" of routine punishment -- cleaning the barracks from top to bottom -- didn't seem to work. A recruit went back for seconds in the chow hall that evening and McKeon felt he gave him some lip about it.
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At 8:15 p.m., McKeon lined up 75 young men in their sixth week of training and marched them to the creek. This, he thought, would help restore order.
As the columns moved from the soft marsh into the creek, McKeon went in first. Boots filled with water, the ebb tide pulled swiftly out, water rose from waists to armpits, the bottom dropped off abruptly, some of them could not swim and panic erupted.
Recruits grabbed onto one another. McKeon got one flailing recruit ashore, but not all. After hours of uncertainty, it was clear that six recruits did not make it out of Ribbon Creek alive, and the U.S. Marine Corps was in deep trouble.
Newspaper and magazine writers swarmed into Beaufort. Their stories zeroed in on training methods used at the boot camp. They focused on reports that McKeon had a few shots of vodka earlier in the day, and he was portrayed as a drunken beast.
The commandant of the Marine Corps flew in on Monday, saying the sergeant would be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
Also that day, Beaufort County Sheriff J. Ed McTeer furnished dragging equipment and assisted in getting Rutledge Elliott's shrimp boat to drag the creek. Five bodies were recovered. On Tuesday, a drill instructor with diving experience recovered the sixth body in a hole of water about 15 feet deep.
On Thursday, memorial rites for the six young recruits, ages 17 to 20, were held on Parris Island. One mother attended. Plans for full military funerals were canceled in response to the wishes of close relatives that the bodies be returned home as quickly as possible.
A court of inquiry was quickly assembled.
McKeon would face four charges, the most serious being culpable negligence resulting in death, and oppression.
That July, as Beaufort celebrated its first Water Festival, a general court martial in an old schoolhouse on steaming Parris Island attracted reporters from as far away as London.
It was quickly apparent that McKeon wasn't the only one on trial. The Corps itself and the techniques of its drill instructors also hung in the balance.
"It was a tragedy," said John C. Stevens III of Beaufort, whose book on the incident was published in 1999. "It took the loss of six lives to save the Marine Corps from itself."
Emile Zola Berman, an erudite and media-savvy attorney from New York City, came to defend McKeon at no charge.
He was able to portray McKeon as a respected Marine and war veteran. Berman announced he would expose a history of abuse in recruit training by calling a large number of former DIs. He would show that hazing and beatings called "thumping" -- even "river walks" -- were common tools for some drill instructors who were largely unsupervised. He was going to humanize McKeon and not allow him to be a scapegoat.
Berman got surprising testimony from the Marine Corps commandant, Port Royal native Gen. Randolph Pate. He did an about face, recommending minimal punishment for McKeon.
Perhaps the biggest stunner was similar testimony on McKeon's behalf from a Marine's Marine, retired Lt. Gen. Lewis "Chesty" Puller.
It fit with Pate's request to Congress to stay any investigation as the Corps got its own act together.
McKeon was convicted only of simple negligence and drinking in the barracks. He was sentenced to three months' hard labor, assigned to a chaplain's office. He was busted to private, but allowed to stay in the Corps. He retired in 1959 as a corporal.
The Corps immediately tried to raise the status of its drill instructors, with the most visible sign being the trademark Smokey Bear "campaign covers."
Other changes were slower and met with resistance. Changes included greater supervision of drill instructors, more formal training standards, less humiliation of recruits and closer watch on the tradition of "thumping" that had 10 recruits in sick bay with broken noses at the time of the Ribbon Creek incident.
It did not happen overnight, but the Ribbon Creek incident forever changed the Corps and how recruits are treated. A greater emphasis was put on physical training, and today it is down to a science. Disciplinary measures became tightly controlled. Drill instructors were made more accountable for their actions by being court-martialed or removed from the field.
Forty years after Ribbon Creek, when Stevens met with McKeon in writing his book, "Court-Martial at Parris Island: The Ribbon Creek Incident," tears rolled down his aging cheeks.
"He was a stand-up guy," said Stevens, a retired judge and vice president of the Parris Island Historical and Museum Society. "McKeon never sought to evade responsibility. He never sought to blame anyone else or squirm out of it. The remorse never left him."