Book Review: Court-Martial at Parris Island: The Ribbon Creek Incident (by John C. Stevens III : MHQ | HistoryNet

Book Review: Court-Martial at Parris Island: The Ribbon Creek Incident (by John C. Stevens III : MHQ

8/12/2001 • MHQ Reviews, Reviews

Court-Martial at Parris Island: The Ribbon Creek Incident, by John C. Stevens III, Naval Institute Press), $27.95.

The 1956 drowning of six marines during a training exercise at Parris Island, South Carolina, created a national media sensation and exposed boot camp procedures that included routine slapping of recruits by drill instructors who drank on duty. Marine Corps Commandant Randolph McCall Pate forfeited his power to convene a court-martial after he foolishly made careless and injudicious remarks to the press. The drowning of the six also resulted in a wholesale revision of marine recruit training.

The subsequent trial, conviction, and sentencing of the drill sergeant was against the expressed desires of both the commandant and the most celebrated marine of the era, Lt. Gen. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller. But the incident demonstrated how a crude whitewash attempt could be defeated by a private citizen and how senior officers can be overruled by courageous subordinates possessing more common sense and better judgment.

John Stevens, a Massachusetts trial judge, is more qualified than most to produce a book on the Ribbon Creek incident–he completed his own three-month-long Parris Island recruit training ordeal just a year after the event he describes. Stevens conducted interviews with twenty-nine of the seventy-plus platoon members who were involved in Drill Sergeant Matthew McKeon’s deadly night march into a tidal estuary. In addition to studying all the documentary evidence, the author also questioned McKeon and seventeen other individuals who had firsthand knowledge of the incident or the subsequent investigation and trial.

Essentially, the story involves some good men, some mediocre leaders, a bad system, and the way the flawed system was changed. Marine Corps Commandant Pate comes closest to being the villain of the piece due to his initial readiness to condemn McKeon before the facts had been established. One of the unlikely heroes of the tale is a New York Supreme Court judge who had been following newspaper accounts and sniffed a service cover-up in the making. Judge James McNally believed that the commandant was going to scapegoat McKeon so as to keep the Corps’ recruit training methods from being investigated. This resulted in the dispatch of a top-tier New York civilian defense attorney southward to provide lead counsel for McKeon.

Attorney Emile Zola Berman took center stage, reversed the hostile slant of media coverage toward his drill sergeant client, and convinced Pate to become a witness for the defense. Concurrently, two sterling Marine Corps officers worked out a way to save the marine-molding, stringent methods of boot camp while banishing its more foolish and counterproductive hazing techniques.

Rod Paschall


6 Responses to Book Review: Court-Martial at Parris Island: The Ribbon Creek Incident (by John C. Stevens III : MHQ

  1. Shirley Martin says:

    Srgt. Major William M. Braddock is my father and served as a DI on Parris Island and was actually had to return to Parris Isalnd from Camp Lejeune because of this incident. He also is a Pearl Harbor Survival and first unit on Iwo Jima, escorted the war dead home and loves to share his stores. He is a true American Hero and should you be interested in contacting him I can give you more contact into. He is still a strong and healthy Marine living in Pensacola, FL. He attends the Pearl Harbor ceremonies at Naval Air Station in Pensacola, DI reunions at Paris Island April 26-28,2009, and will soon be on a special military flight of WWII veterans on April 1, 2009 headed from Pensacola to Washington, DC to see the new WWII monument. His story is amazing coming from a small town in Lousiana as a farm boy joining before he was legelly suppose to, to fighting Japan at Pearl Harbor and Iwo Jima. His is a story that should be heard. Thank you for your time.
    Shirley Martin

  2. Faye Fletcher Jones says:

    A friend, Burl Miller, was a new recruit when this happened. He was 17 or 18 years and lived in Plant City, FL when he joined the Marines. He helped carry the men out of the swamp. I remember he was sent hom , before the court martial, because of how it affected him. I wonder how many other men were sent home.

    I am at an age now that all those things that occurred during adolesnce and young adulthood are calling for understanding and answers to the why questions. My friend would have become a great Marine. However, he lived to the age of 55 in his childhood hometown. Maybe that which was painful, saved his life.

    Reading the book helped me understand some of what he went through.

    Thanks for letting me share.

  3. cathy gaffney says:

    my uncle was one of those marines, he actually helped save some of his fellow marines.

  4. Matt Davison says:

    One of the deceased marines was a childhood friend who left high school early to enlist. I’ll always remember the open casket viewing of Norman Wood, his bloated body in the marine corps dress blues. From what I understand, there is no monument at Paris Island that recognizes the driminal loss ov life at Ribbon Creek. I feel there should be recognition of these young men who chose to serve this nation but whose lives were cut short by an unqualified drill instructor. We cannot keep sweeping incidents like this under the rug as though they never happend, It did happen, and it was a tragedy.

  5. bernie schein says:

    Mr. Stevens has written a monumental book. His compassion for the recruits, their families, the Corps and McKeon himself is the guiding force behind the illumination of the truth about the incident at Riibbon Creek and he events surrounding it. A great and necessary work.

  6. Brian Mckinley Sr. says:

    Inappropriate leadership is a travesty in any situation. Yet, as an Honorably discharged Marine I must of needs say,”please remember that they’re training Marines”, and what “they’re being trained for”. As well, these leaders did not send them, they lead them! They did not expect the men to go any place that they weren’t willing to go. Alcohol abuse and physical abuse, I am adamantly opposed to. Training Marines to win battles and watch their brothers backs, must be done by Marines! Not politicians, lawyers, nor writers!

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