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