GLOBE and ANCHOR
this day, 45 years ago. Gene Ervin was a Marine recruit on Parris
Island. During a night march, something that was never supposed to
happen to Marines happened. This is the story of six young Marines and
a shock to the nation.
A Deadly Walk
in the Swamp
By Gene Ervin
TO THE SENTINEL
The year is 1956 at the Marine Corps
Recruit Depot on Parris Island,
off the coast of South Carolina.
arrived with other recruits by train from Connecticut. When Marine
sergeants took us across that imaginary Mason-Dixon Line, time took a
There was an ever-present uneasiness
18-hour ride through the rural South where white people drank water
from different fountains and used separate bathrooms from the blacks.
I had read about the separate system
in books and newspapers, but never
paid much attention.
But now, here I was in South Carolina
and about to experience
first-hand the Marine Corps. The nightmare was about to begin.
boot camp in 1956, a young man was subjected to the most humbling
treatment he had ever known. All recruits were treated the same
regardless of ethnic background. The name of the game was making a
Marine out of raw material.
As a platoon of 78 guys, we learned to
coexist under adverse
conditions, to function as a unit and handle firearms for effect.
Days were filled with marching in
formation, studying the Marine Corps
manual and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
learned to walk guard duty and endured more close-order drill.
Everywhere we went, we went in formation to the cadence of our drill
Many movies are made of this life, but
nothing, I mean nothing, is like
five weeks, we advanced to the rifle range, where we learned the fine
art of marksmanship, practicing various shooting positions, or
We needed to score 190 shots out of a
250 to qualify as a marksman. I qualified with 210 to boot camp. Later
on, I would advance to 235. Not bad for a city boy.
Life in the
barracks at the rifle range was a lot more comfortable than in the
basic-training Quonset huts. The daily routine focused on learning how
to effectively handle a weapon. The stress put upon you by the drill
instructors was mercifully reduced to almost being nice.
advantage of the relaxed atmosphere, flaking out at every opportunity,
getting a few minutes of sleep whenever the time was right, and even
indulging in seconds at mealtime.
But the guys in our platoon
became a little too relaxed for the drill instructor’s comfort, and it
was time for a lesson in discipline, to take a walk in the swamp.
sunny day, we were assigned to do our laundry on the wash rack in back
of our barracks. A few of the guys lay down and relaxed while their
clothes dried in the sun. They were spotted by a range instructor.
A few minutes later out comes Sgt.
Matt McKeon, our drill instructor,
frothing at the mouth from anger and embarrassment.
called a formation and explained how the “screw-ups” fouled it up for
everyone. He ordered a field day, scrubbing down the barracks on your
hands and knees until told to stop. This went on all afternoon until it
was time for dinner, where a few of our guys were seen going back to
the line for seconds.
For Sgt. McKeon, this was too much to
said we needed a lesson, one that every platoon experiences at the
rifle range. He ordered us to fall outside for a night march. It was
April 8, 1956.
My position in the platoon was Right
Guide. I was
at the front of the formation, responsible for keeping the platoon
marching in a straight line.
McKeon called out, “Forward, march!”
Off we marched into the night,
toward the distant creek.
dusk everything is hard to identify. I knew in the distance lay the
swamp, because I could see the tall grass against the twilight sky. As
we marched, I could hear guys in the back joking around, as if we were
out on a stroll after dinner.
I can still see McKeon walking
ahead with a makeshift cane he used due to back pain. I could pick out
the distinct smell of the creek as we got closer to the water.
McKeon called out, “Column right!” which led us into the creek. He told
me to help our section leader to get all the guys in the water. McKeon
went in, and the platoon followed.
The larger men in front were
the first to go in, followed by the smaller guys. Then I stepped in and
walked along the bank in water up to my calves, until I reached my
position at the front of the platoon.
We walked adjacent to
the bank, then McKeon executed a turn toward the center of the creek.
We walked out until the water was about waist-high. At this point, it
was hard to walk because of the suction effect the muddy bottom had on
I heard sounds from the rear, like
guys horseplaying, splashing water.
That kind of thing.
our course changed, and we were headed for deeper water. The water rose
up to my chest, and I was concerned because I was not the world’s
greatest swimmer. I could not see 10 feet in front of me in the
I heard guys pleading in the back for
help, but a lot of us took it for
Then the panic set in.
pleas for help were now genuine, and I started to the rear to see what
was up. I saw one of our better swimmers struggling to help a
non-swimmer who was in up to his neck.
I helped someone who
grabbed me, and I walked him to the bank, then went back out to a
confused mass of humanity struggling to keep afloat and find the shore.
the next few minutes, I saw forms in the dark grappling with one
another and hanging on to each other. I would hear cries for help from
a certain area, and upon arriving there, find nothing.
I could see McKeon walking around in
the water in a daze, like he could
not figure out what was happening.
sat on the bank, crying and shivering in the cool South Carolina night
air. Some had no shoes on, some were attired only in dungaree pants and
a T-shirt. Everyone was wet and disoriented.
We gathered the
troops and straggled back to our barracks—some being carried, some
walking alone and weeping, some staring off into space.
settled down in the barracks and waited for Sgt. McKeon to give the
next order. He called us to attention and told us to count off. This is
the method of finding out whether everyone is present. We counted off
and came up seven short.
I was sent out with a few other guys
to look for stragglers. We
searched the entire area and found no one.
It was suggested that maybe they took
this opportunity to go over the
When we arose the next morning there
were many unfamiliar faces outside
our barracks when we fell out for formation.
I saw the underwater demolition team
in full gear heading for the creek.
marched to breakfast, after which we were taken back to the barracks
and told to sit tight. We passed the time by shining our boots,
pressing uniforms or napping.
After a while, an officer came and
explained to us the reality of it
underwater team had found the bodies of six of our platoon members.
They were still looking for a seventh, but the undercurrent was too
strong at that point.
We later found out that the seventh
member of our platoon had crossed
the creek and fled for home in North Carolina.
The six unfortunate victims were given
a funeral, which we all
attended, and their bodies were sent home.
Sgt. McKeon was put on restricted
leave until his trial, and we
continued on with our training as if nothing had happened.
We qualified with our weapons and
graduated from boot camp with high
honors, followed by a 10-day leave.
had no idea the impact this story had nationally until I arrived home
to Fairfield, Conn. When I walked down the street in my uniform, people
would recognize me because of all the coverage the incident was given.
It seemed my entire leave was taken up
talking about what it was like
to be a Marine recruit.
10 days, I could not wait to return to Parris Island just to get away
from all the fanfare. I never thought I would be so eager to go south.
on Parris Island, we were confined to barracks and instructed not to
speak with anyone unless told to do so. The place was crawling with
reporters from around the nation. Many of us testified at McKeon’s
trial, but the actual courtroom drama is foreign to me because I was
only there when called upon.
I can only share with you the events
leading up to this point because
they stand out in my mind like it was yesterday.
found out from the book Court Martial at Parris Island: The Ribbon
Creek Incident, written by Judge John C. Stevens, a former Marine, that
Matthew McKeon was found guilty and reduced in rank to private. He
served nine months in the brig and eventually was discharged from the
Marine Corps. At 77, he lives in Massachusetts.
Today, 45 years later, I remember six
young men as they looked in 1956.
Six men whose youth will live forever.
Gene Ervin is a proctor at UC Santa
1956, a South Carolina newspaper removed Gene Ervin from this photo
(not shown) of U.S. Marines for one reason only: he is an
A photocopy of this article was
provided Gunny G by Gene Ervin, with
permission to publish.
Plt #71, SSgt McKeon, Ribbon Creek,
The Making Of Marines: 1956 and
MCRD Parris Island, SC History