On 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
SPECIAL TO THE SENTINEL
The year is 1956 at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island, off the coast of South Carolina.
I arrived with other recruits by train from Connecticut. When Marine sergeants took us across that imaginary Mason-Dixon Line, time took a step backward.
There was an ever-present uneasiness on that 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.
At 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.
We learned to walk guard duty and endured more close-order drill. Everywhere we went, we went in formation to the cadence of our drill instructor.
Many movies are made of this life, but nothing, I mean nothing, is like being there.
After five weeks, we advanced to the rifle range, where we learned the fine art of marksmanship, practicing various shooting positions, or “snapping in.”
We needed to score 190 shots out of a possible 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.
We took 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.
One 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.
He 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 bear.
He 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.
At 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.
Suddenly, 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 our boots.
I heard sounds from the rear, like guys horseplaying, splashing water. That kind of thing.
Then 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 darkness.
I heard guys pleading in the back for help, but a lot of us took it for playing around.
Then the panic set in.
The 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.
For 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.
People 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.
We 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 hill.
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.
We 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 all.
The 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.
I 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.
After 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.
Back 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.
I 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 Cruz.
In 1956, a South Carolina newspaper removed Gene Ervin from this photo (not shown) of U.S. Marines for one reason only: he is an African-American.
A photocopy of this article was provided Gunny G by Gene Ervin, with permission to publish.
Plt #71, SSgt McKeon, Ribbon Creek, etc.
The Making Of Marines: 1956 and Thereafter…
MCRD Parris Island, SC History
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