Thursday, November 20, 2003

The Court-martial At Parris Island

Ribbon Creek Incident, Plt #71, S/Sgt Matt McKeon, PISC 1956, etc.
Authors return to Parris Island for book signing

Published "Tuesday
Gazette staff writer

Eugene Alvarez and John C. Stevens III try to make it back to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island at least once a year.

The former Devil Dogs come to see how the legendary base where they became Marines -- and in Alvarez's case made Marines -- has changed.

They come to see old friends and recount stories of the good ol' days aboard the depot.

Last week, however, they came to mix a little business with the pleasure of visiting a place that helped form the men they are now.

Thursday afternoon, Alvarez and Stevens set up shop at the depot's Marine Corps Exchange for a dual book signing of Alvarez's latest work "Images of America: Parris Island," and Stevens' first book, "Court-Martial at Parris Island: The Ribbon Creek Incident."

"I always love to come back and visit Parris Island," said Alvarez, who went through boot camp aboard the depot in 1950 and served as a drill instructor there from 1953 to 1954 and again from 1956 to 1959. "It just changes all the time."

Sitting behind a desk adorned with a flower vase, American flag and stacks of their books, Alvarez and Stevens signed copies of their latest works for anyone who wanted one.

Some of the folks getting signatures were already fans. Others had never heard of the books before they wandered into the store Thursday afternoon.

"I was just always interested in (Parris Island)," said Alvarez, who received a research grant from the Marine Corps to get started with his first book.

"Images of America: Parris Island," his fifth book, is now in its third printing and is going strong, he said.

"It's going over very well," said Alvarez, who lives in Georgia.

The book, filled with photographs chronicling the history and legacy of Parris Island, is a visual trip through time as the depot, and the Corps, expanded and changed.

While Alvarez is a veteran in military nonfiction, Stevens is a newcomer.

"Court-Martial at Parris Island" is his first book and consumed three years of his life, two to research the Ribbon Creek incident and one to write the manuscript.

"When I went through Parris Island, Ribbon Creek had just occurred," said Stevens, now a judge in Massachusetts. "The drill instructors were very sensitive about it. They thought one of their (drill instructors) was railroaded at the time."

Years after he had left the Corps and become a lawyer, Stevens decided to give a doctoral dissertation on the April 8, 1956, incident in which drill instructor Staff Sgt. Matthew McKeon led his platoon on a forced night march through Ribbon Creek to restore sagging discipline.

A strong tidal current in the creek swept through and six men drowned, sparking a national news story and a court-martial for McKeon.

Stevens never gave the dissertation, but the story -- which affected his and every recruit's training from then on and changed Parris Island forever -- stayed with him, eventually becoming a critically acclaimed debut book.

"Marines from all over the country have found me and have written me," Stevens said. "It's gotten an outstanding reception."

The most rewarding aspect of the undertaking was the opportunity to meet and discuss the incident with McKeon himself, Stevens said.

"He has lived with that burden and he always will," Stevens said, adding that he hopes the interview helped McKeon in some small way.

"It enabled him to purge himself of some of the shame," he said. "I found it very rewarding."

Gunnery Sergeants Robert Bergmann and John Spencer both stumbled upon the book signing Thursday afternoon and picked up copies of "Court-Martial at Parris Island."

Bergmann said he had no idea anyone had written a book about Ribbon Creek, but was looking forward to delving into it.

Spencer knew the book was out there, but hadn't had the chance to read it yet.

"I knew about the incident," he said. "I just want to find out more about it."

For Alvarez and Stevens, the trip to Parris Island was both a vacation and a chance to meet some young Marines and see how things are done today.

Like many former Marines who return to the depot, Alvarez said there is a litany of physical changes aboard Parris Island, but that the men and women in uniform are the same as they always have been.

"They're still quality people," Alvarez said. "Older guys like us like to talk about back then, but they do a good job today."

Stevens said he couldn't agree more.

"I'm so impressed with these young Marines," he said. "The greatest thing about this book for me is that it reconnected me with the Marine Corps. That's a priceless heritage."
Copyright 2003 The Beaufort Gazette • May not be republished in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.

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By R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GySgt USMC (Ret.)
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