Ribbon Creek and Recruit Training

By Keith Fleming

University of South Carolina Press

150 pp. $24.95



Trial by Fire

By Lt. Col. Gary D. Solis, USMC

Government Printing Office

295 pp. $17

IN APRIL 1956 six Marine Corps recruits drowned at Parris Island, S.C., when their drill instructor, Staff Sgt. Matthew McKeon, dissatisfied with their discipline and determined to toughen them up, led his platoon on a night march through the tidal swamps of nearby Ribbon Creek. The incident shocked the nation and the investigation and subsquent court-martial of Sgt. McKeon became one of the most publicized events of 1956. The McKeon case in effect became a public trial of the Marine Corps and its traditional training methods.

Keith Fleming, a former Marine and now a civilian historian of the U.S. Marine Corps, reveals that Ribbon Creek was a disaster waiting to happen and how Marine recruits had for years been abused and mistreated at Parris Island in the name of discipline. In the aftermath, the Marine Corps reacted swifty to head off the inevitable congressional investigation and instituted a series of reforms that were mostly cosmetic and designed to protect the existing system.

McKeon was defended without charge by celebrated attorney Emile Zola Berman. In the wake of the reforms, Berman cleverly turned the court-martial into a defense of the fundamental precept that tough training is the very bedrock upon which the Corps is built. Its most dramatic moment was the appearance of retired Lt. Gen. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, a revered hero of the Marines and the holder of five Navy Crosses won during World War II, who passionately defended his beloved Corps and its tough standards.

Unfortunately, none of this drama is evident in The U.S. Marine Corps in Crisis. The author describes the Ribbon Creek incident and response by the Corps and Congress as merely a basis for examining the United States at midcentury. Although Fleming has done an admirable job of research, the book ultimately fails to fulfill its stated purpose of being part military, political and social history. Originally a PhD dissertation, it has been so severely edited that what is left merely whets the reader's appetite by offering fragmentary glimpses of one of the most unsavory incidents in the history of the Marine Corps.

By contrast, Gary D. Solis, a combat veteran of Vietnam and a former Marine lawyer, has taken a subject of limited interest and produced an outstanding volume in the Marine Corps's series of official histories of the Vietnam war. In this model of good writing, the author illuminates a little known side of the war by tracing the history of the USMC judge advocates in Vietnam and, in the process, reveals yet another aspect of the dilemma of the U.S. commitment to an unwinnable war.

The book includes many descriptions of incidents ranging from the murder and rape of Vietnamese civilians, to drugs, racism and fraggings. The men whose task it was to administer justice in a fair and impartial manner in the midst of an unpopular war were, unlike their Army and Air Force counterparts, line officers who also happened to be lawyers. Continuing a tradition dating to World War II, many of the Marine lawyers also served as pilots, infantry commanders and advisers while assigned to the Marine force in Vietnam.

Their story has now been told exceedingly well. The book reveals that as the U.S. commitment grew, so too did crime rate. The 400 Marine lawyers who served in Vietnam from 1964 to 1971 dealt with complex legal problems in a primitive environment, where war and language were major impedients, and somehow made the unwieldy peace-time military justice system work. Their problems not only included the burgeoning number of offenses committed by Marines, but also those perpetrated by American civilians working in Vietnam, who were subject to military law under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Saigon government.

THE RIGHTS of the individual were zealously protected under wartime conditions. There were no plush "L.A. Law" offices where these men practiced law. To the contrary, what quickly emerges in the pages of this book is that these lawyers were a class-act and a credit to the Corps and their profession. In one fragging case, for example, after learning that a key witness had lied, the prosecutor successfully fought to overturn a murder conviction he had just obtained.

At the end of this war that so divided the nation the Marine Corps could take justifiable pride in the fact that "there were no cover-ups; no impediments to the judge advocates who conscientiously represented the accused or the United States."

A senior Navy officer was asked if the military justice system would work in a future war. His reply was typical of the performance of the Marine lawyers who served in Vietnam: "Of course it would work. It would work with major flaws and major difficulties and major delays, but . . . you would make it work."

Carlo W. D'Este served two tours of duty in Vietnam as a U.S. Army adviser. He is the author of many works of military history, including, most recently, "World War II in the Mediterranean, 1942-1945."