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‘I’m going to kill you.’ The often-forgotten boot camp scandals that dot Marine Corps history

A Marine Corps drill instructor greets recruits in San Diego. (Photo by Cpl. Angelica Annastas/ Marine Corps)
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Marine Sgt. Robert F. Henson chambered a round in his M-16 rifle, preparing to scare Pvt. Harry W. Hiscock during boot camp training at Parris Island, S.C. Henson had issued a threat to the struggling Marine recruit, fellow drill instructors would later recall: “I’m going to kill you.”

Henson pulled the trigger and nothing came out, according to media accounts at the time. He’d doctored the rifle round inside to function as a blank. But Hiscock was told to say goodbye to his platoon, and Henson fired his weapon again thinking another blank was chambered. This time, a single bullet ripped through Hiscock’s left hand from 50 yards away.

The Jan. 3, 1976, incident led to criminal convictions for Henson and several other drill instructors who attempted to cover up what happened. Coupled with another scandal in which a recruit suffered mortal injuries a few months earlier in San Diego, it also ushered in a new era in recruit training for the service.

The cases are recalled now as the Marine Corps again copes with a scandal at Parris Island. Senior military officials are grappling with how to handle allegations of hazing and abuse in which up to 20 Marines could face criminal charges or administrative punishment. One drill instructor is accused of putting a recruit in an industrial-sized dryer last year and turning it on, as well as striking another prospective Marine — Raheel Siddiqui, 20 —  in the face moments before he ran away and fell three stories to his death in March.

‘They put us through hell’: A Marine abused at boot camp explains why he spoke out

Abuse at boot camp almost always conjures comparisons among Marines to the April 8, 1956, fiasco in Parris Island’s Ribbon Creek. In that case, a drill instructor frustrated with his platoon, then-Staff Sgt. Matthew C. McKeon, marched 71 recruits into murky waters at night after having several alcoholic drinks. Six of them drowned, prompting congressional investigations, the court-martial of McKeon and an array of reforms, including the establishment of drill instructor schools. McKeon ultimately was acquitted of manslaughter but convicted of negligent homicide and drinking on duty.

The Ribbon Creek incident is still taught to drill instructors, and opened up a broader debate about what recruit training should entail. It occurred in the aftermath of the Korean War, in which drill instructors were charged with preparing a wave of new recruits for combat. The Marine Corps rapidly expanded from about 74,000 Marines in 1950 at the outset of the war to 249,000 by the war’s end in 1953.

Discussed less frequently, however, are the cases from the 1970s, which occurred as Marines adjusted to life after the jungle warfare of Vietnam.

In Henson’s case, the drill instructor pleaded guilty to eight charges. He was sentenced to a bad-conduct discharge, 15 months of confinement and hard labor, demotion to private and forfeiture of pay and allowances, according to a New York Times report on his court-martial. In a controversial plea agreement, Henson’s confinement was reduced to two months.

The other scandal at the time erupted after Pvt. Lynn E. McClure suffered a fatal blow to the head on Dec. 6, 1975, during unauthorized training at the Marine Corps’ West Coast boot camp in San Diego and died a few months later. His drill instructor, Staff Sgt. Harold Bronson, had ordered McClure’s fellow recruits to take turns hitting him with padded “pugil sticks” in unsanctioned fights, and McClure attempted to run away several times, according to a report by the independent Army Times.

By all accounts, McClure was a troubled recruit. He was initially denied a chance to enlist after taking the Armed Services Vocational Battery (ASVAB) test and getting a 7 out of a possible 99 points, according to a 1976 memo from the Pentagon to the White House. He tried again two months later and scored a 59, but lied to recruiters and said he had never failed the test before. Bronson made him fight other recruits after he disappeared from boot camp three times.

Bronson was acquitted of all charges he faced, including involuntary manslaughter, in a court-martial in June 1976. The defense portrayed the death as a training accident, while the prosecution said Bronson showed poor judgment by allowing the bouts to continue even after McClure attempted to run away.

Like now, the 1970s scandals prompted senior Marine officials to say they would change recruit training. Gen. Louis H. Wilson, then the commandant of the Marine Corps, told People magazine in an interview the service’s reputation had “suffered tremendously” over what he considered “isolated incidents.”

“Naturally, I am embarrassed and disheartened that such things can happen,” he said. “I am determined that they stop; we’re going to conduct our training with firmness, fairness and dignity.”

But the commandant acknowledged that there had been a “lessening of supervision” over the previous 20 years, since reforms were instituted after the Ribbon Creek case.

“A feeling built up that the drill instructor was an end within himself,” Lewis said. “Unfortunately, sometimes incidents like this have to occur to ensure a wide range of supervision, from me on down.”

Related on Checkpoint:
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