Excerpt from The Final Dance with Death

by Jeff Brailey

In 1998, Jeff Brailey published The Ghosts of November: Memoirs of an Outsider Who Witnessed the Carnage at Jonestown, Guyana, a book that was unlike any other work about the deaths 20 years earlier. There were two reasons for this: Brailey’s story began after November 18, 1978; and, rather than being about the members of Peoples Temple, it focuses on the military personnel who cleared the Jonestown site of its human remains.

Brailey was the senior medic of the Joint Humanitarian Task Force sent by the State Department to Guyana, but his interest in Jonestown did not end when he returned to his unit in Panama, nor did it end when he self-published the book. Instead, he continued to research the military and diplomatic responses to Jonestown, and was working on a revision of his book at the time of his death in January 2014.

Fortunately, the State Department had arranged for the entire task force to enjoy some of Guyana’s finest brew on this final day of the mission. It was preparing to throw perhaps the biggest party in the history of after-mission parties.

One hundred and forty four cases of Banks Beer were stacked against one wall of the tired old Timheri Airport terminal. Blocks of ice were chopped and placed on top of and among the cases. In addition to the beer were bottles of DM Gold Label Rum, the pride of Guyana’s distilling industry. This may be the smoothest rum in the world. True connoisseurs of fine rum would never dream of ruining a drink of DM Gold Label with ice or Coca-Cola.

Here were 3,456 bottles of beer and more than 200 fifths of rum waiting to be shared by a couple of hundred tired and stressed-out soldiers who didn’t need an excuse to party. If everyone were to equally partake in their fair share of the bounty, each member of the task force would have drunk 17 beers and a bottle of rum over the next eight to ten hours. Thankfully, the embassy remembered to provide mixed nuts and canned Frito Corn Chips. Heaven forbid we should do all that drinking on an empty stomach.

I was standing in the middle of the fairly empty, abandoned terminal building, drinking a cold Banks Beer and missing the men I left behind in Matthews Ridge. Major Burgos and Captain Skinner had left to go to a meeting. I was a stranger here, having left Georgetown on November 20 before most of the troops working there arrived in-country. As I tried hard not to feel lonely, a jeep entered a wide doorway at the far end of the huge open building. It quickly arrived near the point where I stood and the lone occupant, a Black American Quartermaster Corps major, with the last name “Major” stenciled on his uniform, asked me to get him a beer. I ambled over to a wooden case that had a block of ice embedded into the necks of the 24 bottles of beer. I lifted the shrinking block of ice, removed a frosty cold bottle of Banks and replaced the natural refrigerant. Using one of the dozens of silver church keys tied to the cases, I popped the metal cap from the brown glass bottle, walked over to Major Major, who was sitting in the driver’s seat of the jeep, and handed him his cold brew.

“Haven’t seen you around,” said the friendly and unpretentious young officer.

“No sir, just got here, I’ve been forward,” I replied.

“Forward? Jonestown?” questioned Major Major.

“Yes sir, Jonestown a few times, mostly in Matthew’s Ridge,” I said.

“Well, I guess dead bodies don’t bother you then, do they?” the major said in more of a statement than a question.

“No sir, not really, I’ve seen and smelled enough of them lately,” I said flatly.

“Good!” said Major Major enthusiastically. “Want to get your picture in the paper?”

“I guess so,” I answered.

“Hop in,” said the Quartermaster Corps officer, patting the passenger seat.

I climbed into the jeep, and before I had a chance to settle in, Major Major threw the vehicle into reverse, did a quick half-turn, jammed the jeep into first gear and tooled out of the terminal toward the tarmac. We raced toward the flight line where trucks and tired soldiers could be seen waiting for the incoming Jolly Green Giant helicopters and the last full body bags from Jonestown. When the two incoming metal birds deposited their sad cargo at Timheri Airport, the first part of the task force’s mission, the recovery and evacuation of the remains of over 900 Americans from Jonestown, was complete.

The soldiers waiting for the final flights early that afternoon had spent the past eight days offloading bodies from H-53 helicopters. While not as gross as the job of bagging the remains from where they lay rotting in the unforgiving sun for so many days, this job still was no picnic. The body bags were not all airtight, and the smells of death and the fluids of those who died 10 days earlier fouled the air and everything in close proximity. International photojournalists with their still and motion picture cameras mingled with the soldiers as they waited. This moment represented the last chance for them to record the climax of the military mission sent to clean up the biggest mass murder/suicide the modern world had known. During their Jonestown coverage, most of these professional news photographers saw the worst side of humanity and mastered the art of detaching themselves from the catastrophic events they covered.

Cliff Yoder, a lanky white country boy from rural Pennsylvania, and Juan Rivera, a teenaged soldier from Puerto Rico, had come to Guyana to record the admission and treatment of any survivors in Jonestown. As medical records specialists, they were simple clerks, more accustomed to manning a typewriter than a machine gun. Unfortunately, the day we arrived in Guyana, we learned there were no survivors of the mass murder/suicide. We had no need for clerks, but there was a major need for strong arms to lift body bags from helicopters and carry them to the trucks that delivered them to the area where they would be placed in coffins. So Yoder and Rivera spent their eight days at Timheri Airport shuttling body bags. Day after day, they had nothing more to look forward to as they awoke in the morning than the backbreaking, nauseating chore of carrying Jonestown’s dead from one conveyance to another in the sweltering tropical sun.

At the beginning of the operation, the bodies in the bags were of adults, often requiring two men to lift them from the H-53s and carry them to the waiting trucks. When two men work together, it makes the performance of a painful and difficult task easier. They have someone with whom to talk, commiserate and generally pass the time. But as the days went slowly by, the big bags bore smaller and smaller bodies – the women who had killed their own offspring, then the teens, adolescents and preadolescents who had died before them. For a day-and-a-half, the body bags contained toddlers, babies and infants; human remains that were so small, that often three or more were placed into one bag to conserve the waning supply. Even filled with several children, these bags could be carried easily by one person.

When a job can be performed by one person, the time normally used to socialize and communicate with a work partner is still there and must be filled. Most of the men working on the Timheri Airport tarmac the final day of the mission filled their work time with daydreams and memories. Their mission for the past week had been to rid incoming helicopters of their rotting human cargo. Many of them had reached their breaking point. This was not a good time to go it solo, with only very personal thoughts and recollections of the grossly disturbing scenes and tasks of recent days. Deprived of the opportunity to easily talk it through with people who are living the same nightmare can be depressing. These men and women were now doing it alone and in a very real sense were going it alone. Although they could not see the contents of the dark brown-black bags they carried, the soldiers knew there were children inside, and their minds took them back to the children who were important in their lives. That can be a heavy psychological burden.

Juan Rivera was a sensitive 18-year-old soldier from Puerto Rico. He had been in the Army less than six months when he received his first assignment after training. It was to the 601st Medical Company in Panama. He was excited about serving in a Spanish-speaking country. Less than three months after arriving in the unit, Rivera was carrying dead bodies in Guyana. Less than a year after graduating from high school, this teenager was receiving a cruel and totally aberrant initiation into adulthood. And on this final day of the mission, Juan Rivera carried some of the final bodies to be evacuated from Jonestown, those of the innocent children who had been brutally murdered on the orders of a totally deranged, would-be savior – the Rev. Jim Jones. Most of the soldiers carrying the bodies from the helicopter that final day held them away from their bodies, at arm’s length, to avoid the smelly contents from soiling their already dirty beyond cleaning uniforms. Unbelievably, young Rivera hugged the bags as he removed them from the choppers. He held them close to his body and thought about his baby daughter, Maria, who was less than a year old. Tears streamed down the cheeks of this emotional young man who sensed the bodies he carried were no older than the daughter he had last seen about six months earlier. Rivera walked ghostlike from the helicopter to the truck, the small occupants of the vinyl body bags engulfed in his arms. At the truck, he almost seemed reluctant to deposit his burden. Once unencumbered, he seemed to move quickly back to the big chopper to once again grab some of the youngest victims of the Jonestown Massacre and almost reverently and lovingly carry them back to the waiting truck. A French news photographer noticed Rivera’s unique way of transporting these special body bags across the tarmac. Rivera seemed to disregard the awful odor wafting from the bags or the vile liquid contents that frequently dripped from them.

The photographer could not have known Rivera’s motivation for acting as he did. Nor could he have understood fully why the proud Puerto Rican father had an expression of severe grief and pain accompanied by copious tears. But he did know a great photo opportunity when he saw one.

So the observant photojournalist, armed with a Nikon camera equipped with all the bells and whistles, stalked Rivera as he turned from the truck and walked empty-handed to the waiting helicopter with its waiting body bags of babies. As the young Puerto Rican soldier tenderly lifted the next vinyl bag containing infant corpses into his arms and turned, his lips seemed to move slightly as if he was saying a prayer or perhaps talking to the anonymous baby inside the bag. His eyes were nearly closed, yet tears streamed unembarrassedly down his ruddy cheeks. His step, which had quickened when he was unburdened by a child now, became deliberate. It was as if Rivera was trying to communicate with the spirit of the child that once inhabited the body inside the bag he carried. Without so much as an ounce of shame for the intrusion he represented into a young man’s private moment, the photographer walked backwards in front of the emotional-filled medical records specialist. The lens of his camera less than four feet from Rivera’s face and the incessant sound of the motor drive marking the frames being shot of this poignant event. He was intent on capturing the stark humanness of Rivera’s private grief. The photographer wanted the world to see a day from now, a week from now and for all eternity, in its newspapers, news magazines, history books, what he was viewing at this moment.

And as Rivera moved slowly toward the truck, with the precious contents of the body bag held tightly against his chest, he didn’t acknowledge, nor do I believe he noticed the reporter or his expensive camera assaulting him, invading his most personal pain-filled moment. Neither did I fully comprehend the drama in which Rivera had become a star and which was about to come to a surprise ending. Major Major saw what was happening. He watched it all. He empathized with the grief of the young soldier and despised the crass and uncaring attempt of the photographer to win a Pulitzer Prize. The unorthodox Quartermaster Corps officer was more than angry. He was enraged. So incensed was he at the photographer’s vulgar intrusion into Rivera’s private grief, that he took a very impulsive and startling step. Major Major, visibly out of control, raised up the body bag he carried and swung it at the unprepared French photographer.

The bag must have contained a child of about 13 or perhaps three younger children whose combined weight would equal that of the average young teen. He lifted the bag high, took a half turn to his right and swung it with great force, striking the totally surprised and shocked photo- journalist on the side of the face. Upon impact, disgusting body fluids were expelled from the bag. The expensive camera was ripped from the photographer’s hands and went crashing to the hot tarmac. The reporter fell, landing on his buttocks, joining his damaged camera. Looking up at the obviously angry American Army officer staring intently down upon him, the photographer did not speak, but the terror in his eyes seemed to ask Major Major why he had been struck. The angry officer stared at the fearful journalist for what seemed like five minutes and then bent down next to him, put his mouth to the reporter’s ear and asked quietly, “Man, ain’t you got no freaking sensitivity?”

The incident with the photojournalist took all of the confident jocularity out of Major Major. He picked up the body bag he just had used as a weapon, carried it to a waiting truck and leaned back to watch me place the bag I carried onto the truck. I turned and looked at the seemingly angry officer. He regained his composure as quickly as it originally had escaped him.

“Who are you anyway?” I asked.

“I’m in charge of the graves registration team,” he responded as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Originally posted on March 11th, 2013.

Last modified on December 26th, 2020.
Skip to main content