The U.S. military found itself overwhelmed in its mission to retrieve the bodies from Jonestown in the first days after the tragedy, according to documents recently released from the Pentagon under the Freedom of Information Act. From securing the site to locating survivors and counting the Jonestown dead, the release of cables among military agencies which coordinated the Joint Humanitarian Task Force depicts frustrations and challenges throughout the first week.
“Travel by government forces is currently being hindered by heavy rain,” according to a memo from November 19. Two days later, the military still found itself hampered by weather conditions. In addition, “ground transportation within jungle area is difficult and complicated by reportedly impassable conditions of road between Jonestown and Port Kaituma… [T]he airstrip at Matthews Ridge, 20 miles sound of Port Kaituma, is not currently not serviceable for C-130 [large military transport aircraft] operations.”
Beyond the weather and physical limitations imposed by the jungle, the recovery effort was further hampered by a low initial body count and the knowledge that Jonestown had had upwards of 1000 residents. That fed rumors of large numbers of survivors hiding in the jungle. “Some 400 to 600 People’s Temple members are still believed missing…” a November 22 cable said. “Some survivors may be hardcore followers of Jones, consequently could pose a threat to security force operations.”
It wasn’t until later that same day that the removal of bodies began and the true extent of the disaster became known. “Many more dead were found under piles of bodies,” a memo reported about a week later. By that time, military reconnaissance teams were confident the rumors of hundreds of survivors were unfounded. “They found nothing,” a confidential communication read. “No recent footprints found on trails [leading to Venezuela], talked to locals and police in area, they reported no sighting of refugees.”
The Jonestown site was fully evacuated by 26 November, and the remains of 912 people were transported to Dover Air Force Base.
The Department of Defense released the cables in response to a FOIA request made by the editors of the jonestown report. Copies of the cables, which consists of approximately 50 pages of sometimes hard to read photocopies, are available through this website.