QSL cards provide insight into Temple radio communications

(Ed. note: Ham radio communications provided a crucial link between the people of Jonestown and Peoples Temple members in Georgetown and San Francisco. While they undoubtedly violated their licensing agreement by conducting business affairs on the amateur radio network, so is it also true that they perceived FCC monitoring of their activity as an overzealous part of a larger, more sinister conspiracy against them. For these reasons, the role of the FCC and of other hams who reported on Temple activities to the federal agency has always been of interest to this website. We are grateful for the efforts of Josef Dieckman to document this role. Watch for postings of FCC-related materials in coming months on this site.)

For many amateur radio operators, the joy of their hobby is in making contacts all around the globe. Every day, these operators look forward to chatting with their neighbors in the morning and with hams halfway around the world by lunchtime. However, the thrill of the contact doesn’t end when it is concluded. For many hams, the practice of “QSLing” is an integral part of the whole experience.

QSL postcard
(QSL postcard courtesy Abe Wilk)

Simply put, QSL cards are ham radio postcards that are unique to each operator, often reflecting some aspect of the operator’s job, hobbies, family, personality, etc. Hams look forward with great anticipation to finding these treasured items in their mailboxes.

These cards have a twofold purpose. The first is to serve as proof of a contact, or “QSO”. This is especially important if the card comes from a foreign country. The “rarer” the country, the more valued the card is. The second purpose is to provide the ham with a tangible memento of the contact. Some hams line the walls of their radio room with these cards, wallpaper that only other hams would appreciate.

Peoples Temple radio operators in Jonestown regularly engaged in this QSL exchange as well. The practice fostered good relations between the agricultural settlement and stateside hams. The radio operators in Jonestown genuinely appreciated the help of hams in the states, and this appreciation is evidenced in both written documents as well as recorded media. QSLing was one way for them to say, “Thank you.” The appreciation was a two-way street. Serving as proof of the contact to Guyana, then a “rare” country, these cards were highly valued by their recipients in the U.S.

The Peoples Temple operated two radio stations in Guyana: one in Georgetown, WB6MNH/8R1; and one in Jonestown, WB6MID/8R3. It is important to note that although the calls were assigned to very real individuals, more than likely these same individuals were not the ones who sent out these cards. It is equally unlikely that these individuals made all of these contacts in the first place. Although we cannot be certain that this is true 100% of the time, evidence from tapes of these radio communications indicates that many of the radio contacts were made by individuals other than the QSL card’s namesake.

Two basic designs of cards were issued from Guyana. The first, which I think of as the “Tri-Panel” card, consists of three color photos depicting scenes from Jonestown. In one of the photos, Sandi Cobb peers through a microscope. In another, a pair of hands grasps the stem of a cassava plant. And in the last photo, Don Fitch helps a young boy use an acetylene torch. The second card, which I simply call the “map card,” is much simpler in design, showing a nicely illustrated picture of the map outline of Guyana.

The reverse sides of both cards are similar to other QSL’s in their contact information section. The standard report format is used and includes a small section for written comments. Both stations issued QSL cards, but in different quantities. If what I’ve seen is any real indication, WB6MID/8R3 cards were sent out far more than the WB6MNH/8R1 cards.

The first thing that struck me as I compared several of these cards was their assembly-line appearance. Many cards have exactly the same typewritten “blurb” in the comment section, and much of the contact information is typed, with only the contact-station, date, and time left clear for hand-written information. Clearly, pre-printing sped up the process of QSLing, and so it must have been necessary to develop an all-purpose “blurb” or “blurbs”. Some “blurbs” do differ slightly in their wording, and a few rare exceptions are totally different, but the theme is the same: Jonestown puts its best foot forward. Few references on these cards are radio-related, meaning that there is not a lot of “shop-talk” to be found. Instead, most of these cards read like a travel brochure: “This is a very beautiful country. The people are very friendly to the USA,” and “The jungle is fantastic this time of year.” Viewed one way, they are little more than propaganda. Viewed another, the simple message on each card reflected very real sentiment. I have seen one handwritten card, but it too reads the same as many of the others. Surely, the people in charge of producing these cards tried somewhat to create a little variety, but it seems every attempt was made to keep the process simple and quick. As a result, many hams receive the “same” card.

Over the last several months I have received correspondence from many hams concerning their experiences with talking to Jonestown over amateur radio. Many stories sound alike, and in many instances these hams can even remember the name of the person they spoke with a woman named “Sarah”. And many of the QSL cards support this, with signatures of “Sarah”, or “Sarah” and “Al”. Who is/was “Sarah”? There are a number of possibilities. “Sarah” could have been Harriet Tropp (whose full name was Harriet Sarah Tropp), Deborah Layton, or any one of several Beckys. As I have understood following careful examination of audio recordings of Temple amateur radio communications (see my article, “Listening to Jonestown”), “Sarah” is just one of the names deferred to by female operators when using the radio. This is the likely reason how so many hams came to speak with “Sarah” and how many received QSL cards signed by her.

What do we make of these cards signed by “Al”? We know that one of Jim Jones’ code names was “Al”, and there are reports of hams speaking with an “Al” who claimed to be the director of a mission in Guyana. One ham further stated that, in all probability, he spoke with both Jim Jones and Albert Touchette on separate occasions, and he later received a QSL from Touchette. So can we assume that any card signed by “Al” was really signed by Jim Jones or, if not by Jones, then by Albert Touchette? The answer to both questions is no. More than likely, the name “Al” was signed to these cards to give them a more legitimate appearance. It stands to reason that male operators in Jonestown used the name “Al” when they made stateside contacts with other hams, because Albert Touchette was the license holder for WB6MID/8R3, the call they were using. Also, given the assembly-line nature of these cards, any number of persons could have quickly dashed off the signature as a finishing touch.

There are still many questions I have yet to find concrete answers to concerning these cards. In coming months I hope to learn more about the design and manufacturing of these cards. It is quite possible that they were printed by Peoples Temple members back in San Francisco, using their own printing equipment. Also, I look forward to learning the procedural end of things. For example, we know the cards were typed up in bulk, but could there have been pre-printed cards in Jonestown just waiting to be signed and dated after each contact? Or was the critical contact information sent from Jonestown to Georgetown for someone to use as a cheat sheet when filling out the cards? It’s hard to say, because all cards had to go back through Georgetown to be mailed anyway. It would also be nice to get some kind of idea about who was working on these cards. We know of at least one individual who was responsible for typing them up, but who else helped? And what kind of light could they shed on the subject?

In the meantime, I remain open to hearing from amateur radio operators who can add their own personal experience of talking to Jonestown. I invite anyone who has QSL cards or other documentation of ham contact with Peoples Temple to write me at joeyjosef@yahoo.com. In addition, I ask any former Temple members with knowledge of the workings of the ham radio operation to contact me at the same address.

(Josef Dieckman has written extensively about both the so-called death tape (Q 042) and the “day after” tape (Q 875). His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at josefdieckman@yahoo.com.)