Policing Up the Bodies

Jonestown Coffin(Editor’s note: Jeff Brailey was the senior medic of the Joint Humanitarian Task Force sent to Guyana in November 1978 to retrieve the remains of the Peoples Temple members who died there. The following is excerpted from Chapter Eight of the unpublished revision to his book, The Ghosts of November. It tells how the difficult job of the Army mortuary specialists was performed. Warning: This article includes graphic and disturbing descriptions of the condition of the bodies as they were removed from Jonestown.

(Jeff’s complete set of writings for this site appears here. His manuscript appears in entirety here. Mr. Brailey died on January 31, 2014 in Las Cruces, New Mexico.)

Although the jungle that surrounded Jonestown was abundant in fauna and rich in exotic flora, the natural beauty of the country was overshadowed by the ugliness and horrible stench that accompanies mass death. Extremely bloated bodies, deformed by so many hours of exposure to the heat of the tropical sun that they sometimes literally burst, depositing copious amounts of their putrid, foul-smelling contents to the ground, have a tendency to strike one blind to anything lovely.

As soon as the entire GRREG [Graves Registration] team was together, all the soldiers working in Jonestown were briefed by Colonel Gordon. The preliminary work of identifying and evacuating the remains commenced. Jonestown was divided into grids and the bodies found in each individually numbered section were catalogued and tagged. Graves registration soldiers were team leaders of three to five man teams, consisting of infantry soldiers from the 193 rd Infantry Brigade in the Canal Zone.

With teams of soldiers fanning out in all directions from the pavilion where the majority of the bodies lay, the full extent of the carnage became evident. Many who participated in this unique mission thought the identification process alone would be next to impossible. Comparatively few of the 913 bodies bore the homemade ID bracelets many family members attached to their wrists before ingesting the poisonous concoction that killed them, and even fewer had been identified by Odell Rhodes and his team of Jonestown survivor volunteers.

The condition of the bodies four days after the mass murder/suicide made further visual identification impossible. Jim Jones was one of the few whose features and clothing provided enough proof of identity that the team felt confident when the put his body in the body bag. He was among the first to be catalogued.

This inability to identify more victims was very disconcerting to the GRREG soldiers whose lives were dedicated to the processing of human remains after catastrophic events and who prided themselves on being able to identify most of the bodies at any mass death site.

In wartime, the ID tags worn by the combatants invariably provide positive proof of identity. In today’s modern military, service members’ DNA is collected, catalogued and kept on file, ensuring there will never be another unknown soldier. In airplane crashes and natural disasters like Katrina that involve the loss of many lives, wallets and jewelry often can be used to place a name to a victim.

But the remains of the residents of Jonestown posed problems that the GRREG team had never encountered in such huge numbers. Very few of the dead carried wallets or wore jewelry. By Tuesday, the bodies were badly bloated with heads resembling those of severely hydrocephalic children. They were in such an advanced state of decomposition, recognition was impossible. The skin color of almost every victim was a dark blue-black, making it difficult to determine even the ethnicity or race of a corpse.

The fact that nearly everyone who perished was either Caucasian or African-American and they now shared the same color was a strange irony, because the man they followed to their eternal grave, Jim Jones, remained recognizably Caucasian. It was as if members of the Peoples Temple finally achieved a form of equality in death that the evil pastor who masterfully orchestrated their demise did not share. Jim Jones, who preached racial equality from pulpits in Indianapolis to Ukiah and San Francisco all of his life, in the end became the only person in his flock that did not achieve it.

Name tags were sewn into most of the clothing worn by the residents of Jonestown. Unfortunately, the communal lifestyle made for the sharing of wardrobes. Many of the dead wore clothing with three or four different names, none of which actually were their own.

The task of identifying the bodies was more foul than placing the remains into the body bags. During the identification process, bodies had to be individually checked, pockets turned inside-out and any ID bracelets read and recorded. This meant handling and touching each rapidly decomposing remains, many of which already displayed millions of eggs lain by the incredible horde of flies drawn to the scene. Maggots covered the entire area where the Jonestown dead lay.

One common form of life usually found wherever death occurs in the tropics was conspicuously missing from the skies over Jonestown. One can only speculate about the absence of buzzards or vultures. These scavenger birds are as common in the warmer climes as cardinals in Missouri. Perhaps these birds that feed off carrion and keep the environment clean, realized the men, women and children of Jonestown died from the ingestion of a deadly poison. We may never know what caused the buzzards to stay away from Jonestown, but for me, an old tropical soldier and longtime resident of South Texas where the big birds are common, their absence added to the surreal scene.

The first attempts to pick up the bodies by grasping their heads and limbs and lifting them into the body bags more often than not caused a limb or two, or even the head, to become disconnected from the bloated liquid-filled torso. When this happened, a foul, thick, serous fluid would stream from the body part being held by a hapless soldier and an even larger amount would flow from the torso as it landed on the ground. Because the bodies were in such close proximity to one another, it wasn’t long before the soil in Jonestown became a muddy mixture of dirt and smelly body fluids.

In Jonestown there was no escaping the odor. Men and women who a week ago were anticipating a Thanksgiving with family and friends were hard at the job of tagging and bagging bodies where they lay. They then loaded the bags onto the same flatbed trailer used a few days before to carry Peoples Temple assassins to Port Kaituma to kill a congressman and some of his entourage. A tractor then pulled the loaded trailer over 28 miles of dirt road to Matthews Ridge, the only available place to land the helicopters used for the evacuation. The bodies were then placed directly onto the Jolly Green Giants and flown 150 miles to Timehri Airport. They were then put on trucks for a short ride to an area where they would be logged in and – finally – placed in aluminum coffins for transport to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Every hour, the U.S. Army communications specialist in Jonestown radioed the number of bodies that had been bagged in that time. Our U.S. Air Force communications station at Matthews Ridge received the tally and kept a running total, relaying the data to task force headquarters in Timehri Airport.

The first hourly report said fewer than 10 bodies were bagged. A similar count came in for hour number two. Then, when we were expecting the hour three total to come across the radio, Jonestown sent us what we thought was an unusual request.

“Tell HQ we need snow shovels,” was the curt request. Snow shovels? Guyana is a tropical country that has never seen snow. Now they wanted as many snow shovels as we could provide them. A call for six dozen of the cold weather implements was dutifully relayed to the task force headquarters at Timehri Airport. From there the call went out to the U.S. Air Force Base in Charleston, South Carolina. The first shipment of snow shovels reached Jonestown within six hours of the original request.

With the arrival of these simple tools, so alien to this region of the world, the process of placing the rotten remains into body bags was streamlined considerably. Usually six or eight soldiers with the shovels – three or four on each side of the very fragile body – lifted it in unison, a foot or so off of the ground. Two other soldiers then slid an open body bag under the suspended corpse, the snow shovels were lowered, and the remains gently deposited into the body bag.

This procedure sounds simple, but it wasn’t always successful. Body fluids continued to flow freely from orifices and breaks in the skin, creating a gooey, slippery, smelly mess. Sometimes a heavy head, swollen to twice its normal size, slipped from the shovel and fell to the earth with a thud after being severed from the fragile neck.

After employment of the snow shovels, there was a definite and noticeable increase in the GRREG team’s productivity that was reflected in the numbers. By the end of Day One, nearly 100 bodies were evacuated to Timehri Airport.

Much speculation has been made by the original discrepancy in the number of dead. The first released numbers took into account the GDF estimate coupled with the fact that only 400 passports were found. Members of the GRREG team, who had hands-on experience in Jonestown learned how that estimate was so wrong.

It appears the infants and toddlers, who had the poisonous potion forced down their throats by their mothers using needle-less five and ten ml. syringes, represented the biggest uncounted group. Their convulsing bodies were placed on the bottom of a rather large but fairly shallow concave area next to the pavilion. Larger children followed the younger ones in death and lay themselves on top of the little ones. Next came preadolescents and adolescents, making up more layers of victims. Then the teens took their last drink on earth and their place among their friends and siblings who died before them.

While all the younger residents of Jonestown were dying. Jones encouraged some of the mothers to join their offspring, so the distraught parents began joining the deadly act of communion. The senior citizens were the next group Jim Jones commanded to drink the devil’s brew. These people became part of a pile that was not discerned as a pile because of the concavity of the terrain. The last group to participate in the White Night was the able bodied members of the cult, men who had carried out Jones’ dirty work, those who held weapons on the others while forcing them to drink the deadly Flavor Aid. Most of their bodies were found on the periphery of the mass of dead in the concave area.

November 27 marked our last day in Guyana and the official end to the mission that brought more than 200 American servicemen and women to this tropical country that seemed a million miles from home. I stood on the hot tarmac at Timehri Airport, thinking of how this country that I had never heard of before would be remembered by most of my generation. It will always be the place where the Jonestown Massacre happened, at least in my mind.

I watched as the last helicopter that left Jonestown touched down. I remained an observer, as extremely tired and thoroughly stressed out young American soldiers began removing the last remains.

The repetitive robot-like movements of these men and women as they picked up body bags from the helicopter, walked to the tailgate of a nearby truck and deposited their human cargo, was punctuated by their masklike faces, completely devoid of any emotion. Their uniforms were soaked with body fluids and sweat, damaged beyond repair.

As I gazed upon the scene, Colonel Gordon, the gruff no-nonsense joint task force commander approached. “Brailey,” he barked as he returned my salute, “Did y’all bring a psych tech with you from Panama?”

“No sir,” I answered. “Why?”

“They were trying to put that dead go-rilla into a body bag,” he claimed.

Mr. Muggs was a huge chimpanzee Jones kept in a cage near his cottage. It was rumored that small children were placed in the cage with the old primate as a form of punishment.

I had seen Mr. Muggs during my first tour of Jonestown a week earlier. He had been shot to death. That dead chimp smelled much worse than any of the human remains.

Gordon went on, “They kept tryin’ to push that big go-rilla’s shoulders into the body bag, but they just couldn’t get it zipped up. I watched them for a few minutes until one of them graves registration guys was gonna hack its shoulders off with a machete.”

“Hold it, I commanded,” said Colonel Gordon in a loud voice to replicate the one he used in Jonestown, “Why are you gonna hack that go-rilla up?”

“Because he won’t fit into the body bag, sir,” came the respectful reply from the ringleader of the practical jokers.

“But why are you putting him in a body bag anyway?” came the exasperated question of the colonel.

“Why, sir? Why? Just wait until they open this one in Dover!” was the devilish reply of the leering GRREG soldier.

Gordon said he looked down at the group and said, “Look, men, I don’t mind you playin’ a joke on them folks up in Dover. But I won’t let you mutilate that poor go-rilla just to fit him into a body bag.”

Colonel Gordon said he watched the four GRREG soldiers work for several more minutes trying to stuff Mr. Muggs into the bag. Then he walked away, shaking his head and believing Mr. Muggs was left behind in Jonestown.

(Author’s note: In the first edition of this book, written in 1998, I reported that Mr. Muggs was the only Jonestown resident from the United States who remained in Guyana. I was wrong. The mortuary affairs specialist who opened a body bag at Dover that was occupied by a gorilla told me the truth after he read my book.)