(Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of the state of decomposition of the bodies in Jonestown.)
Air Force pilot Lt. Colonel Thomas Barrett experienced another side of Jonestown that has remained hidden in the history of the event that still lingers in the popular culture over 35 years later. Throughout his long career, Col. Barrett flew the U-2 spy plane, the infamous UC-123s in Vietnam, and – during the Cuban Missile Crisis – the RB57F on secret reconnaissance missions in an effort to gather intelligence on Soviet movements. He was no stranger to missions that were out of the ordinary, but one mission would prove to be something so unexpected and so extraordinary, he still remembers it as one of his most memorable.
In 1978, Col. Barrett was stationed at McChord Air Force Base in Washington State as the Chief of Air Base Services, when the news of an apparent mass cult suicide in a small South American country caught his attention. It seemed a curiosity more than anything else when he first heard of it, and nothing that would personally concern him: Guyana was far away, the holidays were fast approaching, and he had work to do as an active duty pilot flying a large C-141 transport aircraft.
It was in this capacity that on Wednesday, November 22, 1978, his flight to pick up some personnel from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida had a slight change in plans. The flight, designed to help maintain his flight hours and to bring some personnel home for the Thanksgiving holiday, was supposed to be a simple round-trip to MacDill and back. The entire mission could be accomplished within a day. During the “preflighting,” however, Col. Barrett was informed that, rather than picking up TDY personnel, he would instead fly to Hill Air Force Base in Utah to pick up human remains transfer cases, the same silver boxes he had seen in Vietnam. Afterwards, the Military Airlift Command ordered him to fly his C-141 directly to Georgetown, Guyana. At the time, no other information was forthcoming.
Col. Barrett collected the transfer cases at Hill and prepared for the flight to Guyana. His flight would be just one of the 45 missions assigned to fly a C-141 in support of the Joint Task Force, but while other aircraft flying to Georgetown transported 75 transfer cases, his craft was loaded with 110. The cases he picked up were stacked three high – some were stacked five high – and strapped together by the loadmaster at Hill. Upon arriving at Timehri Airport in Georgetown, another loadmaster, Tom Wilson, emptied the C-141 and placed the cases in a staging area where some 2 ½ ton trucks were unloading the body bags that had been delivered earlier via helicopter from Jonestown. The shuttling of bodies from Jonestown on the HH-53s had been nearly non-stop since the Joint Task Force arrived soon after the suicides.
To minimize the amount of time on the ground in the hot tropical sun, as many transfer cases as the military could locate were sent to Guyana, with requests for transfer cases going out as far as Germany. The need to evacuate the bodies as quickly as possible resulted in a variance to protocol as well. The typical procedure stated that transfer cases containing bodies of Americans returning home on their last flight could not be stacked on top of one another. In Guyana, this was not possible. The sheer number of bodies arriving at Timehri meant the policy had to yield, and transfer cases were stacked like cordwood. The only alternative would have been to let the bodies degrade further in the semi-sealed body bags on the tarmac.
Col. Barrett’s C-141 did not return to the States after delivering the cases, as he expected it would. His aircraft and crew were to remain in Guyana for another 18 hours. He described the wait in Guyana as “hot and muggy” with a smell – that of human decomposition – that could not be escaped. Even as the graves registration units at the airport attempted to identify some of the remains, they used disinfectant to try to block the smell and prevent the spread of disease. Barrett’s daylong stay in the Guyana heat amounted to the surreal experience of watching a tragedy unfold in slow motion in front of him.
But the worst part of his Jonestown experience was still ahead of him. With the aircraft loaded with transfer cases, stacked one on top of the other, Barrett ran through the various preflight checks, fueling and double-checks, and then took off for the 6 ½-hour flight to Dover Air Force Base. What neither he nor his crew knew was that the body bags and transfer cases were not airtight. The bodies, which had already undergone substantial decomposition in the heat of the jungle environment, began releasing vast amounts of organic gases including methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide. Early in the flight, as the C-141 climbed to altitude and the pressure began to change, the aircraft began to smell. Col. Barrett described the situation:
They (USAF) initially forgot to bring an “evacuation pump” that creates a negative pressure in the containers and then a plug is inserted. When we climbed out the containers started “venting” gasses. The outflow valve is in the back of a C-141 and airflow moves in that direction. When the loadmaster opened the cockpit door during the climb it was like someone hit him with a baseball bat. He slammed the door and grabbed an Oxygen mask and walk-around bottle in order to check the back of the airplane. We maximized the airflow to the back of the aircraft for the remainder of the flight. When landing at Dover, the cabin was depressurized and all the airflow came forward. All the crew went on 100% Oxygen for taxi-in.
One of the flight crew’s responsibilities during the flight is to make sure the cargo does not shift, since uneven weight distribution can create a potentially dangerous situation. This has led to aircraft crashing on takeoff as happened recently in Afghanistan during a commercial cargo flight. Here, however, the added smell and the leaking transfer case made such an inspection nearly impossible. The noxious gases leaking from the transfer cases led to a mind-numbing distraction that could not be escaped, a distraction also with potentially dangerous results. During the landing and taxi to the terminal at Dover, Col. Barrett reported, the crew still wore their oxygen masks due to the smell, an unheard of procedure.
Incoming flights to Dover from Guyana were met by both the press and a local religious leader, who conducted a small ceremony. As the transfer cases were unloaded – after the dignitaries had departed – the extent of the contamination became evident. Maggots and some liquefied remains littered the deck of the aircraft. As Col. Barrett noted:
[The] crew had to mop up maggots on the cargo compartment floor. We were instructed to return the aircraft to McChord. I believe it took them a week to decontaminate the aircraft and get the “smell out.”
The aircraft, though, was not the only thing that continued to carry the stench of death. When Col. Barrett’s post-flight briefing had been delayed so he could shower first, but after arriving home – several days and thousands of miles later – his odor was the first thing his wife noticed. As he told the local news media in an interview,
After landing, I returned home where my wife (an RN) was waiting in the driveway. She instructed me to take off all my clothes in the garage and take a long shower. The smell had permeated everything including the clothes in my travel (B4) bag. I wasn’t home an hour when the base called and wanted me to do an interview with a Seattle TV station. I drove to the base (in a terrible smelling car), did the interview and returned home to find numerous media representatives camped in my driveway. It was a zoo for days, including presentations at local Rotary Club and press interviews.
For the remainder of his career, nothing came close to an experience such as this.
(Chris Knight-Griffin has a degree in history from the University of Maryland University College and currently enrolled in a graduate program in history at Wayland Baptist University. Chris also enlisted in the Navy where he served on Submarines. He currently lives along the Chesapeake Bay with his wife and daughter. At present, Chris freelances as a military researcher for, and is a regular contributor to, the jonestown report. His earlier articles may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)