The Ghosts of November:
Chapter Three – “We aren’t prepared for this”

“Death is king of this world: ‘tis his park where he breeds life to feed him. Cries of pain are music for his banquet.”

George Eliot

I hated it when a patient died, especially if he or she was young and vital. Children affected me the most, so innocent and so new to this state called “life.” I saw my share of people die – old men from cancer, young men from motorcycle accidents or wars, children from illness and abuse. As a medic, you get immured to death, at least most do.

I tried to take death in stride. I didn’t fear my own death, to me it was just another stage of life, perhaps, I hope, not even the final one. But to see a baby die before he was able to say its first word or a child, before she went to her first school dance or had her first adolescent crush, or a 19-year-old soldier, his legs amputated at the hips, who you spent weeks keeping alive and you did it, you defeated an inevitable death, until he committed suicide days after being sent back home, because he always wanted to be a cowboy. Those deaths I couldn’t take in my stride.

I felt strongly about people who died for no good reason, especially when they are helpless or coerced. I still do. Before I arrived at Jonestown, I was confused, not understanding what happened there. When I left Jonestown and returned home, I was still confused, and pissed off.

I’m not sure when the 193rd Infantry Brigade Emergency Operations Center received the first notification that something terrible had happened to several hundred Americans living in the jungle of Guyana, but I was informed by First Sergeant Arthur Phillip at about 9AM, November 19. I was preparing breakfast for my family when a phone call alerted me that my presence was immediately required in the company.

I was the chief wardmaster of the clearing platoon, 601st Medical Company and it was not unusual for a meeting to be called on a Saturday or Sunday, particularly if medical assets were needed to respond to some natural disaster. I was not sure what calamity caused this meeting to be called, but I was quite certain it was not a hurricane or earthquake as none had been reported on the news. Usually Phillips would have given me a heads up as to the topic of such meetings. This time, he did not.

My weekend uniform was usually shorts, sandals and a colorful T-shirt, which I quickly from into Army issue tropical fatigues. The familiar battle dress uniform (BDU) that is now worn by soldiers was not yet in the inventory.

I did finish making the pancakes, my specialty, before I left. I kissed my children and wife goodbye, not knowing if I’d be home any time soon, expecting I would not. Being veteran Army brats and a dutiful military wife, the family took my departure in stride as it had dozens of times in the past.

Arriving at the company, I noticed the brigade surgeon’s and company commander’s cars in the parking lot. It was most unusual for the surgeon to be present at an initial pre-deployment briefing. The scene of the commander’s office was somber. The faces that greeted me were not the ordinarily jovial ones exhibited by these professionals. Even when a soldier’s weekend is interrupted by some emergency or disaster, he usually maintains a sense of humor. Obviously some major crisis was brewing.

“What’s up sirs?” I said, addressing my commander, Captain Richard Skinner and the brigade surgeon, Major Victor Burgos.

Burgos was a seasoned Army doctor and an excellent manager. Board certified in Emergency Room Medicine, he was aware of all the standard policies, procedures and protocols and he operated by them. Hell, he wrote some of them. Once, when a tracked vehicle fell from a bridge during a training exercise, gruesomely killing one of its occupants, I watched him adroitly treat one of the soldiers who saw his buddy’s head crushed before his very eyes.

The young soldier luckily had no physical injuries, but he was a psychological mess. Brought into the clearing station on a litter, the young soldier stank from soiling himself. He was shaking so badly, he could not smoke a cigarette unless someone held it for him. The stricken young trooper could not or would not talk. After assessing his condition, Major Burgos told me to admit the soldier to the holding ward, clean him up and get him a bed.

“Don’t you want to send him to Gorgas [Army Hospital] for psychiatric evaluation?” I asked Burgos.

“What’s the philosophy behind treating a psychiatric casualty in combat, Brailey?” he said responding to my question with a question.

“Treat him as close to the front line as you can and get him back to duty as quickly as possible,” I responded. In combat, psychiatric casualties recover better if they are allowed to return to their units and comrades as soon as possible.

“But this isn’t combat, doc; this is a field training exercise,” I said, “Do you think the philosophy applies here?”

“Of course it does,” said the brigade surgeon. “We train like we fight. In a few hours that soldier will be able to hold his own cigarette, will be talking to the other patients in the holding ward and will be eating dinner. By tomorrow morning, I expect I’ll be sending that young man back to duty.”

I wandered back to the holding ward tent later that afternoon. The soldier who was nearly catatonic after witnessing the horrible death of his comrade, was sitting on the edge of his cot, smoking a cigarette. He held it by himself, with little shaking. He still was not very talkative.

A few hours later, the soldier was eating his dinner and telling anyone who would listen about the terrible tragedy that brought him to the clearing company. The next morning, less than 24 hours after his trauma, the young man was anxious to get back to his unit and performing his duties.

I told Major Burgos I was impressed by the recovery of the initially unresponsive soldier. He took it in his stride and asked me if there were any lessons to be learned about human behavior as a result of this tragic accident. His point was well taken. I learned a lot about medicine from this brilliant young physician, but on this November 19, even he didn’t know what we should do, and his bewilderment was disconcerting.

Burgos looked intently at the three men in the room with him. First Sergeant Art Phillips and I went way back. Eight years earlier, he was my wardmaster in an evacuation hospital in Vietnam. Strong of mind and body and as proficient in medical skills as any noncommissioned officer I ever served with, Art continues to this day to be my good friend.

Captain Richard Skinner was the company commander of the 601st Medical Company. He was a no-nonsense Medical Service Corps officer. Very short in stature, Skinner had a serious inferiority complex we all thought was related to his height, but Dick Skinner was one of the most competent and accessible company commanders I ever served under.

I was the third person Burgos was looking at. As a specialist sixth class, I was the lowest in rank of the quartet. However, I was a Vietnam War veteran with two tours under my belt and one of only a handful of NCOs in the company with any combat experience. Having served in the 601st Medical Company for two years and four months as of November 1978, I was in charge of the Admissions and Disposition section of the clearing platoon, which was comprised of the emergency room and medical wards.

Burgos told us what little he knew about our mission, which basically was not much. “A bunch of Americans living in the country of Guyana have attempted mass suicide by taking poison… maybe 400 to 500 people: men, women and children. We don’t know what they took. We don’t know how many are still alive, if any. We are going to be part of a task force to go there, assess the situation, assist the survivors, and bring the remains of any dead out of Guyana.”

I looked at Burgos and said, “Sir, we aren’t prepared for this.” Nothing in our combined experience could prepare us for the shocking hell of Jonestown.

A medical clearing company was made up of around 112 soldiers. It had a capacity of 100 patients and the capabilities of most small hospitals: an emergency room (called A & D), wards, a laboratory, x-ray department and operating room. The clearing company was designed to function under combat conditions. Traumatic injuries, not mass poisonings, were the types of casualties this medical unit was set up to receive.

Bullet wounds and broken bones, even multiple cases of certain medical conditions such as cholera and typhoid fever, malaria and heat injuries were old hat for medical soldiers. The protocols for these cases were standard and the soldier-medics of the clearing company trained for such contingencies.

All Army medical facilities were capable of caring for a small influx of poison cases, be they food borne or purposely ingested cases. However, mass poisonings were not commonplace. Aside from the importance of identifying the poison, having the proper medication to treat the condition was essential and no antidotes were normally kept in massive quantities.

The universal antidote for poisoning was activated charcoal mixed in water. We had plenty of water but were not sure we could locate enough charcoal to treat 400 to 500 poisoning cases. Even if we could locate the proper antidotes in an adequate amount, what condition would any survivors be in once we arrived at their remote jungle location some 1450 miles away?

We were being tasked with an unusual and unique mission and we had to do the best we could with limited resources to accomplish it. Major Burgos was determined to put together an antidote kit that could be used to treat any survivors. Selecting a team to provide that treatment and to care for any injuries or other casualties that might occur, incidental to the mission, became my responsibility.

Fortunately, the 601st was blessed with some highly competent soldier-medics to choose from. Sam Bernal was another specialist sixth class practical nurse like me. Although fairly new to the unit, he was a quiet and introspective but demonstrated much talent and skills.

Randy Fielder, a specialist fourth class “mini-charlie” was another team member. A mini-charlie was an experimental medic, one who completed the first half of his practical nurse training and then was assigned to a medical unit where, over time, he would receive the second half. This was to be the Army’s answer to the high attrition rate of Army practical nurses.

The Army had lost “full-charlie” practical nurses to the civilian sector in droves. The short-lived program lasted less than two years, however, the short Charlies just couldn’t replace their more educated, trained and experienced predecessors.

That said, Fielder was a very resourceful soldier. A 19-year-old kid from the ghetto, Randy could drive any vehicle in the Army inventory and he was not afraid of work. He also was quite a schemer, very resourceful at “Midnight Requisitioning,” that age-old method of procuring equipment and supplies in an unconventional and expedient manner. Further, of all the younger soldiers in the 601st, he was one of the more well-liked by higher ranking NCOs and he fit well into the composition of our team.

Mike Sanborn was a specialist fourth class as well. He was a 91A10 combat medic. As big and strong as an ox, Sanborn could be counted on to get the job done, no matter how great the hardship. He reacted well in bad situations, especially the occasional bar fight in the brothels that Panama City were famous for. The more difficult the mission the harder this motivated young soldier worked to accomplish it.

It was decided that Captain Skinner and Major Burgos would also be on the team. The final two soldiers to make up our group were specialists fourth class Eric Vega and Cliff Yoder. They were medical records clerks who would be needed to track the survivors treated by our contingent.

Unfortunately, when we arrived in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, we were told there were no survivors of what would soon be called, The Jonestown Massacre. Vega and Yoder remained in Georgetown as part of the labor force that unloaded the remains of 914 American citizens from the helicopters that lifted them out of the jungle death camp presided over by Jim Jones.

We quickly assembled the supplies and equipment we would take on the mission, checking each item. If it was a drug, we made sure it wasn’t outdated. We made sure our sterile packs were also in date and undamaged. Everything was palletized and transported by truck to Howard Air Force Base, north of the canal, next to Fort Kobe. By the time that task was completed, it was mid-afternoon. The team members were sent to their respective quarters to pack their personal gear and equipment and say goodbye to their families.

Captain Skinner instructed me to insure each member of the team received a .45 caliber side arm and a standard issue of ammunition. Since Sanborn was our arms man and was a single soldier, living in the barracks, I tasked him with the mission of preparing to issue the weapons before our formation at 1800 hours.

We didn’t know how long we were going to be gone, but it was a safe bet we would not be spending Thanksgiving with our loved ones in Panama. Although soldiers are notorious for missing holidays with their families due to official duties, this was my first major one away from mine in the seven years we had been married.

I went home for a while to catch a bite to eat and say one last farewell to the wife and kids. They were melancholy but not surprisingly stoic. Mai and I were raising them right, trying to make them be independent. I suppose you could say since they were all the offspring I had, I was a feminist and wanted them to never have to depend on a man for anything.

My oldest daughter, Suzanne, was born in Hue, Vietnam, during my second consecutive tour there. The other two girls, Jennifer and Deborah, were born at Fort Dix, New Jersey, exactly 364 days apart, on February 21st 1974 and February 20th, 1975. Suzy’s birthday is February 18, 1971, so group birthday parties were the rule and celebrated on Valentines Day until the girls became old enough to negotiate their own individual birthday party contracts.

The food for our family Thanksgiving feast was already in the house. First Sergeant Phillip and his wife said they would look after our families health and welfare while we were away, as was most Army units’ tradition when some of their soldiers were away on a mission. The Army did take care of its own.

After stowing some toilet articles and other items I neglected to pack earlier, I kissed the crew goodbye one more time and made my way back to the company. Weapons were issued, a short accountability formation was held, duffle bags inspected and my team was loaded on a deuce and a half utility vehicle and transported to Howard Air Force Base. We were quickly loaded onto one of three C-130 cargo aircraft for the five hour flight to Timheri International Airport, Georgetown, Guyana.

The C-130 was a flying workhorse. On aircraft configured to carry passengers and cargo together, the passengers usually sat in red, nylon strap seats and the cargo, palletized materials, jeeps and the like, was stowed down the middle of the aircraft.

Many people who had difficulty sleeping on commercial aircraft, especially in coach, had no trouble sleeping in the netting of a C-130. The hammock-like seat, the constant loud drone of the aircraft’s mighty Pratt and Whitney or Boeing engines all worked better than Sominex to put me to sleep. Even today, traveling around 12,000 air miles a month in business class, I find the memories of those long C-130 flights when I was in the Army, very fond memories indeed.

There really isn’t much of anything else to do on one of those long flights in a military aircraft. The loud engines make conversation next to impossible unless you can read lips or know American Sign Language. Reading is difficult without the convenient overhead light on a passenger airliner. Sleep is the next most logical option.

The cloudless night sky courtesy of the dry season which was just being ushered in, made the twinkling stars overhead look like the ceiling of a planetarium. The entire contingent of men and women on the aircraft were understandably anxious, however. The fact that we were embarking on what turned out to be one of the most unusual missions in the annals of military history added to our uneasiness.

We knew the stars were out there. We saw them when we embarked on the aircraft. Now, nothing could be seen outside the cabin but darkness. I guess this was one of the few times in my military career I truly felt like a mushroom: kept in the dark and fed bullshit. Only this time, we didn’t even have the B.S.

The sun was a thin red line on the eastern horizon as we landed at Timheri Airport. Even though we were experienced and acclimated tropical soldiers stationed in Panama, the stifling humid heat of the South American country was overwhelming as the Air Force crew opened the huge back hatch of the aircraft. Unlike the weather we left on the Isthmus of Panama, Guyana was in the middle of its rainy season.

Upon disembarking from the Hercules C-130, we were assembled in what was an old and obviously long unused terminal building. One look across the expanse of crisscrossing tarmac runways, about a half mile away explained why: there was a gleaming new terminal on the other side.

I don’t know if we were purposely segregated from the civilian population of Georgetown, but I suspect we were. So there would be no ambiguity, the Task Force Commander, US Army Colonel William Gordon, told all the troops, “Anyplace in this country except where you are now standing is off limits. That means you leave this hangar and you are wrong.”

These orders were not unusual, and once we realized the international, political, social and cultural implications of what happened in Jonestown just two days earlier, these rules made perfect sense. Interestingly and unbeknownst to us, hundreds of journalists from around the world were camped out at the new terminal. They were forbidden to venture to our side of the runway.

That didn’t stop some enterprising tabloid photographers from aiming their long telephoto lenses in our direction and snap away until they run out of film. A pulp magazine from New York City quickly drafted a “special edition” about what it termed the “Jonestown Tragedy. It appeared to be quickly slapped together and published within days of the event. A very grainy photo of myself walking with Bernal, Sanborn and Vega adorned its cover.

We arrived just before dawn, the 20th of November. The victims of the murder/suicide had lain where they fell or were placed after ingesting the deadly potion that killed them for about 36 hours.

The tropical heat is not kind to formerly living tissue and after this length of time in the sun and its stifling heat, Jonestown was undoubtedly a very unpleasant place to be. This was the main topic of discussion as we ate our breakfast of C-rations and waited in the early morning sun to see what our next move would be.

Colonel Gordon was the G2, Intelligence Officer, for the United States Army Southern Command. Although I was unaware of it at the time, the temporary task force he commanded consisted of officer and enlisted men and women of every branch of the Armed Forces and US Coast Guard.

There was a contingent of mortuary specialists from Fort Lee, Virginia. A clearing platoon from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, similar to my unit in Panama, set up a medical treatment facility at the airport.

Green Beret soldiers from the 3/7th Special Forces Group at Fort Gulick, and infantrymen from the 3/5th Infantry Battalion at Fort Kobe, aviation fuel specialists from Fort Clayton, all in Panama were part of the task force. Air Force communications specialists and fixed and rotary wing aircraft from various Army and Air Force facilities in the States and overseas, rounded out the troops Gordon commanded. He also had staff officers from The Coast Guard and Navy, making the Joint Humanitarian Task force to Guyana a truly multi-corps entity.

The colonel was an old soldier of about 60 years of age in 1978. His demeanor was always professional without appearing aloof. He was easy to talk with and obviously enjoyed leading soldiers, not a common task performed by a staff intelligence officer. Unquestionably he was a good leader as well, who enjoyed all the perks and mantels of being in charge. Gordon was jovial, when he wanted to be, which was most of the time and he was effectively stern when he needed to be, which gratefully was not often. When he talked, the soldiers he commanded listened and reacted appropriately.

Mrs. Gordon and I were members of the Ancon Theater Guild back in Panama. Colonel Gordon and I knew each other socially but this was my first opportunity I had to be in his chain of command.

One play Mrs. Gordon and I were in together was Night Watch, an old mystery suspense drama that starred Elizabeth Taylor in the film. Mrs. Gordon did not have the leading role and mine was very minor. Since we had time on our hands, she and I made a habit of trying to make the leading lady laugh in the same scene every night.

The actress would look out a window. In the script, she was to see a murder and scream. For two weeks we tried nearly every piece of slapstick and stupid silent humor to make her crack and laugh instead of scream. Nothing seemed to work. Finally, on the final performance, we accomplished our goal. But it took me, a goofy 29-year-old NCO, necking and petting out of the view of the audience, but definitely in the actress’ line of sight, with this matronly colonel’s wife to do it.

I assumed Gordon was privy to all of the intelligence information being provided by the United States government about Jonestown and what happened there. Maybe Major Burgos was also briefed and knew almost as much as the colonel did. It is probable that even Captain Skinner was in the loop, at least to some degree. I do know that none of the enlisted personnel, including myself, received one official briefing about what occurred in Jonestown on November 18. We didn’t even know what conditions were like there at the moment and I for one would enter Jonestown in a few short hours.

After lounging around the empty old terminal for a couple of hours, we were finally told our medical team would leave soon. Bernal, Sanborn, Fielder, Captain Skinner, Major Burgos and myself would be going forward to Matthews Ridge, the closest air field that could accommodate large military aircraft. It was 20 miles south of Jonestown.

A Guyanese commercial airlines plane that normally holds about 30 passengers had been configured to carry cargo. By that I mean, all of its seats save for the pilot’s and co-pilot’s had been removed. None of the Huey Army helicopters we brought from the Canal Zone had been assembled yet. The big Air Force “Jolly Green Giant” helicopters being shuttled to Timheri Airport had yet to arrive.

Anyone who served in Vietnam or the Gulf Wars holds a fond memory of these beautiful, big, loud helicopters. Their sole mission was to rescue downed aircraft crews and GIs on clandestine ground operations behind the lines.

The Air Force had deployed two squadrons of H-53s to Indochina. One was stationed at Da Nang, South Vietnam and the other at NKP, Thailand. Together they made over 2600 “combat saves.” While rescuing the fortunate 2600, the two gallant squadrons sustained the loss of 65 of their own crew members.

Until our own aircraft could fly, we had to rely on the Guyanese government for long distance air transport. The small yellow and white Guyanese Airways aircraft taxied over to where our pallets of tents and materials were sat on the hot black tarmac. I noticed the number “747” on the side of the plane, but the only resemblance it bore to the huge aircraft produced by the Boeing Aircraft Corporation was that it had wings.

After loading our pallets into the aircraft, we were told to get in ourselves and find floor space to sit anywhere we could. This was the first time I ever rode a fixed wing aircraft without out a seat belt. Hell, we didn’t even have seats.

We had placed our cargo along the floor of the plane and it appeared to be evenly distributed. Neither the Guyanese pilot nor his co-pilot asked for our weights or the weight of our pallets. When I asked if they wanted that information, which I did have, they declined and said, “Not to worry.”

The aircraft seemed to take forever to get airborne. I was seriously concerned that we were incredibly overweight and this evening’s news in the USA would have a report about the six soldiers from Panama that died in an overweight aircraft that crashed as it tried to go to Matthews Ridge from Timheri Airport. After we successfully landed at the airfield at Matthews Ridge, to a man, each of us voiced the same concern going through our minds at the same time.

Matthews Ridge was a small bauxite mining community about 20 miles southeast of Jonestown. The accessible bauxite ore had long been extracted from the mines around the previously bustling frontier town, so by November 1978, it was in severe decline.

The quaint little town did boast a well-maintained tarmac airstrip about three miles away though. This was to be our base for the next eight days.

We landed at the isolated airstrip just before noon. After the mighty Guyanese Airway 747 landed, it taxied to the end of the runway where a Guyanese Defense Force outpost was located on a small mesa.

We offloaded our supplies and equipment and carried it about 40 yards up a small hill to another flat area below the outpost. It was an ideal place to pitch our tents. After exchanging introductions and pleasantries with some of the Guyanese soldiers, we decided to eat one of our C-ration meals for lunch. This gave us a chance to meet some of the local citizens of Matthews Ridge and share our meal with them.

C-rations were the staple food for the American fighting man since World War II. They came in a case that contained 12 individual meals. Each was in its own cardboard box, which contained individually sealed items in cans. The meals were opened with P-38s, small can openers. Several came in each case and soldiers often war them on the necklace their ID, or dog tags were on.

The official US Army Quartermaster’s description of Vietnam War Era C-rations read The Meal, Combat, Individual, is designed for issue as the tactical situation dictates, either in individual units as a meal or in multiples of three as a complete ration. Its characteristics emphasize utility, flexibility of use, and more variety of food components, that were included in the Ration, Combat, Individual (C-Ration) which it replaces. Twelve different menus are included in the specification.

Each menu contains: one canned meat item; one canned fruit, bread or dessert item; one B unit; an accessory pack containing cigarettes, matches, chewing gum, toilet paper, coffee, cream, sugar and salt; and a spoon. Four can openers are provided in each case of 12 meals. Although the meat item can be eaten cold, it is more palatable when heated.

Each complete meal contains approximately 1200 calories. The daily ration of 3 meals provides approximately 3600 calories.

Meat choices included beef steak, ham slices, ham and eggs, turkey loaf, beans and wieners, spaghetti and meatballs, beefsteak with potatoes and gravy, ham and beans, meatballs and beans, chicken and noodles, meatloaf, spiced beef, and my personal favorite, boned chicken. Fruits included fruit cocktail, applesauce, peaches and pears.

There was also an assortment of crackers, peanut butter, jams, cheese spreads, fruit cake, pound cake, pecan roll, white bread and cookies. Candies, made up of solid chocolate discs, colloquially known as “John Wayne Bars,” cream chocolate, coconut chocolate, and cocoa powder rounded out the gastronomical delights known a C-rations.

While American soldiers were constantly complaining about the bill of fare served in the field and would often bring all sorts of tasty condiments to “soup up” their meals, the residents of Matthews Ridge never had tasted such food and enjoyed the American meals immensely, especially the John Wayne Bars.

Originally posted on January 23rd, 2015.

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