The Ghosts of November: Chapter Five –
“I don’t want to go down there”

“Nothing makes a man more aware of his capabilities and of his limitations than those moments when he must push aside all the familiar defenses of ego and vanity, and accept reality by staring, with the fear that is normal to a man in combat, into the face of Death.”

Major General Robert S. Johnson

I’ll admit it. I was a reluctant witness to the Jonestown Massacre and would not have set foot in the enclave that bore Jim Jones’ name if I had any say about it. Hell, on November 18, 1978, the whole country of Guyana was the last place I wanted to be.

When Captain Skinner and Major Burgos returned from their short helicopter tour of Jonestown, the brigade surgeon instructed me to gather up enough malarial prophylaxis drugs to supply the hundred or so American soldiers who were scheduled to arrive in Jonestown within the next several hours. I quickly assembled the kit and Burgos directed me to board the helicopter he and my commander had just disembarked from. It was still sitting at the end of the runway with its rotors spinning. I was to fly into Jonestown to oversee the distribution of the anti-malaria medications to the troops who would be working there.

I was relieved when I first heard our medical aid station would be set up at Matthews Ridge, some 20 miles from the gruesome death scene. I had no desire to work around all those people who had killed themselves. I tried to convince the brigade surgeon to allow me to send Bernal or Fielder to accomplish this relatively simple task.

“No,” Major Burgos said firmly, “You are the senior medic, you will go.”

A light rain began to fall from a deeply overcast sky as I gathered my personal gear and the drug kit. Although it was the rainy season in Guyana, the precipitation was not as intense here as it was on the northeastern coast where Georgetown was located.

The awaiting helicopter was an American Bell 310, or in the lingo of the United States Army, a UH-1 or “Huey.” After saluting the GDF pilot and co-pilot in the traditional palm-down American Army style, it was interesting to note they responded with the British palm-up salute, a reminder that Guyana was once a colony of Great Britain. The chopper was devoid of seats, just as the Guyanese airliner that brought us to Matthews Ridge was.

The pilot informed me he would be taking off as soon as supplies for the GDF soldiers guarding Jonestown arrived. Within minutes, a battered old civilian truck pulled up alongside the helicopter. Two large, whole, unwrapped fish along with a bag of rice and some fresh vegetables, were deposited onto its deck.

I jumped into the chopper as the pilot and co-pilot strapped themselves into their seats. Thankfully, they offered me a helmet equipped with a microphone and ear pieces so we three could communicate easily during the short flight.

The pilot cranked up the engine while his co-pilot checked gauges. After engine run-up, we quickly became airborne, heading toward a place with more dead human bodies scattered about than any other place on earth I had ever been to. The thought that I soon would be the first member of the Joint Humanitarian Task Force to set foot on this killing field was very disconcerting. I truly wondered how my constitution and psyche would react to the sights and smells that would be assaulting me in a few short minutes.

The rain continued to fall relentlessly and our altitude was not all that high when we entered the cloud bank that was producing it. Speeding through the thick blanket of dark gray clouds in that small aircraft felt a lot like riding in a car through pea soup fog at over 100 miles per hour. It was impossible to see anything beyond the helicopter windshield. It was equipped with radar and an altimeter that seemed to be operational, so there was little danger of hitting a tree, crashing into a mountain, or being hit by another aircraft – I hoped.

To keep it light and demonstrate I was confident in their skill as pilots, I engaged in small talk with the GDF officers shuttling me to Jonestown. “Why is the helicopter painted a bright international orange rather than the traditional green, brown and black of American military choppers that operate over jungles?” I naively inquired.

“Easier to find us if we crash in the jungle,” deadpanned the pilot.

That made perfect sense but was not very reassuring to this passenger taking his first ride in a GDF helicopter over one of the thickest jungle forests in the world. The co-pilot smiled and assured me that neither he nor the helicopter commander had ever crashed.

Within a few minutes, we arrived over Jonestown and the pilot began his descent from the gloomy disorienting clouds. It was comforting to be able to see the ground once again. We were about 1000 feet over the community when we broke through the clouds.

“Where are all the bodies?” I asked, trying to sound as confident and professional as I could.

“Right down there, mate,” replied the co-pilot.

I told the two GDF flyers it was difficult to make out the individual bodies from this great height and before I finished getting the words out of my mouth, the pilot maneuvered the international orange GDF helicopter in a rapid descent to a hover about 150 feet above the pavilion.

From this lower elevation, what had appeared to be piles of trash in a landfill from 850 feet higher, was easily recognized as a mass of hundreds of bodies in multicolored clothing. Arms, legs and heads extended from bodies so bloated the formerly loose fitting shirts and trousers that were so comfortable to wear in the tropics were skin tight against the gas-filled bodies. Even the severe prop wash of our helicopter rotors hovering overhead did not make the taut clothing flutter.

It looked exactly like a scene from a macabre horror film, but the bodies below were not elaborate mannequins placed on the ground by some Hollywood set designer and his artistic assistants. Nor were they movie extras in make-up waiting for the director’s signal to rise up and begin walking in yet another remake of Night of the Living Dead.

They were the quickly rotting remains of dead humans, men women and children, who until a few short days ago, had been living breathing beings with dreams and aspirations that probably were not all that different from my own.

I learned much later that for the past two years and more, most of these people had been living a miserable existence, but at least where there is life there is hope. There was no hope left in Jonestown that rainy November day, only horror, and I said out loud, to no one in particular, “I don’t want to go down there.”

“I don’t blame you, mate.” The audible reply to my rhetorical question jerked me back into the present.

Within a minute or so, we landed in a large expanse that was to become known as the soccer field. The Guyanese no doubt called it a football field. No matter what its name, I had no desire to leave the chopper that felt like a protective cocoon.

At this moment, the Bell 310 GDF chopper was the only aircraft on the ground in Jonestown, but within a day, this field would become the busiest airport in Guyana, save the Timheri International at Georgetown. Jolly Green Giants would be shuttling American soldiers and their supplies into Jonestown and taking full body bags out, in the most bizarre military airlift in the history of the United States Armed Forces.

As unpleasant as Jonestown was, it was a relief to disembark from that small helicopter. The short ride through dark rain-filled clouds had been disorienting. The unfamiliar and pungent odor of the fish, while not as unpleasant as the aroma exuded by Jonestown, was a little sickening. I had to squat on my haunches, again without a seatbelt, to keep the fish’s natural juices from soaking my uniform. Little did I know at the time, all my uniforms would be discarded and burned at the end of this mission anyway. It was impossible to wash the scent of death from them.

I would have preferred the smell of fish to the putrid odors that penetrated my nostrils once the helicopter door was slid open. The bodies had been lying in the sweltering tropical heat for three days at this point. The temperature during the day on Sunday had been nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite the rain, the thermometer was hovering at over 90 on the third day.

If you have never experienced the awful aroma of mass death produced by hundreds of rotting bodies in close proximity to one another, there is no adequate way to describe it with words. The best mind picture I can paint, and this is admittedly insufficient, is to ask the reader to close his eyes and think of the most grossly overpoweringly sweet scent you can imagine and combine with the foulest most flatulent odor you can ever recall. Then consider that you will be required to smell this completely disgusting, maggot-gagging aroma 24 hours a day for the next nine days and your imagination will not even come close to the smell endured by the soldiers working with the dead of the Jonestown Massacre.

The sickening sweetness of death was overwhelming. The tropical heat and humidity seemed to enhance it. Although there was a light breeze blowing through the enclave almost all the time, it was not capable of removing the fetid odor of death and replacing it with fresh air.

Nothing but time seemed to rid the olfactory senses of the assault of death. Its odor literally permeated the skin no matter how many times we bathed or what soap we used. What is worse, long after the smell left my body, even when friends and family denied smelling it, I still did. Clothing and military equipment could be burned and reissued, but only time could repair the damage the smell of death did to the human senses.

Some of the GDF soldiers at the soccer field that day wore kerchiefs over their mouths and noses. I tried it and the cloth had no affect whatsoever on lessening the odor. It only added to the claustrophobic feeling of being smothered by the kerchief as well as death’s aroma.

When the rest of the American contingent began arriving, some tried wearing their Army issued protective (gas) masks. They reported the odor of the dead permeated even the fiber filters of those masks made to protect soldiers from poisonous gases and biological agents.

I looked around at the faces and uniforms of the men I saw in Jonestown as some of them removed there rations from the GDF helicopter I arrived in. I saw no one but Guyanese around me. A GDF lieutenant approached me and we exchanged salutes. His name was LT Abbott and he was in command of the 20 or so troops who were guarding Jonestown since the morning after the massacre.

LT Abbott seemed tired and drawn. His speech was a monotone most of the time. He seemed emotionless, devoid of feeling. The young officer seemed to be suffering what World War I soldiers called “shell shock.” In later wars, the condition was called “combat fatigue” or “combat stress.” In my war, Vietnam, the nomenclature became “post-traumatic-stress disorder.”

“Are you alright, lieutenant?” I asked.

“What, oh yes. …haven’t slept since I don’t know when. None of us have really… difficult to sleep here,” was Abbott’s disjointed reply.

“I was told by your commander you would be coming. You are the medic they sent, correct?” asked the lieutenant, seemingly more in control.

“Yes, yes sir, I am,” I replied.

“Your colleagues have yet to arrive, I am told they should start flying in an hour or two from now,” Abbott informed me. I acknowledged the information and we stood staring at one another for a moment or so.

“Your captain and the surgeon did not have time for a tour, but you do. Would you care to see Jonestown?”

I really did not relish the tour but was very cognizant of the fact that this was an historical event. It occurred to me that I was now part of it. I had no idea at the time what affect the Jonestown Massacre would have on the rest of my life, but I agreed to take LT Abbot’s tour.

From where we stood, at the edge of the soccer field, row upon row of neat white cottages on stilts could be seen. They were freshly painted, some with bright blue or red trim, but most of them all white.

The open-air pavilion was about 100 yards away. It had the familiar tin roof of most buildings in Guyana and even the most gentle of rains played the tin like a drum. The structure was held up by bark trimmed logs and crossbeams made of timber. The logs were painted brown and the crossbeams white. Most of the bodies were in or near the pavilion.

Wooden walkways led from the pavilion to two buildings about the same distance from where I stood. A huge metal building containing at least one tractor with a flatbed trailer attached to it was near the soccer field.

“Those two cottages are the infirmary and Reverend Jones’ home,” Abbott informed me. “The tractor and trailer were used by the assassins who killed the government man for your country on Saturday,” he added.

“I’d like to see the infirmary,” I said.

“I have someplace else I want you to see first,” Abbott said with a serious look on his face.

He beckoned me to follow him. By the intent in his step and the look on his face, it was obvious this tired but handsome black officer already had an itinerary for my tour worked out in his mind.

As we passed rows of stilted cottages with neatly manicured yards, a few bodies were strewn here and there, not in large groups, singly and in twos or threes. They looked not unlike rag dolls little girls had tossed aside after tiring of playing with them. I often wondered if that wasn’t what happened that November 18 in Jonestown. Did the maniacal cult leader, Jim Jones, tire of playing with the brainwashed members of his congregation?

As he approached the open doorway of one of the cottages on the edge of the jungle, he directed me inside with a resolute, almost angry voice.

“I brought you here first because I wanted to show you Americans weren’t the only ones to die here. These are my countrymen. They were shot – murdered.” The lieutenant flatly stated.

In the stifling one room cabin, I saw several bodies, perhaps a half dozen. Each obviously was shot at close range, with a heavy-gauged shotgun. They were all blacks.

“What were so many Guyanese doing in this American commune?” I asked the lieutenant.

“I’m not certain. Maybe some of them worked here. Perhaps some had family members who did. They may be local residents who chose a most inopportune time to visit their neighbors,” he surmised.

The next stop was the commune’s radio tower. We ascended a vertical wooden ladder and entered the platform. It was on stilts that were 20 or so feet high, not unlike the guard towers I was familiar with in military camps in Vietnam.

A lone, Caucasian former member of Peoples Temple lay on the floor, a pad and pencil in his long-dead hands. It appeared the unknown man had taken the poisonous brew and began making a written record of his physical reaction to it. After three short paragraphs of increasingly difficult-to-interpret handwriting, this man’s final thoughts became illegible as the convulsive affects of the cyanide overtook him.

Climbing down from the tower, LT Abbott proceeded to take me to Jim Jones’ cottage. Although I had never seen a picture of the man in life, in death, he had the appearance of a leader. His shirt and trousers were black. That alone separated him from the rest of the dead. The strikingly strange position of the body, lying on the steps of his home, arms outstretched and sightless eyes wide open, Jones’ seemed to be appealing to the God he denied until the end.

Jones’ body did not fall at the steps he was now resting on. Marks on the ground indicated it had been dragged from about 20 feet away. His arms appeared to be stiff in rigor mortis, however, a Time magazine photo taken later, but while the corpse was still on the steps, showed the left arm resting over Jones’ head, the right one lying at its side, obviously after rigor left the body.

A bullet hole was on one side of his forehead. There was little blood around the hole. I didn’t move the body, but I didn’t notice any sign of an exit wound. I don’t particularly remember seeing a pool of blood on the ground from where the body was removed. I specifically looked for powder burns or residue around the entrance wound. There was none. This indicated to me Jones had been murdered and did not commit suicide as initially reported by the US government and the media.

Abbott stepped into Jones’ home, carefully avoiding touching his corpse. I followed. Lying in front of an open empty safe was a dead woman, also shot, through the mouth. I believe this woman to be Ann Moore, the nurse who had allowed Odell Rhodes to avoid death when he accompanied her to the infirmary to fetch a stethoscope for Dr. Schacht.

On a bed in a room to the right was another dead woman. She lay on her back and although the front of her blouse had a good deal of dried blood on it, I noticed no apparent wounds. I believe this was Maria Katsaris, Jones’ mistress.

Mysteriously, the only children I saw during the tour were two little boys lying on the floor of Jones’ cottage. We know now that Kimo Prokes and John-John Stoen, children Jones’ claimed to have fathered, lived there.

The sight of the two children combined with the stench of death and the obvious enormity of what occurred here just two days earlier was incredibly shocking. My stomach was in a sorry state, ready to expel its meager contents and definitely not ready to replace it any time soon.

My head was swimming. Although the odor was no better outside the house, I had to escape its confines and at least put my face into the light breeze that was wafting through the commune. The rain had ceased, but the dark overcast sky indicated it could begin again at any time.

Our next stop on this bizarre tour of a literal city of the dead known as Jonestown was the infirmary. As a medic, this was the facility I was most interested in. Empty pill bottles and injection vials littered an otherwise clean floor. Many of the labels on the drug containers read ‘Librium,’ ‘Valium’ and sodium Phenobarbital.

The clinic boasted a modern x-ray machine and a sophisticated training microscope with two eye pieces. Other instruments and medical equipment were equally state-of-the-art. There were no bodies in the infirmary itself, but it was the first place I requested to visit and, because I was a medic, LT Abbott knew I would be interested in seeing it.

I didn’t stay very long there, but long enough to see Larry Schacht’s medical degree on the wall. I wondered out loud how a man who studied for years to become a healer could have allowed himself to become an integral element in this gross insult to humanity. LT Abbott didn’t reply.

Interestingly, an organization of medically-oriented ham radio enthusiasts called the Medical Amateur Radio Council (MARCo) made up of physicians and dentists mentioned Dr. Schacht in its April 2004 newsletter.[1] It appears he joined the council in order to take advantage of the medical advice and expertise of some of its members.

Historian, Joseph Dieckman, a researcher with the Jonestown Institute, has found numerous reports of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) violations by radio operators of Peoples Temple. FCC Case Number 77-R-71 was opened on August 25, 1977, many months after the initial violations were sent out.[2]

There were four members of Peoples Temple that had amateur ham radio licenses issued by the FCC. They included Albert Touchette [WB6MID (/8R3)], who operated in Jonestown; Paula Adams [WB6MNH (/8R1)] the operator in Guyana’s capitol of Georgetown; Elton Adams [WD6DVI] and Benjamin Bowers [WA6DTJ], who each operated in San Francisco.[3]

The United States Regulations regarding amateur radio are found in Part 97 of the US Codes. All of the violations Dieckman cited are found in the FBI’s RYMUR files.

Of the four radio operators, Bowers had the most reported violations. They included: No control operator present at time of operation; Exceeding maximum input power to the final amplifier; No station log/station log unavailable for inspection; Failure to notify at 10 minute intervals, Transmitting business traffic; Transmitting false, deceptive or unauthorized call letters; Failure to identify as required; and, Operating outside authorized US amateur band limits.[4]

Touchette and Adams had far fewer violations. Most were for operating their radios outside of approved bands, a violation of international radio operation regulations.[5]

According to MARCo, Dr. Schacht was a sadist. “Louie,” who was the medical technician who worked at the Jonestown clinic with Schacht said, “He didn’t like to use an anesthetic for suturing. If you asked for any pain relief, he stated you were not strong. Only natural childbirth was allowed in Jonestown.[6]

“He was a terrible doctor,” charged Dale Parks, who was one of Schacht’s assistants in Jonestown. “He had no compassion, but members of his church saw the 30-year-old Dr. Schacht as a modern-day Albert Schweitzer. When he first came he was totally strung out on drugs. He could not even carry on a conversation. He even had trouble remembering his name.[7]

Because he abandoned his internship, Dr. Schacht lacked clinical experience. He turned to MARCo for help. The colony began using amateur radio for all communications outside the enclave since no telephones were permitted.

Jones himself would sometimes use the radio, using fictitious names. Sometimes he called himself “Al,” the name of the station’s licensee. However, he usually relied on female radio operators and Touchette, the station’s licensee. His name appears alongside other Jonestown murder victims and could very well have been the man I saw in the radio tower.

MARCo member, Bill Otten, [now KC9CS, formerly WD9AMW] recalls his conversation with “Al” one evening on 20 meters. “Early in March of 1979,[8] I was sitting in front of my radio on a cold northern Illinois evening. I was scanning up and down the 20 meter band and a station caught my attention. It was in Guyana, a country I had not yet logged toward DXCC, so I listened for a while. It soon became apparent that the station in Guyana was talking to another station in San Francisco, and as I was listening, I was intrigued, because nothing substantial was being said. I recall mentioning to my father that the stations I was listening o were being very vague, almost as if drug transactions were taking place over the ham bands.

“I returned to the radio and WB6MID/8R3 came back to my call. I told him I was a wildlife biologist researching upland game and habitat in northern Illinois. Several days later, I tuned the radio and once again found the Guyana station, but this time it was being operated by a distinctly different voice and he did not recall our conversation of a few days earlier. This time, I asked for the operator’s name and a QSL card. His name was Albert Touchette.”[9]

The operator of Bill’s first contact identified himself as the director of a compound in the jungles of Guyana. “I run the mission,” he stated. Apparently he was Jim Jones himself, a fact later substantiated by the FBI. In November, some months later, Bill and his wife were on a trip when they heard the sad news of the deaths of more than 900 people.

Contacts with the Jonestown station by W6JZU (now Robert Smithwick, W6CS) were equally cryptic, consisting solely of passing traffic or arranging phone patches between Jonestown and the San Francisco temple, through a station identifying itself as WA6DTG, operated by a “Martha Bown,” or “Debbie Evans.”[10]

From the log of W6JZU: “Typically, the WB6MID/8R3 station operator talks to a WADTJ in San Francisco. WB6MID is licensed to Al Touchette of Redwood, CA. They often start up about 14.300 kcs (the band edge at the time), then they would move up to the high end to 14.345. They often used a coded expression such as ‘Let’s take a break for 15 minutes,’ and then they would move further up and out of the band 15-20 kcs. When out of the band they used coded call signs with the same voices and not amateur call signs. Both the ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay League) and the FCC became aware of this bizarre operation, but were limited to what action to take since the principal station was outside the United States. All letters admonishing this illegal operation were ignored.[11]

MARCo member Don Key (K0IND) confirmed this style of operation after monitoring the station over several months. “At the time of the Jonestown Massacre, Laurence Eugene Schacht, MD, submitted an application himself for MARCo membership. He listed his call signs on the application as being WB6MID/8R3. When this proved to be incorrect (the holder of that call sign was Albert Touchette) he was never granted MARCo membership. His application is dated March 9, 1978 and the massacre occurred eight months later on Nov. 18, 1978.[12]

Amateur radio was used extensively to maintain communications. Every evening, about sunset, the three stations would talk with each other, sometimes for hours at a time. Every now and then, they would break in on the MARCo nets and describe some medical problem that Dr. Schacht encountered.

Responding to such requests was routine for MARCo, but it was the elementary nature of the questions that first alerted MARCo members that things were not quite right in Jonestown. Members’ concerns increased when some of the questions asked seemed so simple that even people on the lower levels of the medical field normally would be able to answer. MARCo members provided radio medical consultations on broken bones, skin rashes and other tropical problems one would expect to find in a jungle and agricultural environment. In addition to Schacht, there were two registered nurses and a radiological technician in residence in Jonestown.[13]

It was not only the simplistic nature of the questions that raised eyebrows. Jonestown operators would talk in such confusing and inappropriate terms that nobody listening could tell what they were talking about. They would sometimes not put sentences together, just quote a few words or say things that had no relation whatsoever to what they had just finished saying.

For example, when the figure “35,000” was worked into conversations, that number did not seem to have a reference to what they were talking about. It was later learned that they were ordering a $35,000 Caterpillar tractor to be sent from the US. The word “tractor” was never used.[14]

Schacht was a drug abusing young man when Jones originally chose him to be the cult’s physician. He paid for Schacht’s undergraduate and medical school educations. Schacht went to Jonestown in 1977.[15]

The tour of Jonestown continued. As we left the infirmary and were walking toward the pavilion where the main mass of fallen bodies were located, the unmistakable sound of incoming H-53 helicopter could be heard in the distance.

“That must be your comrades,’ LT Abbott said, “Shall we continue?”

“Yes,” I replied flatly and without enthusiasm. I didn’t know how long I had been on this bizarre tour, but I knew it had to end soon.

I noticed many of the bodies seemed to lie in family groups and several dozen that I saw wore handmade identification bracelets fashioned of paper and transparent tape. The lieutenant surmised and I agreed, the residents had made these primitive bracelets to facilitate identification by authorities so loved ones could easily claim them when they arrived in the United States. Unfortunately, by this time, the bodies were so bloated that the bracelets were actually imbedded in the skin and most were unreadable.

A few minutes after the Jolly Green Giants landed and shut down their engines, LT Abbott and I concluded our tour. I had seen Jim Jones, seemingly pleading to the God he defied, rejected and mocked until the end. I saw his wooden throne-like chair with the sign overhead that read, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I saw the pot of bubbling purple brew, made from Flav-Or-Ade, not the grape Kool-Ade erroneously reported by the media. The deadly poison contained in it, had been forced down the throats of babies and little children with needleless syringes by the very mothers who had given them life. The instruments of their death were littered all around.

I saw dogs and a large chimpanzee that had been shot and killed and I wondered why all these mammals had been executed and yet two beautiful blue macaws sitting on their perches had not. Those birds were the only living things left in the enclave, except for the pigs away from the main part of Jonestown.

Perhaps the masters of these dead animals killed them out of mercy, or they though they would also be united with their pets in the great hereafter Jones promised was awaiting them. Perhaps the macaws were allowed to live so they could bear witness to the insanity that struck Jonestown. If that was the purpose these they were spared, they didn’t make good witnesses. Not a word passed from these parrots’ beaks.

LT Abbott showed me what he wanted me to see, so he could satisfy himself the world would know it wasn’t just Americans that died at Jonestown. I was a witness to the carnage, I am sure so someday I could report what I saw in this place. I saw far more than I desired to see. Even worse, I saw far more than I would ever be able to forget.

When we walked back to the soccer field, two of the US Special Forces troops who had arrived in the Jolly Greens already managed to get the tractor attached to the flatbed trailer and was shuttling big bundles of brownish-black plastic body bags from the H-53s to a staging area near the pavilion. I approached another Green Beret soldier, a medic I knew from Fort Gulick, Panama. I asked him if he was going to be based in Jonestown and he said he was. He agreed to take the drug kit of anti-malarial pills and distribute them to all the soldiers who arrived at the site.

Some of the soldiers that arrived were from the Graves Registration (Mortuary Services, as it is called now) Company at Fort Lee, Virginia. There were a couple of dozen of them, clustered around a junior grade officer, apparently being briefed about the mission. These soldiers from the States coordinated with the well-trained and highly disciplined Special Forces troopers. Although the soldiers from Fort Lee appeared to be ordinary soldiers, it takes a special breed of person to carry out the indescribably difficult mission of the Graves Registration soldier. They surely are the unsung heroes of this and many missions the get involved with.

LT Abbott returned to tell me the GDF helicopter I arrived in would be back shortly, bringing fresh troops to relieve some of his tired men. He asked if I was ready to return to Matthews Ridge.

“I was ready to get back to my men as soon as I arrived, thanks for the tour,” I said as I shook Abbott’s hand.

He gave me a week smile and said, “I wish I could say it was my pleasure, but at least it was a pleasure to meet you,” he replied.

With the sound of the GDF Bell 310 in the distance, I saluted LT Abbott and waited for the helicopter to land. It did and eight young Guyanese soldiers in clean freshly pressed uniforms disembarked from it. Eight of their counterparts, uniforms sweat-stained and smelly, who preceded them and had the grim task of guarding the Jonestown dead since Sunday morning, eagerly prepared to load out. There were no noisy greetings or high fives between these two groups of soldiers as was the custom when American troopers performed similar exchanges. Instead, the signs of fear and trepidation on the faces of those just arrived and relief on those leaving told the story.

I gratefully joined the departing soldiers as did a small nervous Caucasian American in a white shirt and dress slacks. I didn’t see anyone but uniformed American service men and women disembark from the incoming helicopters, so I assumed he was in Jonestown before I arrived. He carried an unpainted wooden crate without a top. It was filled to overflowing with what appeared to be official documents.

I nodded to the shaky guy in the dress clothes. He returned the silent signal of greeting and pointed to the .45 caliber pistol on my belt. “Is that thing loaded, soldier?” asked my jittery countryman.

“Wouldn’t do me much good without ammo, would it friend?” I replied.

Sidling up to me so he could not be easily heard by other ears than mine, he motioned me to draw even closer so he could tell me something in confidence. “If anybody tries to take this box away from me, shoot them,” he ordered softly and seriously, then he quickly stepped onto the helicopter.

I jumped in and sat next to him. The chopper still was not configured with passenger seats, so the ten of us sat on the floor.

I put my mouth to the crazy guy’s right ear and said in a voice loud enough to be heard by him alone over the roar of the huge aircraft engine, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“No, I’m not,” he replied flatly, staring at me with his most convincing ‘I am dead serious’ look.

“Look buddy,” I said to the little man in what I hoped was an equal tone of seriousness, “I don’t know who you are and I don’t know what you have in that box that is so valuable, but whatever it is, there is no way I am going to risk spending one night in a Guyanese lock-up because I shot someone who was trying to take that box away from you.”

I turned an faced the GDF soldier sitting across from me. The helicopter lifted off and I watched the jungle get smaller as we ascended higher in the waning light of my first day in Guyana. Fortunately, he and his seven comrades had just spent the most stressful 36 hours of their lives, the only living beings in a village of 900 plus dead bodies. They were exhausted and didn’t seemed to be the least bit interested in the conversation I was having with the weird American bureaucrat or the box he was now sitting on.

“I’m from the American Embassy in Georgetown,” my mysterious new associate informed, no doubt believing I would be impressed. “I’ve been here since yesterday gathering these documents. They are very sensitive, we can’t let them get into the wrong hands,” he told me in a forceful yet panicky voice.

“Let me make myself very clear to you sir,” I said to the alleged State Department man, “I don’t care if you are Rocky J. Squirrel I am Bullwinkle the Moose. I don’t care if you are President Jimmy Carter himself, I don’t care if Ivan and Natasha try to take those papers from you, unless I feel our lives are in danger, this pistol stays holstered.”

“Give it to me then,” he half ordered and half begged in a squeaky little voice. Genuine fear showed in his eyes when he removed his shades so he could see in the withering sunlight.

“Listen, I don’t know you and I don’t like you. This .45 is going to remain in its holster, and if anyone draws it out, its going to be me and if you keep fucking with me, it is you I will be shooting, I yelled at the probable CIA clerk.

About this time, the pilot began his descent. I looked down and realized we were not landing at the Matthews Ridge airstrip. With the impending landing at some other destination than the one I thought we were going to, our conversation ended.

Although it was nearly dark, it was obvious we landed at Port Kaituma, the location where the Ryan Party was ambushed. The scene must have looked much as it did on Saturday night, when the assassinations took place.

The eight weary GDF soldiers departed the helicopter here. It was now Monday night, almost 48 hours to the minute since the carnage occurred. The planes that were to take the congressman and his aide, concerned family members, defectors and the press, were still on the tarmac, their skins pock-mocked with bullet holes.

Later I learned the plan Larry Layton and his hit squad developed called for assassins to board each aircraft.[16] When the planes were airborne, a gunman on each was to kill its pilot thereby causing a deadly crash into the jungle below.

The plan was botched when the gunmen began firing from the flatbed trailer as it approached the aircraft. No one will ever know what would have happened in Jonestown that night on November 18, 1978, had the quickly devised plan been carried out successfully. Could the Jonestown Massacre have been averted if the planes were reported missing and no one was aware of the foul play? As it was, the botched assassination plan was the catalyst for the biggest mass murder/suicide in history.

The man from the embassy and I were the only passengers on the Port Kaituma to Matthews Ridge leg of the helicopter trip. By now, we were enveloped in total darkness and we each sat on opposite sides of the cabin. I was determined to keep as much space between myself and this odd, nervous American. I regarded him as one might a weird, off-the-wall relative with whom one does not want to be seen with in public.

Captain Skinner and Major Burgos were standing at the refueling point when the chopper finally landed at the airstrip. The helicopter would fly on to Georgetown after departing Matthews Ridge. My commander approached the helicopter as I slid the door open and jumped out.

“How’d it go?” he yelled in my ear over the din of the helicopter. “Mission accomplished,” I replied tersely, “Are you leaving, sir?”

“Yeah, Doc. Burgos and I are going back to Georgetown. We will work out of there. You’ve got everything under control here. Call us if you need anything,” Skinner shouted over the chopper’s engine.

“Watch out for that little squirrelly guy on the helicopter,” I warned my commander. “He’s some kind of spook or something. Wanted me to shoot anyone who tried to take his damned box from him.”

Captain Skinner did not reply. Perhaps this was because I referred to the other passengers diminutive status and it made him feel more self-conscious of his own. Maybe he knew something I didn’t. At any rate, he turned towards the helicopter, staring intently at the State Department man as he watched Major Burgos hop into the passenger cabin and then turned around, sat and pulled himself in.

I watched the international orange GDF bird lift into the starless night until its running lights disappeared in the low clouds. Then I strode up the hill to our aid station, hoping at least one of the guys was thoughtful enough to set up my cot and roll out my sleeping bag. They were. I never saw the man from the US Embassy again and I never learned what his name or function was.

Monday, November 20, 1978 had been one of the most bizarre days of my life, but the weirdness was just beginning. The next eight days would test the credulity and strain the sanity of many of the Americans performing this very strange and most unmilitary mission.

Notes:

[1] Medical Amateur Radio Council (MARCO), April Newsletter, retrieved April 2004 from www.smbs.buffalo.edu/med/marco/index2/html.

[2] E-mail from Josef Dieckman, Subject: FCC PT Document Attached, dated July 10, 2004.

[3] Josef Dieckman, The FCC Investigation of Amateur Radio Usage of Peoples Temple, Research Paper, 2004.

[4] Dieckman, FCC Investigation.

[5] Dieckman, FCC Investigation.

[6] MARCO.

[7] MARCO.

[8] Bill Otten told Josef Dieckman in a 2004 conversation that the year should have been 1978. Dieckman related this information to the author in a telephone conversation on June 26, 2004.

[9] MARCO.

[10] MARCO.

[11] MARCO.

[12] MARCO.

[13] MARCO.

[14] MARCO.

[15] FOIA, Federal Bureau of Investigation RYMUR (Jonestown), 176; John Peer Nugent,  White Night: The untold story of what happened before and beyond Jonestown (New York: Rawson, Wade, Publishers, Inc., 1979), 144-147.

[16] RYMUR, 157, 260.

Originally posted on January 23rd, 2015.

Last modified on July 19th, 2019.
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