The Ghosts of November:
Chapter Seven – Innocent Detachment

“How fascinating is death, the extinction of life. One moment here and the next gone. The light put out and only the empty bag of the body left.”

Unknown

The lengthening shadows of the tall trees on the western edge of the clearing that the pioneering Peoples Temple members cut out of the thick Guyanan jungle to create Jonestown told me that my first day in this place of death would soon be drawing to a close. I was grateful to be ending my tour of the compound with LT Abbott. In the waning light, a huge U.S Air Force Jolly Green Giant appeared in the eastern sky. Soon, the first off several helicopters that would be used to transport Jonestown’s dead to Georgetown landed in the soccer field and began depositing passengers and cargo. The clouds had dissipated and the sun had sunk below the tree line, but the daylight was not noticeably diminished at that time of the evening.

It was obvious that the residents of this American enclave literally carved out of the dense South American rain forest were denied the opportunity of enjoying the beauty of a tropical sunrise or sunset as long as they began and ended their day in Jonestown. The tall trees blocked any semblance of what could be considered a horizon and the sun was high in the sky before it reached the cleared area where the village sat. Sunset came every day long after the shadows of the trees completely covered the ground and long before daylight left the rest of the region.

I watched as the members of the GRREG [Graves Registration] team collected their personal gear and equipment from the still running helicopter and deposited it in a central point along the edge of the soccer field. Six tough and extremely professional soldiers from the U.S. Army’s Special Forces who had accompanied the mortuary specialists stood not far from me, heavy rucksacks on their backs and M16 rifles in their hands. After a quick meeting and survey of the immediate area, these men fanned out to learn the terrain and look for vehicles and other equipment that may make the jobs of the GRREG soldiers easier.

By now, I had completed the shocking tour of Jonestown and was discussing the distribution of the malaria prophylactic medications with the Green Beret medic whose fellow team members were providing security and assistance to the GRREG team in Jonestown. Since generators, fuel and light sets had been brought in on the Jolly Green Giants that had, by this time, departed, no one was worried about the impending night that was quickly enveloping the jungle enclave.

Three of the Special Forces troops were preparing the generators to light up the night. Someone wondered out loud if this would help dissuade the ghosts of the recently dead residents from haunting the soldiers this first of eight nights they were to spend as uninvited guests in their town.

The commune had become eerily quiet. The GRREG soldiers, settled in to their sleeping area, were having a meeting with their platoon leader. The GDF soldiers were far enough from our location that their voices were inaudible, although some did seem to be engaged in animated conversations. As my medic friend and I finished up our business, we observed the scene around us. While the surrounding jungle teemed with the sounds of awakening wildlife, mostly birds and other small creatures of the night, the entire environment was free of any human originated sounds.

Suddenly, without warning – a loud snap! It was somewhat reminiscent of a rifle being fired, and it came from a large barnlike building nearby. Before any of us could hit the dirt, as was our immediate inclination, the sound of the Jonestown generator could be heard as it started and the outside lights of the commune became illuminated.

“Photo electric cell,” murmured one of the Green Berets to no one in particular. Our generator was puny and unnecessary after discovery of the sophisticated and powerful system already operating in Jonestown.

The GRREG soldiers and the Special Forces soon settled in for the night. Their living area was set up what the NCOs of the task force hoped was upwind from the mass of bodies near the pavilion. By November 20, the smell was almost unbearably sickening, especially to the uninitiated infantry soldiers from the 3/5th Infantry Battalion from Fort Kobbe, in the Canal Zone of Panama. My Green Beret friends from Fort Gulick stoically tried to present an image of calm and control despite their unfamiliarity with the awful stench of death.

None of the GRREG personnel were heard to complain about the odor, or anything else, for that matter. It almost was as if it was expected, something that came with the job, an element they would have felt strange if it was missing. It was further evidence they were in the zone. No matter how ugly or difficult things got, these amazing soldiers, whose main mission in the military was to serve the dead, took things in stride. They seemed silently proud to be unaffected by sights and smells that made other, less-prepared soldiers physically ill.

It was interesting to observe the various men and women who made up the GRREG team. Viewing them from afar, I was most impressed with their professionalism.

According to the Ode to the 92M, written by Tommy Boullier, director of the Mortuary Affairs Center at Fort Lee, “They surround themselves with sorrow, tragedy and grief, and call it their job. They do it willingly, ‘not for themselves, but for their country.’ The words dignity, reverence and respect are more than just words, they are their creed.[1]

Charles Huff claims to have been one of seven Special Forces soldiers who were alerted on November 18, 1978, that Congressman Le J. Ryan was killed.[2] He and these other six soldiers were sent to Jonestown, says Huff, arriving five or six hours after they left Fort Gulick.

Huff further avers he was in Jonestown the night of the 18th of November.[3] This was impossible. Congressman Ryan was killed around 5:15 PM.[4] Ironically, residents of Jonestown began their murder/suicide spree between 5:15 PM[5] and 6:00 PM.[6] The last deaths occurred between 7:45 PM and 9:45 PM.

While there is some confusion over who alerted the U.S. government of the massacre, the announcement could not have reached the Canal Zone until after 9:45 PM. the earliest Odell Rhodes could have made it to Port Kaituma on foot. This gives Huff and his six companions two hours and 15 minutes to travel from Fort Gulick in Panama to Jonestown in Guyana.

The fastest way to travel between these two points is to fly in a helicopter from Fort Gulick to Howard Air Force Base, about a 55 mile trip west. Then Huff would have boarded a military transport plane from Howard, fly approximately 1200 miles east to Georgetown, Guyana, passing over Jonestown, arriving at Timheri Airport. From Timheri, Huff would need to fly in another helicopter 350 miles west to Jonestown. It would be daylight November 20 when I arrived from Panama.

Even if a U-21, the Army’s fastest military aircraft, carried Huff and his team directly from Fort Gulick to Jonestown, the flight alone would take more than two hours. It is physically impossible for Huff and crew to leave Panama after being informed of the massacre and and arrive in Jonestown on the 18th.

If Huff lied about when he arrived in Jonestown, his entire story must be suspct. I have been unable to find any evidence that a Special Forces soldier named Charles Huff was even a member of the task force.

I cannot say for a fact that Charles Huff was not in Jonestown before I was. Six Special Forces soldiers disembarked from the first American helicopter to land in Jonestown on November 20. I do know that for a fact because I was on the ground waiting for their arrival and had been there four hours. I believe I was the third American soldier to enter Jonestown and the first to receive a comprehensive tour of the village.

Huff also has made the statement that 16 members of the task force committed suicide within a year of the end of the mission.[7] I have only been able to validate three suicides by task force members and this was through anecdotal information.

It’s difficult to believe any of the GRREG troops would have taken their own lives. The soldiers who talked to me at the end of the mission were, to a man, and woman, proud of their performance under the most severe conditions. “This job is like any other job in the Army, you do it right, you feel the pride of a job well-done,” one told me.

At times, the detachment of the GRREG soldiers bordered on bizarre. Whether this was evidence that the soldier was employing some type of psychological defense mechanism or perhaps we were the odd ones, the fact is the two separate groups of soldiers each thought the other acted strangely.

On November 21, just as the GRREG team was preparing to begin its mission, an American television news crew arrived unexpectedly in Jonestown. Since the GDF was tasked with keeping the curious public and press out, no one was quite sure how these journalists got into the commune. A public affairs officer from the Southern Command in the Canal Zone, a lieutenant colonel, was on the ground in Jonestown. Colonel Gordon asked him to meet with the media.

The idea was to get the unwanted press to leave as quickly as possible so the Army flack agreed to allow the crew to interview one member of the GRREG team. The reporter chose one of the two female members, a pretty blonde from South Carolina. She and a black soldier, who happened to be from Guyana originally, were opening bundles of body bags at the time.

Both of the women were young, 19 or 20 at the most. Both seemed enthusiastic about what lay ahead. It wasn’t a nervous excitement. It was more like the energy exhibited by a lawyer at his first trial or a rookie state trooper issuing his first speeding ticket.

While his crew set up to film the interview, the reporter prepared the cute young 92M for the interview. He told her the type of questions he was going to ask and told her to just be herself and pretend she was talking to a friend and to answer him in a clear, normal paced voice.

The blonde GRREG soldier didn’t seem at all nervous. She asked if her parents in South Carolina would see her on the news and the journalist assured her they would. This seemed to make her beam as the reporter and she discussed what station was the local network affiliate in Columbia, where she lived.

The public affairs officer reminded the soldier that she was representing the United States Army. He said, “I know you will conduct this interview with dignity and professionalism.” The cute blonde assured the nervous officer she would.

The interview was about to start. The shot was set up in front of the area where the team was opening bundles of body bags and other supplies that would be used to perform the mission. Everybody was in place. Sound and light were checked.

The lieutenant colonel stepped behind the camera man. He folded his arms across his massive chest and a broad smile came to his face. Obviously, the military PR man felt he made the right decision.

He seemed to be in a reverie. I watched him and imagined what was going on in his mind. I am sure he was envisioning a great recruiting coup, a pretty blonde soldier who will cause young American men to rush to the recruiting office and sign up.

Everything was going so well. The girl was stunning. She wasn’t all that articulate, but her voice wasn’t bad and her answers appropriate. The Army flack became even more confident that he made the right decision.

The reporter’s next question turned what had started out as a sunny day into a monumental cloudburst. The young blonde soldier stood erect, waiting for one more question. It came:

“I imagine this is a pretty traumatic experience, for you, a 19-year-old kid from South Carolina, to have to come down to this steamy jungle and bring the bodies of all these dead Americans home,” opined the journalist.

“Oh no sir, I am really looking forward to it,” said the bubbly private-first-class, beaming brightly. “I wasn’t in the Army in time to go to the Canary Island disaster, so this is the first chance I’ve had to work with real bodies. I am really looking forward to it.”

A look of horror came over the public affair officer’s face as he saw his military career flash before his eyes, along with his chances of making bird colonel before he retires. The reporter stared at the young soldier, unprepared for her response and unable to formulate an appropriate follow-up question. Colonel Gordon simply watched the scene quietly without reaction.

I feel that deep down inside, the task force commander understood and appreciated this young woman’s enthusiasm and in a way was proud of her. Later I heard him ask the reporter if that comment would be on the evening news. The answer was, “No way!” The lieutenant colonel, who was also watching the exchange, breathed a sigh of relief.

That evening on the reporter’s network newscast, he was seen doing a standup that was accompanied by footage of the dead residents of Jonestown waiting to be taken away and the living GRREG soldiers preparing to do just that. The cute blonde soldier from South Carolina never had her moment in the spotlight. Her parents never saw the interview. The GRREG soldiers that had been working in the background never indicated they thought her answer was anything less than normal.

Dispassionate and innocent detachment provide psychological protection for the men and women whose job it is to handle the bodies caused by natural and man-made catastrophes. Our young blonde soldier seemed to be imbued with a healthy dose of detachment. With the passage of nearly 30 years since the Jonestown Massacre, one might wonder if she remained in the military and if she maintained her innocent detachment throughout her adult life.

The GRREG team and its Special Forces contingent spent a restless and sleepless Monday night in Jonestown. While the Green Beret from the Canal Zone were familiar with the strange and exotic sounds emanating from the jungle that night, the troops sent down from the United States to collect the remains of American expatriate cult members, were not. Animals and birds of the night signaling one another in the darkness, became foreboding and unknown wild creatures. Fear of the unknown is the worst kind of fear.

At this early stage of the Joint Task Force’s humanitarian mission, it was felt many of the residents of this American enclave had taken to the jungle around Jonestown to avoid participating in Peoples’ Temple final deadly ritual. The ever-alert Green Berets kept a close watch on the fringes of the clearing in which the commune was built along with the encompassing tree line.

They were looking for any survivors who may find their way back to Jonestown. The sounds the soldiers hoped to hear from the jungle were not the normal noises of the animals, insects and birds, but the alien human cries for help from anybody who survived the evilness that consumed so many of their family and friends.

The only human sounds heard that night were from the men and women who were visitors in this city of the dead. The handful of Jonestown residents who had managed to escape into jungle were rescued by Sunday morning. Some had walked the railroad tracks to Matthews Ridge to the south. A smaller number, including Odell Rhodes, took their individual chances walking along the dirt road and railroad tracks that led to Port Kaituma, five miles to the north of the carnage.

The GRREG team was troubled by the sounds made by the denizens of the jungle. Unaccustomed to the strange animal calls of the tropical rain forest, with imaginations that were more dangerous than reality, they spent much of the night, opining and arguing about the identification of the native fauna. The Special Forces troops who had difficulty sleeping spoke only of the macabre and unbelievable scene of horror and death.

The dead residents of the doomed commune were no cause for fear by those with hands-on experience processing actual cadavers, all believed that once they became lifeless, they lost their ability to feel or inflict pain.

This was not a superstitious group of young American soldiers. They did not fear ghosts or spirits, for they shared the belief that death was a final and finite end to existence for the mortal body, formerly inhabited by a living being. They had seen and heard the natural and unnatural results and consequences of death but never had experienced the super natural.

The six Green Berets who shared the Jonestown experience with the GRREG soldiers that night did have reason to fear the dead residents of the enclave. Terrorists or anyone else bent on causing harm to the task force members present that night, could very easily use the corpses as camouflage and infiltrate the very areas the living of Jonestown now occupied.

With so many bodies lying in every direction from where the American troops were bivouacked, all a dedicated terrorist would need to do would be to advance ever so slowly among the corpses, stopping and lying stone still on top of or beside them as he inched his way toward anyone he wished to harm. So, while the Green Berets didn’t actually fear the nearly 1000 dead Jonestown residents who surrounded them, they remained very wary of any movement by living human beings who might want to wreak havoc on the American troops.

Rumors already circulated that the cult had “hit squads” that had taken to the jungle in search of last minute defectors who were unwilling to participate in the final sacred ritual ordered by Reverend Jones. By this point, the U.S. Embassy was well aware of the contact Jones had with the Soviet Embassy during his nearly two years in Guyana. It also was common knowledge that the Cuban government provided a great deal of technical support to Guyana’s Marxist government.

The GRREG troops feared the animals and the Green Berets feared the dead. To the former, the dead represented normalcy and the jungle creatures posed a danger. To the latter, it was the dead that represented peril and the animals, birds and insects of the jungle that created a bit of normalcy in a world gone mad.

The deep darkness of the night was finally defeated by the first gray shadows of the dawn as the sun intruded on the eastern sky. The whining engines of three U.S. Army UH-1 helicopters barely could be heard as the choppers accompanied the sun on its westward journey. Working all night at Timheri Airport, soldiers from the 195th Infantry Brigade efficiently assembled the metal birds that had been transported from Panama as cargo inside U.S. Air Force C-130s. By 0330 hours on November 21, the crews of the helicopters were going through their preflight checks in preparation for their 150 mile flights to Jonestown.

At the same time, more troops sent from Fort Lee were waking up and packing their personal gear so they could ride the newly assembled Hueys into Jonestown. Colonel William Gordon, the Joint Task Force commander, also prepared to join the advance party, with his small staff from the U.S. Army Southern Command in Panama.

The three olive drab helicopters took off from Tiheri Airport in Georgetown, allowing for an estimated-time-of-arrival in Jonestown to coincide with the first light of day. And now, in the early morning of November 21, the American troops who were already on the ground arose from their abbreviated rest. Lying under poncho liners that kept them dry from the thick early morning dew, they slowly acclimated their senses to place and time. They heard the familiar sound of the whop, whop, whop, of the approaching choppers and knew the first of many demanding days was about to commence.

With the arrival of the rest of the GRREG troops came the first day of actual recovery of the human remains that littered Jonestown. Nine hundred and thirteen people who had lost their lives three days earlier were waiting. They were still a long way from their final resting places and would be the objects of an intense identification and evacuation effort. The identification process had begun Sunday, before any American troops arrived in Jonestown.

Odell Rhodes and a few other survivors who were resourceful or fortunate enough to be spared from the massacre, returned to this place of horror on Sunday to assist the GDF and Guyanan government officials in the identification of the already badly bloated bodies. They did the best they could, often only being able to offer nicknames or first names of their former friends.

The names were then scrawled onto pieces of cardboard that were attached to the bodies. This effort, by people who must have been in shock and scared to death, was admirable, but it was too little too late. If the deceased had not already fashioned their own bracelets and placed them on their wrists before they died, chances were identification would not occur for many days or weeks at Dover Air Force Base.

The helicopters dropped off their passengers and immediately took off and began slowly crisscrossing the sky above the surrounding jungle. Jonestown reverberated with the rhythmic roar of the chopper engines punctuated by booming voices on the aircrafts’ loud speaker systems, urging any survivors who fled into the bush to come out, all was safe.

The helicopters swept the area for about three hours, landing only for fuel at the airfield at Matthews Ridge. The search for more survivors turned out to be an exercise in futility. The dozen or so survivors had been out of the area before the task force even arrived.

This was a puzzling turn of events for the American rescuers. The GDF told them there were approximately 1000 people living in Jonestown, yet only about 400 passports had been found.

The task force was convinced more than 500 Peoples Temple members had avoided the massacre, yet only a handful came out of the jungle. No one knew their fate at the time but within a few days, it became very clear.

Notes:

[1] U.S. Army Mortuary Affairs Center, Ode to the 92M, retrieved July 11, 2004 from http://www.quartermaster.army.mil/mac/jmac_ode.html.

[2] “Viewpoints,” Freedom Magazine. Link at http://www.freedommag.org/English/vol2704 /viewpoints.htm, retrieved July 12, 2004; no longer active January 3, 2016.

[3] Freedom Magazine; Reconstructing Reality: Conspiracy Theories About Jonestown, retrieved July 12, 2004.

[4] John Peer Nugent,  White Night: The untold story of what happened before and beyond Jonestown (New York: Rawson, Wade, Publishers, Inc., 1979), 196.

[5] Ethan Feinsod, Awake in a Nightmare: Jonestown the Only Eyewitness Account (New York: WW Norton & Co, 1981), 188.

[6] John R. Hall, Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001), 280.

[7] Freedom Magazine.

Originally posted on January 23rd, 2015.

Last modified on July 19th, 2019.
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