“The workings of the human heart are
the profoundest mystery of the universe.
One moment they make us despair of our kind,
and the next we see them in the reflection
of the divine image.”
Charles W. Chestnut
Guyana is located on the northeast shoulder of South America. It covers about 83,000 square miles and is bordered by the countries of Venezuela to the northwest, Brazil on the west and south and by Surinam on the east. The northern border is the Atlantic Ocean.
All but about 30 percent of Guyana is made up of tropical rain forest. The country is located just north of the equator. It rains 80 to 100 inches a year and the temperatures are usually in the high 80s and 90s during the day.
Guyana is said to be one of the most beautiful countries in South America, with many rivers and waterfalls. But for most of the Americans taking part in this mission, beauty is not what they remember about Guyana.
Although the jungle that surrounded Jonestown was abundant in fauna and rich in exotic flora, the natural beauty of the country was overshadowed by the ugliness and horrible stench that accompanies mass death. Extremely bloated bodies, deformed by so many hours of exposure to the heat of the tropical sun that they sometimes literally burst, depositing copious amounts of their putrid, foul-smelling contents to the ground, have a tendency to strike one blind to anything lovely.
As soon as the entire GRREG [Graves Registration] team was together, all the soldiers working in Jonestown were briefed by Colonel Gordon. The preliminary work of identifying and evacuating the remains commenced. Jonestown was divided into grids and the bodies found in each individually numbered section were catalogued and tagged. Graves registration soldiers were team leaders of three to five man teams, consisting of infantry soldiers from the 193rd Infantry Brigade in the Canal Zone.
With teams of soldiers fanning out in all directions from the pavilion where the majority of the bodies lay, the full extent of the carnage became evident. Many who participated in this unique mission thought the identification process alone would be next to impossible. Comparatively few of the 913 bodies bore the homemade ID bracelets many family members attached to their wrists before ingesting the poisonous concoction that killed them and even fewer had been identified by Odell Rhodes and his team of Jonestown survivor volunteers.
The condition of the bodies four days after the mass murder/suicide made further visual identification impossible. Jim Jones was one of the few whose features and clothing provided enough proof of identity that the team felt confident when the put his body in the body bag. He was among the first to be catalogued.
This inability to identify more victims was very disconcerting to the GRREG soldiers whose lives were dedicated to the processing of human remains after catastrophic events and who prided themselves on being able to identify most of the bodies at any mass death site.
In wartime, the ID tags worn by the combatants invariably provide positive proof of identity. In today’s modern military, service members’ DNA is collected, catalogued and kept on file, ensuring there will never be another unknown soldier. In airplane crashes and natural disasters like Katrina, that involve the loss of many lives, wallets and jewelry often can be used to place a name to a victim.
But the remains of the residents of Jonestown posed the GRREG team had never encountered in such huge numbers. Very few of the dead carried wallets or wore jewelry. By Tuesday, the bodies were badly bloated with heads resembling those of severely hydrocephalic children. They were in such an advanced state of decomposition, recognition was impossible. The skin color of almost every victim was a dark blue-black, making it difficult to determine even the ethnicity or race of a corpse.
The fact that nearly everyone who perished was either Caucasian or African-American and they now shared the same color was a strange irony because the man they followed to their eternal grave, Jim Jones, remained recognizably Caucasian. It was as if members of Peoples Temple finally achieved a form of equality in death and the evil pastor who masterfully orchestrated their demise did not share. Jim Jones, who preached racial equality from pulpits in Indianapolis to Ukiah and San Francisco all of his life, in the end became the only person in his flock that did not achieve it.
Name tags were sewn into most of the clothing worn by the residents of Jonestown. Unfortunately, the communal lifestyle makes for the sharing of wardrobes. Many of the dead wore clothing with three or four different names, none of which actually were their own.
The task of identifying the bodies was more foul than placing the remains into the body bags. During the identification process, bodies had to be individually checked, pockets turned inside-out and any ID bracelets read and recorded. This meant handling and touching each rapidly decomposing remains, many of which already displayed millions of eggs lain by the incredible horde of flies drawn to the scene. Maggots covered the entire area where the Jonestown dead lay.
One common form of life usually found wherever death occurs in the tropics was conspicuously missing from the skies over Jonestown. One can only speculate about the absence of buzzards or vultures. These scavenger birds are as common in the warmer climes as cardinals in Missouri.
Perhaps these birds that feed off carrion and keep the environment clean, realized the men, women and children of Jonestown died from the ingestion of a deadly poison. We may never know what caused the buzzards to stay away from Jonestown, but for me, an old tropical soldier and long time resident of South Texas where the big birds are common, their absence added to the surreal scene.
The first attempts to pick up the bodies by grasping their heads and limbs and lifting them into the body bags, more often than not, caused a limb or two, or even the head, to become disconnected from the bloated liquid-filled torso. When this happened, a foul, thick, serous fluid would stream from the body part being held by a hapless soldier and an even larger amount would flow from the torso as it landed on the ground. Because the bodies were in such close proximity to one another, it wasn’t long before the soil in Jonestown became a muddy mixture of dirt and smelly body fluids.
I sat in our aid station at Matthews Ridge as the first bodies were being bagged. I was grateful to be breathing fresh, non-polluted air and was even happier the prevailing winds flowed towards Jonestown, 14 miles to the northeast.
In Jonestown there was no escaping the odor. Men and women who a week ago were anticipating a Thanksgiving with family and friends were hard at the job of tagging and bagging bodies where they lay and then loading them onto the same flatbed trailer used a few days before to carry Peoples Temple assassins to Port Kaituma to kill a congressman and some of his entourage. A tractor then pulled the loaded trailer to the landing zone at the adjoining soccer field.
The bodies were then placed directly onto the Jolly Green Giants and flown 150 miles to Timheri Airport. They were then put on trucks for a short ride to an area where the would be logged in and placed in aluminum coffins for transport to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Every hour, the U.S. Army communications specialist in Jonestown radioed the number of bodies that had been bagged in that time. Our U.S. Air Force communications station at Matthews Ridge received the tally and kept a running total, relaying the data to task force headquarters in Timheri Airport.
The first hourly report said fewer than 10 bodies were bagged. A similar count came in for hour number two. Then, when we were expecting the hour three total to come across the radio, Jonestown sent us what we thought was an unusual request.
“Tell HQ we need snow shovels,” was the curt request. Snow shovels? Guyana is a tropical country that has never seen snow. Now they wanted as many snow shovels as we could provide them. A call for six dozen of the cold weather implements was dutifully relayed to the task force headquarters at Timheri Airport. From there a call went out to the U.S. Air Force Base in Charleston South Carolina for snow shovels. The first shipment of snow shovels reached Jonestown within six hours of the original request.
With the arrival of these simple tools, so alien to this region of the world, the process of placing the rotten remains into body bags was streamlined considerably. Usually six or eight soldiers, three or four on each side of the very fragile body, lifted it in unison, a foot or so off of the ground. Two other soldiers then slid an open body bag under the suspended corpse, snow shovels were lowered, and the remains gently deposited into the body bag.
This procedure sounds simple, but it wasn’t always successful. Body fluids continued to flow freely from orifices and breaks in the skin, creating a gooey, slippery, smelly mess. Sometimes a heavy head, swollen to twice its normal size, slipped from the shovel and fell to the earth with a thud after being severed from the fragile neck.
After employment of the snow shovels, there was a definite and noticeable increase in the GRREG team’s productivity that was reflected in the numbers. By the end of Day One, nearly 100 bodies were evacuated to Timheri Airport.
Wednesday, Day Two of the processing, found almost 300 more bodies processed and evacuated from Jonestown. Those of us who stayed at Matthews Ridge, away from the gruesome scene being played out in Jonestown, found the figure curious. On Monday, didn’t the GDF tell me 400 Americans had perished in the massacre? Here it is two days and 400 bodies later and the GRREG team reports it’s barely scratched the surface. I decided to take a ride to Jonestown.
From the air, it was obvious a number of bodies were gone, especially on the fringes of the area where they had lain. Upon closer observation, it was obvious the figured provided by the GDF was a gross underestimate. After evacuating the remains of about 450 residents, most of whom were adults, the bodies of teens and adolescents were found beneath where the adults had lain after ingesting the cyanide-laced fruit drink that quickly killed them.
Much speculation has been made by the original discrepancy in the number of dead. The first released numbers took into account the GDF estimation coupled with the fact that only 400 passports were found. Members of the GRREG team, who had first hand, hands on experience in Jonestown learned how that estimate was so wrong.
It appears the infants and toddlers, who had the poisonous potion forced down their throats by their mothers using needleless five and ten ml. syringes. Their convulsing bodies were placed on the bottom of a rather large but fairly shallow concave area next to the pavilion. Larger children followed the younger ones in death and lay themselves on top of the little ones. Next came preadolescents and adolescents, making up more layers of victims. Then the teens took their last drink on earth and their place among their friends and siblings who died before them.
While all the younger residents of Jonestown were dying, some of the mothers were encouraged by Jones to join their offspring, so the distraught parents began joining the deadly act of communion. The senior citizens were the next group Jim Jones commanded to drink the devil’s brew. These people became part of a pile that was not discerned as a pile because of the concavity of the terrain. The last group to participate in the white night was the able bodied members of the cult, men who had carried out Jones’ dirty work. Those who held weapons on the others while forcing them to drink the deadly Flav-or-Ade. Most of their bodies were found on the periphery of the mass of dead in the concave area.
November 23, 1978, was Thanksgiving Day, perhaps the most miserable one ever spent by the 100 or so American troops who had been in Jonestown retrieving the remains of their dead countrymen. By now, the evacuation process had become old hat and the GRREG soldiers and the troops from Panama who were assigned to help them were getting a little goofy. They began creating harmless diversions to make this tedious work in the hot sun more bearable.
One team of baggers raced against another to see who could fill the most bags in an hour. Kool Aid jokes were making the rounds and some of them were pretty sick. These politically incorrect jokes forever but falsely stigmatize the beverage as the drink of choice in Jonestown. One talented GRREG soldier with a musical inclination composed a song about Jonestown in his spare time. Needless to say, it didn’t make the top 40.
There was a rather young crew chief on one of the U.S. Air Force Jolly Green Giants. The airman appeared to be in his late teens or perhaps 20. Everyone commented on how nervous the young airman appeared each time his bird came in to receive body bags.
It was obvious that this crew chief’s discomfort was caused by a fear of the dead, so one day, the GRREG team loaded a body bag that contained a living, breathing soldier onto his helicopter. Once the bag was on the deck of the aircraft, the contents of the bag came to life and wriggled about the deck of the helicopter.
Seeing an animated body bag rolling on the deck of his aircraft, the scared crew chief peeled off his helmet and earphones and jumped out of the chopper. The young man had to be physically put back onto his bird. He didn’t appreciate the practical joke one bit.
Even the jokes, impromptu contests and songs could not take the minds of the Americans in Jonestown that Thanksgiving off of the football games and related parades they were missing. They also missed Mom’s home style turkey dinner with all the fixings and even the holiday fare served at the mess halls in the Canal Zone and stateside bases.
The troops in Georgetown and Jonestown did enjoy their first hot meal since the mission started on that Thanksgiving day. It was in the form of Swanson’s TV dinners, heated at Timheri Airport and flown to the troops in the field.
By Friday Jonestown was back to its normal routine and the evacuated body count reached 650. The absence of body bags brought the operation to a temporary halt. More were quickly flown in from the United States. Most of the adult victims had been removed from the village by this time. The GRREG team was shocked to realize the remains that were left amounted to mostly children. There were around 270 little corpses still left in Jonestown to process. Sadly, most of the massacre’s youngest victims were the last to be processed, were never identified and now occupy a mass grave in a plot at the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California.
Since body bags were in short supply and the remains of the babies were unidentifiable, the resourceful GRREG personnel began placing the remains of two or more children in one body bag. By this time, the job was getting exhausting and even the most dedicated mortuary affairs specialist was ready to clean up and go home.
On November 26, 1978, by the time the last Jolly Green Giant of the day lifted from the Jonestown soccer field, all but about 50 of the massacre’s victims had been evacuated out. The next time one of these big birds lifted out of Jonestown, the 913th body and last member of Peoples Temple would leave the damned commune.
November 27 marked our last day in Guyana and the official end to the mission that brought more than 200 American servicemen and women to this tropical country that seemed a million miles from home. I stood on the hot tarmac at Timheri Airport, thinking of how this country that I had never heard of before would be remembered by most of my generation. It will always be the place where the Jonestown Massacre happened, at least in my mind.
I watched as the last helicopter that left Jonestown touched down. I remained an observer as extremely tired and thoroughly stressed out young American soldiers began removing the last remains.
The repetitive robot-like movements of these men and women as they picked up body bags from the helicopter, walked to the tailgate of a nearby truck and deposited their human cargo, was punctuated by their masklike faces, completely devoid of any emotion. Their uniforms were soaked with body fluids and sweat, damaged beyond repair.
As I gazed upon the scene, Colonel Gordon, the gruff no-nonsense joint task force commander approached. “Brailey,” he barked as he returned my salute, “Did y’all bring a psyche tech with you from Panama?”
“No sir,” I answered. “Why?”
‘They were trying to put that dead go-rilla into a body bag,” he claimed.
Jones had a huge chimpanzee he kept in a cage near his cottage. He called him “Mr. Muggs.” It was rumored that small children were placed in the cage with the old primate as a form of punishment.
During my first tour of Jonestown, a week earlier, I saw Mr. Muggs. He had been shot to death. That dead chimp smelled much worse than any of the human remains.
Gordon went on, “They kept tryin’ to push that big go-rilla’s shoulders into the body bag but they just couldn’t get it zipped up. I watched them for a few minutes until one of them graves registration guys was gonna hack its shoulders off with a machete.”
“Hold it, I commanded,” said Colonel Gordon in a loud voice to replicate the one he was using in Jonestown, “Why are you gonna hack that go-rilla up?”
“Because he won’t fit into the body bag, sir,” came the respectful reply from the ringleader of the practical jokers.
“But why are you putting him in a body bag anyway?” came the exasperated question of the colonel.
“Why sir? WHY? Just wait until they open this one in Dover!” was the devilish reply of the leering GRREG soldier.
“Gordon said he looked down at the group and said, “Look men, I don’t mind you playin’ a joke on them folks up in Dover. But I won’t let you mutilate that poor go-rilla just to fit him into a body bag.”
Colonel Gordon said he watched the four GRREG soldiers work for several more minutes trying to stuff Mr. Muggs into the bag. Then he walked away, shaking his head and believing Mr. Muggs was left behind in Jonestown.
In the first edition of this book, written in 1998, I reported that Mr. Muggs was the only Jonestown resident who came to Guyana from the United States who remained in Guyana. I was wrong. The mortuary affairs specialist who opened a body bag at Dover that was occupied by a go-rilla told me the truth after he read my book.