“The world rolls round forever like a mill; It grounds out death and life and Good and ill; it has no purpose, heart, or mind, or will.”
By 1600 hours, November 28, our final day in Guyana, I was gratefully reunited with my team from Matthews Ridge. Sanborn was able to join us and was almost back to full strength after receiving two liters of fluid by IV. Our little group was fairly isolated during the entire mission and even now, we sat in an unfamiliar terminal, separated from the rest of the task force.
The other soldiers from the Canal Zone who had been working in Jonestown, also sat in another area of the huge abandoned terminal. The GRREG [Graves Registration] soldiers were absent, still working with their comrades who had been working at Timheri Airport for the week, processing the bodies they received from Jonestown. Yoder and Vega, from our unit, were still working with the GRREG soldiers.
For Sanborn, Fielder, and Bernal, this was the first time they had an opportunity to get a whiff of the scent of death and they were a little green around the gills. Our Air Force radiomen and the two Army fuel specialists we worked with all week also had to get used to the smell. They soon said their goodbyes and left us to find the other soldiers from their units that stayed at the airport while they went forward with us.
It was not very long before our little group was joined by Yoder, Vega, Captain Skinner and Major Burgos. The final body bags had been processed and placed in aluminum caskets. All the different units and groups of soldiers seemed to gather in small groups throughout the terminal. They seemed to be doing essentially what the rest of us started doing earlier in the evening, decompressing after the most stressful week of our lives.
It was interesting to participate in a process that was in different stages in groups across the huge abandoned terminal. The scenario seemed to be the same for each individual group of service men and women. At first meeting, they greeted one another and took their places sitting on or lying against their duffle bags. For the first hour or so, most sat there and simply stared silently into space. Smokers smoked, nonsmokers chewed gum.
Very little chatter could be heard from these pods of people scattered throughout the expanse of this huge building. They stared, they smoked, they apparently contemplated the awful events they had witnessed and/or participated in over the past several days. Everybody, for the most part, sat there in silence trying to make some sense of a tragedy of such enormous proportions that they could not have even conceived of it before it actually happened.
Then slowly, almost imperceptibly, conversations erupted. They originated with simple, almost rhetorical statements, said to no one in particular, made one at a time by members of the group. There was no order in which people spoke. There was no formal moderator or facilitator. There didn’t seem to be a specific target for the individual comments.
It was as if people were simply saying whatever was in their tired mind at the moment. They seemed to be testing the waters, to see if other people they knew shared the same bizarre thoughts they were feeling, thoughts they never had before, thoughts that scared them.
There was no cohesion or common thread to the phrases being made. The words were personal testimonies of how each of us was effected by events that could drive anybody mad and they became evidence that while we had been through a lot the past eight days, we still maintained our sanity. It was a positive sign that we still retained our humanity after enduring a most inhuman experience.
To me, it seemed like a bunch of bullfrogs sitting around the pond as the sun goes down. Before the daylight begins to fade, the pond is silent, the creatures of the night just awakening to begin their day. Soon darkness falls and one frog emits a single, familiar “ribit.”
There is a long pause and from another lily pad comes a “ribit” that is seemingly unrelated to the previous burst of sound. Then other frogs in different parts of the pond, add their unrelated “ribits’ to the flow of sounds. Before long the entire pond is alive with a cacophony of unrelated frog talk.
Members of our team made their individual comments to no one in particular. There was a pause between each one, followed by another soldier making his or her apparently unrelated verbal contribution. Before long, even the shyest, most introverted soldier, spoke his or her mind, to no one in particular.
This unscripted improvised oral exercise soon became cathartic. As a group, we all had shared basically the same experiences, yet we had different feelings and reactions and responses we needed to have validated and appreciated. We were a lot like the soldier who watched helplessly as his buddy die horribly and violently in the armored personnel carrier accident in Panama.
At first, we could not talk about it because it was totally foreign to the normal comfortable experiences of our daily lives. It was like a horrible nightmare we had to endure 24 hours a day for more than a week. We slowly and individually contemplated our experiences, then began to verbalize our feelings, if only to ourselves. Soon we all opened up and shared our private feelings and thoughts, embellishing them and adding to the comments of others until we were able to face the awfulness of the previous week in a therapeutic manner.
The beer and rum provided by the State Department, while meant to show appreciation for a mission accomplished, actually acted as medication that facilitated conversation. While not intended for this purpose, the medicinal value of the alcohol cannot be overstated. It helped us all talk about and come to grips with the reality of what we had seen and done.
No one knew what time we would be leaving Timheri Airport. We were told that U.S. Air Force C-130s were on their way from Howard Air Force Base to lift us out of this place of death and take us back to the normalcy of our tropical paradise.
By 1800 hours, the entire task force was in the terminal awaiting transportation either to their bases in the USA or Panama. The beer and rum was flowing freely and all but a few of the service men and women in that terminal were partaking of it. The graves registration types joined us in this party. The booze, in a very real way, chased the spirits of the ghosts of Jonestown from our memories, at least for the moment.
Recollections of my final evening in Guyana are less than vivid. When you are extremely physically tired and emotionally drained, very little alcohol is needed to make you forget the bad things you have experienced. My mind is impaired by the mixture of beer and rum and a very concerted effort I made to repress the memories of events that nearly destroyed some of the task force members, Not a few of us came to drink more than we should and had psychological problems they attribute to the Jonestown experience.
I do recall that almost every member of the task force that came from Panama indulged in the booze the State Department provided that night. The more we drank, the more we forgot and the rowdier we became. A week’s worth of stress was relieved by half an evening of drinking. Frankly, I believe this was the best medicine for the bad disease to which we had been exposed.
By 2200 hours, the beverages were, for the most part, consumed, except for the full bottles of Banks Beer and DM Gold Label Rum many of us packed away for souvenirs to enjoy back home. By 2200 hours the majority of our contingent of nearly 200 soldiers were either asleep or close to it because of the sheer physical exhaustion of the work of the past week and the anesthetic effect of the alcohol they consumed.
Major Burgos sat in a seat next to me. He was nodding off, fighting the effects of too much rum and too little sleep. I noticed he had a wooden crate in the seat next to him that I did not see when he arrived in country.
“What’s in the box, Doc?” I asked, making conversation.
“Shhhh,” said Burgos, holding two fingers up to his lips. “It’s a microscope. I liberated it from Jonestown.”
The infirmary in Jonestown had a very sophisticated and expensive training microscope with two eyepieces. The brigade surgeon decided that since everyone in Jonestown was dead, they’d have no use for this piece of medical equipment.
I don’t believe Major Burgos considered the procurement of this instrument worth thousands of dollars theft. After all, the military has a long history of obtaining supplies that were in short supply through what is euphemistically called a “midnight requisition.”
When I was in Vietnam our evacuation hospital “procured” air conditioners for our wards through similar unorthodox and imaginative means. Major Burgos intended to use this training microscope to enhance the capabilities of the laboratory technicians assigned to the 601st Medical Company. Unfortunately, this microscope was the catalyst for a witch hunt that the Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) would conduct when the task force returned to the Canal Zone.
While the brigade surgeon and I discussed the acquisition of the new piece of medical equipment, two C-130s from Howard Air Force Base arrived to take us home. The two big birds taxied from the runway to just outside the old terminal building. The crew shut down their engines and within a few minutes, walked into the terminal. Both aircraft commanders, bird colonels, appeared shocked by what they saw.
Here were nearly 200 service men and women who were obviously far from being fit to fight, and by Air Force standards, unfit for flight. Our odor was extremely disgusting to the uninitiated. It didn’t bother us any longer, but these two officers definitely were not members of our exclusive club. The fact that most of us were in various stages of inebriation, did not bring joy to these two stern Air Force officers. One of them asked loudly, “Who’s in charge here?”
A slightly drunk Colonel Gordon, using all the strength he could muster under the circumstances, stood up and slowly, but steadily, walked to his sober Air Force equal, and said in a dignified voice, “I am in charge.”
“We cannot fly this bunch of drunks in U.S. Air Force aircraft,” the commander stated resolutely.
“You not only can, you will,” said Colonel Gordon with as much strength and conviction as his Air Force counterpart.
The two stared at each other for some time. Then Colonel Gordon took the irate Air Force officer aside. Although I couldn’t hear what was being said, the two colonels had a serious and earnest conversation. They stood, shook hands, and the two Air Force officers went back to their aircraft.
Later, I learned that Colonel Gordon related to the Air Force colonel all the terrible and stressful experiences of the past week. He told him that although we were, for the most part, in no condition to “make a movement,” he would brief us all and ensure we all behaved properly during the five hour flight back to Panama. The Air Force colonels talked to their crews and one came back into the terminal to talk with Colonel Gordon one more time. It appeared the decision was made to carry us all back home despite our collective slovenly and drunken conditions.
Colonel Gordon called the noncommissioned officers in charge (NCOIC) of each unit together for a briefing. He explained the Air Force had strict regulations that all passengers on their aircraft be sober. While he had to admit to the aircraft commanders that very few, if any, of his charges would pass a sobriety test, he would ensure everybody would act in a professional manner. The good colonel then directed the NCOs of the brigade to ensure his promise to the reluctant Air Force colonels was kept.
I was fortunate, with only five enlisted and two officers to worry about, my group was smaller than most. Major Burgos and Captain Skinner were officers and gentlemen and I expected they would have no problem displaying the proper demeanor during the trip. In fact, Skinner was actually sober. Burgos was fairly inebriated, but he held his liquor well.
My other enlisted personnel were all extremely well lubricated with Guyanese beer and rum. The most difficult task I would have to face in helping Colonel Gordon keep his promise to the Air Force would be to get these five people onto the aircraft safely. Once they were seated and strapped in to their seats, I was confident they would all sleep like babies until we touched down at Howard Air Force Base.
Sanborn had slept for some time and once I was able to fully awaken him, he became a capable escort for Sam Bernal, who was the most unsteady of our group. Mike was much bigger than Sam and had no trouble securing both him and his gear in the aircraft. In fact, he was soon belted into his seat and he quickly resumed the deep sleep he was enjoying before making his tipsy trek to the aircraft.
Vega would have won the prize for being the most unsteady on his feet had we been able to awaken him. As it was, Yoder and I carried the little medical records specialist to the aircraft. Both he and Bernal snored loudly for the entire five hour flight.
Fielder was able to make his way to his seat on the C-130 and buckle himself in before nodding off to dreamland. Captain Skinner, Specialist Yoder and I accompanied Major Burgos onto the aircraft. The commander and specialist walked on either side of the surgeon. I brought up the rear, carrying the soon-to-be controversial microscope.
To the credit of all the men and women of the 193rd Infantry Brigade who made that trip from Timheri Airport to Howard Air Force Base early in the morning on that November 29, everyone behaved themselves very well. No one vomited and there was not the least bit of rowdiness during the flight.
No one told us that a surprise awaited us at the Air Force base at 0330 hours when we finally arrived back in the Canal Zone. The new 193rd Infantry Brigade commander, General K.C. Luer, had prepared a somewhat elaborate ceremony on the tarmac to mark our return. The Army Band was present and playing as the big rear doors of the C-130s opened. The general stood on a makeshift stand with a podium, waiting to give the returning troops words of congratulations for a job well done.
What no one who had planned the reception anticipated was the condition of the participants of this thoroughly repugnant and disgusting mission. All of us, while not aware of the odor ourselves, smelled extremely bad to noses that had not been exposed to the aroma of death for the past week. This included the band members who quickly caught a good whiff of our “Jonestown Perfume” and lost the ability to perform the march music they had been practicing for the past week without gagging or puking.
While General Luer did not seem to mind making his speech under these adverse conditions, the hung over honorees were less prepared to listen to him. Not only did we smell bad, we hadn’t bathed or shaved in over a week, I had a splitting headache, and the only voice I wanted to hear was my wife’s while she was scrubbing my stinky body in the tub.
Every member of the task force honored by General Luer, his entourage and band that early morning, stumbled unceremoniously out of the aircraft and made their way too the terminal. We quickly became the building’s only occupants, as Air Force personnel who worked in the terminal evacuated to the outside and fresh air. General Luer made a few comments as we passed by his podium, then stood stock still as he watched the entire contingent walk past him and enter the terminal.
The party was over and the hard job of telling our families and friends about our experiences was about to begin. Everyone who participated in this mission had change in some way, and our lives after Jonestown would never be the same.