Note: What follows is Chapter 8 of The Ghosts of November from the first edition. In the rewriting of the revision, significant changes have been made.
"Wait Until They Open This One in Dover"
Guyana is located on the northeast shoulder of South America. It covers about 83,000 square miles (216 square kilometers) and is bordered by the countries of Venezuela to the northwest, Brazil on the west and south and by Surinam on the east. Its 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 will remember about Guyana. If the jungle area around Jonestown was rich in exotic wildlife and flora, none of us noticed it because we were too overwhelmed by the ugliness that accompanies mass death. Grossly bloated bodies, deformed by so many hours of exposure to the heat of the tropical sun that they burst and deposited copious amounts of their putrid foul-smelling contents onto the earth, have a way of striking one blind to anything lovely.
As soon as the rest of the GRREG team joined the advance party and they all received a briefing from Colonel Gordon, the preliminary work of trying to identify the remains they were preparing to evacuate began. Jonestown was divided into sections and the remains found in each section were catalogued and tagged.
For the newly arrived mortuary affairs specialists who were now fanning out in to all areas of the clearing that made up the commune, the full extent of the carnage was quickly becoming apparent, as was the thought that on this unique mission, the identification process alone would be next to impossible. Only a comparatively few of the 914 bodies bore the handmade ID bracelets many family members attached to their wrists before taking the poison and even fewer had been identified by Odell Rhodes and his team of Jonestown survivor volunteers.
The condition of the bodies at this point in time, four days after the mass murder/suicide, made further visual identification impossible except for a very few like the Reverend Jim Jones himself who was among the first to be catalogued, tagged and bagged by the GRREG personnel. This was very disconcerting to some of these troops whose lives were dedicated to the business of processing the remains of human beings after catastrophic events and who prided themselves on being able to identify most of the remains they dealt with.
In a wartime situation, the ID tags worn by soldiers almost always provide positive proof of death and help to identify remains. In airplane crashes and natural disasters that involve the loss of many lives, wallets and jewelry can often be used to place a name to the victim.
But the remains of the residents of Jonestown posed problems that the GRREG team members had never encountered before 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 hydrocephalic children. They were in such an advanced state of decomposition, recognition was not possible. The color of almost every victim was a dark blue-black, making it difficult to determine even the ethnicity of a corpse.
The fact that nearly everyone who perished, be they Caucasian or Black, now shared the same color was a strange irony because the man they followed to their death, Jim Jones, was recognizably Caucasian. It was as if the members of the People's Temple had finally achieved a form of equality in death and the evil person who led them to their eternal end did not share this attribute.
There were name tags sewn into most of the clothing worn by the residents of Jonestown. Unfortunately, the communal lifestyle makes for the sharing of wardrobes, so many corpses wore clothes bearing two or three different names, none of which were actually their own.
The task of identifying the bodies was fouler than the process of placing the remains into the body bags. During the identification process, bodies had to be individually checked, pockets turned inside-out and ID bracelets read and recorded. This meant touching and handling the quickly decomposing remains, many of which were already displaying the eggs lain by the millions of flies drawn to the town. Maggots dotted the entire area where the bodies were.
One common form of life usually found wherever death in the tropics occurs was conspicuously missing from Jonestown and its sky. One can only speculate about the absence of buzzards, these scavenger birds that are as common in the warmer climes as cardinals are 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. I really do not know what caused the buzzards to stay away, but as an old tropical hand and a long time resident of South Texas where the birds are common, their absence in Jonestown added to the unrealness of the occasion.
By Tuesday morning, when the identification process was well under way by some of the members of the GRREG team, other began the arduous task of placing the remains in body bags.
The first attempts to pick up the bodies by grasping their heads and limbs and lifting them in to the bags more often than not, caused a limb or two or a head to become detached from its 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 back down 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 mix of dirt and smelly human borne liquid.
As the first bodies were being bagged, I was sitting in our aid station in Matthews Ridge, breathing the air that was not fouled by the bodies in Jonestown. Fourteen miles is a long way for an odor to travel and being south of the commune, in an area where the prevailing winds flow east and west, we had little to fear that our atmosphere would become like that of Jonestown.
I knew the process occurring in Jonestown that morning involved the bodies being tagged and bagged where they lay, then they were loaded onto a trailer towed by the commune's tractor and driven to the edge of the landing zone built at the edge of the soccer field. The body bags would be placed directly on the Jolly Green Giants from the trailer and then flown 350 miles to Tameri Airport in Georgetown, where they would be placed in aluminum coffins that were marked with the occupant's identity, if it was known.
Every hour, the U.S. Air Force communications man in Jonestown would radio his body count report for us to relay to Georgetown. During the first hour after the operation to evacuate the bodies began, less than 10 of the dead had been bagged. An equally small number was called in after the second hour. Then, before it was time for the next hourly radio transmission, we received a rather odd request from Jonestown.
"Tell HQ we need snow shovels." was the curt statement that came across the airwaves. Snow shovels? Guyana is a tropical country that has never seen snow. How would we be able to procure snow shovels for Jonestown and why did they need them?
The call for the unusual cold weather implements was dutifully relayed to the Task Force Headquarters at Tameri Airport and from there to the U.S. Air Force Base at Charleston, South Carolina. Within six hours, three dozen snow shovels arrived in Jonestown for use by the GRREG personnel.
With the arrival of these simple tools so alien to this region of the world, the process of placing the rotting remains in body bags was streamlined greatly. Usually, six or eight soldiers, three or four on each side of the very fragile body, would lift it in unison, a foot or so off the ground. Two other soldiers would then slide an open body bag under the suspended snow shovels and the remains would be gently deposited inside.
This procedure sounds simple, but it wasn't always as successful as the GRREG team members hoped it would be. The body juices continued to flow freely from orifices and breaks in the skin, creating a slippery, gooey mess. Sometimes a heavy head, two times its normal size, would slip from the shovel and fall to the earth below with a thud after it became severed from the fragile neck.
But, for the most part, the bagging process was made much more efficient by the unconventional use of the snow shovels. A definite increase in the GRREG team's productivity was noted when the hourly reports were called in. We maintained a running cumulative total of the bodies bagged. By the end of the first day, nearly 100 bodies had been evacuated from Jonestown to Tameri Airport.
Wednesday found more than three times that number had been processed with the cumulative total reaching over 400. Those of us in Matthews Ridge, away from the actual gruesome scene being played out in Jonestown, found that figure curious because initially it had been reported by the GDF that around 400 Americans had perished on November 18. Now, here it was five days later and the body count continued to mount.
But in Jonestown, there was no mystery. After evacuating the remains of nearly 450 adult Americans who died in the massacre, it had become obvious the bulk of the residents had lain themselves atop one another, in layers if you will, after ingesting the cyanide-laced Flavor-Ade.
When the audio tape of Jones urging his flock to participate in the ritual suicide is studied and one is able to view the topography of the land, it appears the infants and babies who had the poison forced down their tiny throats by their mothers using needle-less syringes, were placed at the bottom of a slight and wide concave area near the pavilion. The toddlers represented the second wave of surely uncooperative victims to be killed and they were placed on top of the babies. Next came the pre-adolescents, then the adolescents, then the young teens, all taking their last drinks on earth in turn, or having the poison forced upon them, then taking their places on top of younger siblings who preceded them in death.
The senior citizens of Jonestown were the next to go, along with some of the mothers who were grieving because of the remorse they felt at having murdered their own children moments before. These people, young and old, all became part of the pile that appeared flat because of the lay of the land. Finally, able-bodied adult residents of the commune, either voluntarily or by force, drank the cyanide-filled fruit drink and became the final layer of what looked like 400 victims, but as actually an inverted pyramid of more than twice that number of dead.
Thursday November 23, 1978 was Thanksgiving Day, perhaps the most miserable one ever spent by the 100 or so American troops who had journeyed to Jonestown to retrieve the remains of their countrymen who died there. By now, the evacuation process had become old hat and harmless diversions were practiced by the GRREG personnel to make their hard tedious work under the hot sun seem to go by faster. One team of baggers would race another to see how many bags each could manage to fill in an hour. Grape Kool-Ade jokes were composed, repeated, embellished and memorized for repeating when they arrived back home, forever falsely stigmatizing the beverage as the drink of choice at the Jonestown Massacre. One graves registration specialist with a musical inclination composed a song about Jonestown in his precious spare time.
But even the jokes, races and songs could not take the minds of the American troops off of the football games they were missing and the parades and the home style turkey dinners that even the mess halls in Panama and the States were serving on this day. The troops in Jonestown did enjoy their first hot meal since arriving in Guyana on this day, however, in the form of Swanson's Roast Turkey TV Dinners that had been heated up at Tameri Airport and flown in by helicopter.
By Friday, November 24, the routine in Jonestown continued and the body count had increased to nearly 650. An absence of body bags had slowed down the progress considerably, but more were being flown in from the United States. Most of the adult victims of the massacre had been removed from Jonestown by this day and even the GREG troops were horrified to find most of the remains that were left were those of pre-teens and babies. A total of 270 children had been murdered in Jonestown on November 18, 1978. Many were never identified.
Since body bags were in short supply and since the remains of the children were unidentifiable, the ingenious GREG personnel decided they would put the bodies of two or more children into one body bag. By this time, the job was becoming an exhausting one and even the most rabid of mortuary specialists were ready to clean up and go home.
On Sunday, November 26, by the time the last Jolly Green Giant helicopter of the day lifted from the Jonestown soccer field, all but about 50 of the massacre victims had been airlifted out. The next time these big choppers would take off from Jonestown, it would be carrying body number 914, the last American People's Temple member to leave the commune.
Monday, November 27 marked our last day in Guyana and the official end of the mission that brought 200 American soldiers to this tropical country. I was standing on the hot tarmac at Tameri Airport, thinking of how this country I had never heard of before would be remembered by most of my generation as the place where the Jonestown Massacre happened.
I was watching as the last helicopter that left Jonestown with bodies touched down. I observed as a group of extremely tired and thoroughly stressed out young American soldiers who had spent the last seven days of their lives removing the remains of dead Americans from helicopters did so for the final time.
As I noted the robot-like movements of these men as they repeated the process of picking a body bag up from the helicopter, walking to the tailgate of a waiting truck and depositing their burden on the truck, I saw that their faces were mask-like, completely devoid of any emotion. Their Army uniforms were soaked beyond cleaning with the sweat of their own skin and fluids from the bodies of the dead they had been carrying.
As I gazed upon this depressing scene, Colonel Gordon, the gruff, no-nonsense Joint Task Force commander approached me. "Brailey," he barked, "Did y'all bring any psyche techs with you from Panama?"
"No sir," I answered, "Why?"
"They were tryin' to put that dead go-rilla into a body bag," said Gordon.
Jim Jones had a huge chimpanzee that was kept in a cage near his cottage.
Jones called it "Mr. Muggs." It is rumored that small children were put into the cage with the old chimp as a form of punishment.
During my first tour of Jonestown the week before, I saw poor Mr. Muggs. He had been shot to death. That dead chimpanzee smelled much worse than any of the human remains did.
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 to zip up. I watched 'em 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 his loud voice, "Why are you gonna hack that go-rilla up?"
"Because he won't fit into the body bag, sir," was the respectful reply of the ringleader of the GRREG soldiers.
"Why are you puttin' that go-rilla into the body bag anyway?" asked the tired and confused Joint Task Force commander.
"Why, sir? WHY? Just wait until they open this one up in Dover!" was the devilish reply of the leering GRREG soldier.
Gordon told me he said to the practical joker, "Now look son, I don't mind you playin' a joke on them folks up in Dover, but I won't allow you to mutilate that poor go-rilla just to fit him into the bag."
He took the machete away from the soldier and stood back watching. This group of six graves registration specialists who had just spent more than week bagging the remains of 914 dead American human beings worked for more than 30 minutes trying to maneuver the dead chimpanzee into the body bag. As the last Jolly Green Giant lifted off from the soccer field with the last sets of human remains from the massacre on November 18, the tireless GRREG troopers were still working hard to pull off their macabre joke.
Like most of the 914 Americans returning home to the United States through the Air Force Base at Dover, Delaware, Mr. Muggs had come to Jonestown from San Francisco. Unlike them, he never returned.