The US military cleaned up victims of modern history's largest mass suicide
In November 1978, 909 members of a fanatical cult died — killing themselves and their children using a cyanide and Valium-laced grape drink — to make a political statement: they would die on their own terms in a “revolutionary suicide.” It would be the largest single loss of civilian life until the September 11th terror attacks.
The People’s Temple, as the cult was called, was founded by Jim Jones, a former monkey salesman and self-ordained minister in 1950s Indianapolis. He later moved the church to California. There, the size of the cult grew to around 20,000.
With that growth, Jones became a public figure and fled to the South American country of Guyana to escape the negative press surrounding the People’s Temple. Jones faced accusations of financial fraud and child abuse and sought to escape what he thought was the persecution from U.S. intelligence agencies.
More than 1,000 members went with him.
Jones and his cult founded Jonestown, an agricultural cooperative on 4,000 acres of poor soil and limited access to fresh water. Temple members worked long days and were punished for disobeying Jones’ orders. They were allowed limited contact with friends and family. Jones even confiscated their passports.
Toward the end of the Jonestown experiment, Jones became inceasingly paranoid as his mental state broke down. Congressman Leo Ryan came to Jonestown to investigate allegations that his contituents’ loved ones were actually hostages there. People’s Temple members asked to return home with the Congressman, who took them back to his plane.
That’s when tragedy struck.
After arriving at the airstrip that took Congressman Ryan to the People’s Temple collective, Jones’ armed thugs gunned down the contingent, along with members of the press and some of the defectors. At the same time, Jones was distributing the poisoned punch (which was actually Flavor-Aid, not Kool-Aid, as the saying goes) to the cult members.
There is evidence that those who didn’t want to imbibe were forced to drink the punch. Jones himself was found dead with a bullet in his head, among the other 900+ bodies.
Within hours of learning about Congressman Ryan’s death, the U.S. State Department received assistance from the 437th Military Airlift Wing at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina. Charleston C-141 Starlifters led what would be “the most unusual airlift operation since the Berlin Airlift.”
Air Force Combat Controllers were the first American forces on the ground, securing the airstrip area, providing security, and operating the airspace. The Starlifters had to be staged more than 150 miles away from the dirt airstrip where Ryan’s body was found because they were too large for the field.
The military Aeromedical Evacuation Team repatriated eight wounded survivors from the area. It wasn’t until November 20th that Guyanan Defense Forces could reach the Jonestown Compound. The small contingent was overwhelmed by what they found there and asked the Americans to take over.
According to San Diego State University’s exhaustive study of the Jonestown cult and its aftermath, Army Medic Jeff Brailey was one of the first Americans to enter the compound. He described carrying the poison’s antidote among a sea of bodies, “something he’d never forget.” Army Graves Registration Units tried to identify all the bodies, as they would bodies of soldiers killed in combat.
Jonestown victims’ bodies were to be airlifted to Dover Air Force Base, but first they had to be moved by three HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopters to the Starlifter staging area. There were so many bodies, the Air Force ran out of remains transfer cases.
“Stacked like cordwood,” the bodies were in an advanced state of decomposition. It took 30 helicopter sorties carrying 30 bodies each to get the remains to the Starlifters for transport. Each C-141 could handle 81 remains cases — as long as they were stacked on pallets.
The stench of death in the helicopters was so bad, they were deemed medically unsafe. Task Force personnel who handled the bodies burned their clothing on the runway at the end of the mission.
Jeff Brailey, the Army medic who entered Jonestown, wrote a book about his experience, “The Ghosts of November.”