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Document Friday: The Jonestown Massacre

March 4, 2011

Bodies at Jonestown.

Even tragic, bizarre, unexplainable events have documents behind them.  Here are some 1978 DOD docs that I stumbled upon which describe the military’s fast action response to what is now known as the Jonestown Massacre in the jungles of Guyana.

The documents show the military’s role in the aftermath of the “revolutionary suicide” of more than 900 American People’s Temple cult members, who killed themselves by drinking Flavor Aid mixed with cyanide.  The cult purported to be socialist, and its members were reported to have been “brainwashed” by its leader Jim Jones.  The “revolutionary suicide” was sparked by a fact-finding visit by Californian Congressman Leo Ryan.  Ryan and four others were murdered at an airstrip close to Jonestown.  Ryan was the first congressman murdered while serving in office.

The military’s role was originally authorized by an “alert order” and then solidified by an executive order.  The initial reports “indicate[d] that up to 400 members have committed suicide or have been killed.”  More than twice this amount actually died.    The initial order stated that soldiers were not permitted to carry weapons “for offensive purposes” but could carry “individual sidearms.”  Soldiers were instructed to answer media inquiries “with a, quote, no comment, end quote.” 

81 transfercases per C-141.

The military’s primary task was returning the remains of American citizens back to America.  The military sterilely referred to the body bags used to hold the bodies as “transfer cases.”  The documents also reported that one C-141 could had the capacity to remove 81 transfer cases.  The cables estimated that it would be three days before all the bodies could be removed.

As unpleasant as it was unexpected.

Nine days after the “alert order,” Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, summed up the troops’ admirable performance in a memo to the Military Air Lift Command: “Everyone performed most ably in a mission that must have been as unpleasant as it was unexpected.  The entire operation has again confirmed my view that our men and women in uniform are equal to any challenge.”

Well, I guess that’s about the only thing that anyone could be expected to say about that…

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