Jonestown Massacre, 34 Years Later

Jonestown from the Air – AP photo

The charge of quarters woke me at Oh-Dark-Thirty on 19 November 1978.  I was told the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) had been activated and I might not return for a couple days.  I walked the block and a half from the barracks to XVIII Airborne Corps Headquarters and climbed three flights of stairs to a six inch thick vault door just to the right of the third floor landing.

Pressing the cipher lock  –  rocker switches numbered 1 to 5 and hidden behind a grey steel panel,  I pushed the EOC vault door open and walked along a dark narrow hall with darkened offices for 50 feet or so before it  turned sharply to the right and into a bright florescent lit room filled with steel desks and lined with maps, clocks, classified, secret and top secret cover sheets.

Cover Sheet

The duty officer, a major and a highly decorated helicopter pilot, told me US civilians had been attacked and killed by the Guyana Army. I sat at my desk as an operations assistant and was told I was one of the first to arrive while others were driving in from their homes on and off post.  The major handed me a telex with a Secret cover sheet stapled to it and told me he had a secure call to make.

I lit a Marlboro, tossed the match in an army issue glass ashtray and turned the cover page over. Following  the distribution of military and government offices, two paragraphs described how a US Congressman was shot and killed at the Port Kaituma airstrip along with hundreds of US civilians.  I remember thinking, “Why would the Guyanese Army do that?”

The EOC filled with men and talk of kicking Guyana ass and taking names.  The Airborne motto, “Travel to Exotic Places – Meet Interesting People – And Kill Them” was finally going to happen.  I was told by the ops sergeant that as infantrymen our lives as Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers (REMF) would soon be over and  we’d be re-assigned to a line infantry unit in the 82nd Airborne.

My stomach dropped just below my knees as I imagined Guyanese commandos with machetes chopping my unprepared REMF ass into tiny bite size pieces and then fighting over my Rolex and boots.  At 20, I was a huge smart ass but I worked that morning without saying a word and wondered if I shouldn’t leave my watch behind.

Time, December 4, 1978

It took almost four hours before a telex told the true story.  A US Congressman and five civilians, mostly media, had been killed at the airstrip.  The Guyanese, our enemy seconds earlier, were helping us and had reported 200 – 300 dead at a camp  of American farmers.  In another couple hours we learned it was mass suicide—some 900 dead.  A G-3 officer wrote in red wax pencil over a Sortie board, “Operation Bag-A-Bod.”  A call for volunteers went up to to assist 1st COSCOM with the body removal.  I called my father and told him I was thinking of going.  He told me not to and went into vivid detail as to why.

I learned a lot 34 years ago today.  I learned not to believe everything you hear or read.  I learned a an officer had his heels locked and his ass chewed over a Sortie board. I later learned he retired a major and I think I know why.  Mostly, I learned time changes everything.


Originally appeared at The Trad

About John Tinseth

John Tinseth ex-deputy sheriff, ex-paratrooper, and ex-park ranger, is the author of the men's style blog, The Trad, whose tag line, "Not as good as it was—better than it will be," sums up his view of life. You think it's bad now? Just wait. Appreciate it while you can. As an Army brat, Tinseth saw enough of the world at an early age to know “assholes are everywhere." For this reason, he doesn't like much, but what he does like is what he loves. Tinseth hangs his clothes, for now, in New York City.


  1. Kay-
    Richard hits on it in his comment. My father was an A Team Cpt in Vietnam from ’66-’67 and suggested the removal of bodies in the jungle after a few days would not be something to do, at least not voluntarily. His experience of the odor and his relating it to me changed my mind. He said it was something he would always remember and didn’t want me to experience it.

    Wonderful comment. Thank you.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    Sarah. In those blessed days, the news was on at 6:30. And there was the Today show in the morning which had not then morphed into puff pieces on people famous for being famous.
    So, other than changing dinner time, your folks had the choice of news or not.

  3. My parents subscribed to Time magazine and I still remember looking at the pictures of the bodies at Guyana. I was 12 and it gave me nightmares. We lived in the Bay Area, had been hearing stories on the nightly news about People’s Temple for weeks. This is one of the major events I remember from my 1970’s childhood, along with the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the Chowchilla school bus kidnapping, and the Iranian hostage crisis. In retrospect, Imhave no idea why my parents insisted on watching the news at dinner.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    As to engaging the Guyanese Army: Most third-world armies are for the purpose of controlling the citizenry. Not a problem for professional soldiers. Or, for that matter, reasonably motivated insurgents.
    I don’t think hauling bodies which have spent some time in the tropical sun would be something you’d get over with a couple of beers.
    Graves Registration guys are reputed to be juice freaks. That’s second-hand, but I can see it.

  5. What were your father’s reasons? The trauma of what you’d see?

  6. We also learned that DOGMA in all its forms can be and is deadly. When people believe in something without question, only bad things happen.

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