Jonestown Massacre: Tragedy and Triumph

At various times in history, fanatical leaders have led followers to do bizarre and sometimes horrible acts in the name of religion. Older readers may remember the story of Jim Jones and younger folks likely have studied or will study him in a history class. The heartbreaking story is a great American tragedy and a reminder of the possible consequences of misguided faith. However, like in most tragic stories, there is also a story to be told of the strength and resolve of some great people who rose to the occasion and responded to the tragedy.

Jim Jones founded his religious cult in Indianapolis and then moved the headquarters to Ukiah, California. When questions arose about human rights violations, Jones moved his followers, known as the People’s Temple, to Guyana, South America. As time passed, Jones began to claim that he was the reincarnation of Jesus, Buddha, and other historic figures. Reports of suspected abuses continued, eventually reaching the United States Congress. As Congress became increasingly concerned with the allegations, Jim Jones started to feel the noose tightening on him and his group. He instructed his followers to hold mass suicide drills, which began with the sound of sirens and ended with his followers drinking a red liquid.

In 1978 Congressman Leo Ryan traveled to the compound, known as Jonestown, to investigate the allegations of abusive activities. A day later, Congressman Ryan planned to leave and take four of the cult’s members with him, but Jones had them all killed. Knowing there would be serious consequences to face for these murders, Jones decided to put his mass suicide plan into action. His aides laced a tub of grape fruit drink with cyanide and he ordered everyone to drink, beginning with the children. Over 900 people died, including various family members who were found huddled close together. Jones took his own life with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the left temple.

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Prior to the events of 9/11/01, the Jonestown tragedy was the greatest single deliberate loss of American civilians in history. It was a senseless tragedy that resulted from a group of people who mindlessly held to a bankrupt philosophy and followed an unmerciful, egotistical leader. Interestingly, the phrase “Drinking the Kool-Aid” came about from this tragedy, although technically Jones used Flavor Aid as the poison. According to Chris Higgins in The Atlantic, “Drinking the Kool-Aid” refers to “a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument, or philosophy without critical examination”. Socrates taught that an unexamined life is not worth living. I would add that an unexamined, uncritical faith is not worth dying over.

In most history books, articles, and lectures, the story ends there. And now, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story…” A monumental tragedy had created a monumental mess. What do you with the dead, decomposing bodies of over 900 Americans in Jonestown, Guyana? Since they were Americans, it fell on the United States to clean up the mess and bring the dead bodies home. Projects of this magnitude and complexity often fall on the United States military. Given the circumstances, it made sense to transport the bodies to the Dover Air Force Base mortuary, the largest in the Department of Defense.

As fate would have it, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Turner served as the Deputy Base Commander at Dover AFB during the time of the tragedy. Lt Col Turner was summoned to wing headquarters, where the wing commander explained the situation and asked Turner if he was willing to take charge of the reception and processing of the dead bodies. Turner said that he would, and immediately assembled a group of volunteers who would help him, above and beyond their regular duties. Each prospective volunteer was given the option to decline being on the team, given the anticipated grueling nature of the work. Fortunately, enough brave souls raised their hands and said they would help. According to then-Lt Col Turner, it was a massive undertaking. How do you handle all the media requests? What should the volunteers wear and how long should their shifts be? There was a desire to treat the deceased as human beings; although some expressed concerned that a death by suicide is cowardly and should not be honored.

Despite the best planning efforts of Lt Col Turner and his team, the operation got off to a slow start. The process to solemnly remove the transfer cases containing the bodies from the plane and transfer them was taking too long, and airplanes were backing up. Turner made the call to speed up the process by using pallets to move the transfer cases, but was concerned that the nearby news reporters would criticize the process as undignified or inhumane. Still, he stuck with his decision, the logjam cleared, and the reporter wrote his story.

The next big issue was where to put the bodies. Mortuaries may have room for several bodies waiting to be processed in a mass casualty event…but not over 900 bodies! Lt Col Turner learned of an old ammunition bunker full of furniture that could be used, but would have to be cleaned out first. Turner’s team sprang into action and in hot, humid conditions, emptied the bunker. It was ready to go by 11:00 that night, when a call came from the wing commander, asking to speak to Lt Col Turner. Turner figured the news about the pallets had caused a public outcry, and that he was about to be fired. Instead, the opposite happened. Of the public and others who contacted the base, most were concerned that the suicide victims not be treated like heroes. The news reports of the use of pallets calmed their concerns, which made for a happy wing commander. Turner kept his job.

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Aerial view of Jonestown following the massacre

Still, the challenges just kept coming. Refrigerated 18-wheelers were rented to store the bodies, which were contained in gray bags and passed to the truck via a volunteer assembly line. Team members removed each body from its bag, cleaned it, and then transported it to mostly FBI pathologists. Given the number of bodies and round-the-clock operations, Turner needed more volunteers. Many had never seen a dead body, much less touched one. Many were young adults who certainly never envisioned having to perform such a tiring, emotionally draining task.

The team had to empty the pockets of the deceased, which contained notes to next of kin, notes to Jim Jones (who they addressed as their father), and oddly, even toothpaste and toothbrushes. Turner notes that even in gut-wrenching situations, a sense of humor is required. He noted that on one of the bodies, a worker had laid the toothpaste and toothbrush on the deceased’s chest, along with a note that said, “You are our 100th customer. You get free dental care for life.” But mostly, it was serious business. The remains were fingerprinted, embalmed, wrapped in sheets, wrapped in a clear plastic bag and then placed in a black plastic bag. The body bags were then placed in coffins inside a garage, and negotiations took place to transfer them to California for burial.

According to Lt Col Turner, the operation took an incredible toll on the workers. Some broke down in tears during processing, and others experienced nightmares. A few went as long as they could, and then just had to walk away. One worker, who was a member of the same church as Turner, had a baby of his own who wore Pampers diapers. The worker’s job was to unzip the body bags and move them out. According to Turner, “One of the bodies was a baby who wore Pampers.”

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Another volunteer was a woman whose task was to burn the organs removed during embalming in a hospital incinerator to prevent disease. While lifting a bag of organs onto the incinerator, it broke and the contents spilled on her. According to those who witnessed the incident, she screamed, pulled off her clothes, and ran outside in just her underwear. According to Lt Col Turner, the amazing part of the story is that she went to another part of the hospital, donned nurse’s scrubs, and went straight back to work. She, along with all the other volunteers, received well-deserved military citations.

In reflecting on this tragic chapter in American history, there are many lessons to learn. Here are two:

  1. Believe in something only after giving it a critical review. Don’t just blindly follow a person or your heart’s emotions. If your religion…your faith…is true, it should stand up to critical scrutiny. It should make sense, and should answer some of the fundamental questions of life. If it doesn’t make sense and can’t stand up to critical scrutiny, it’s not much of a belief system. Still, even a belief in something that is true requires an element of faith…a confidence in what we hope for and an assurance about what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1).
  1. Even in the most tragic situations, good can come from them. If nothing else, they test people. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” In 1 Peter 1:6-7, we’re told that, for a little while longer, we’ll have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials, but “These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” I’d have to say Lt Col Turner and his team of volunteers faced a time of incredible challenge and difficulty and they measured up. Their story may not be told in history books, but it’s being told here.

A final note: everything you’ve read above is true, to the best of my knowledge, except for one. The man in charge of the operation, the leader of the crew of selfless volunteers, was not Lt Col Turner. He was Lt Col Johnson. He answered the call, as he had done many times before…and many times since. Some may know him as retired Colonel Brad Johnson, others know him as Grandpa Johnson, but I usually just call him “Dad”.

– Big Steve

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