The Road to Jonestown
PROLOGUE GUYANA, NOVEMBER 18–19, 1978
During the late afternoon on Saturday, November 18, 1978, garbled radio messages began reaching Georgetown, the capital city of Guyana on the South American coast. They seemed to be panicky reports of a plane crash, probably in the dense jungle that swept from the outskirts of the city all the way northwest to the Venezuelan border. Operators at Georgetown’s Ogle Airport, who received the messages, passed them on to personnel at Guyana Defence Force headquarters; the GDF comprised the country’s sparse, underequipped military. The GDF duty officers knew of no scheduled military flights, so the crashed plane, if there was one, wasn’t theirs.
About 6 p.m., a Cessna swooped in from the northwest and landed at Ogle, a small, secondary Georgetown airport used mostly by the military. Besides its pilot, it carried two additional passengers—the pilot of another, abandoned plane, and a wounded woman named Monica Bagby. The two pilots, sources of the earlier messages, were almost equally incoherent in person. What they did manage to relate wasn’t about a plane crash, but rather an attack at a remote airstrip. Earlier in the afternoon, the Cessna and a second craft, an Otter operated by Guyana Airways, flew to the tiny jungle outpost of Port Kaituma to pick up a large party there, including a U.S. congressman, his staff, and some others. In all, there were thirty-three people waiting at the narrow landing strip, too many to fit in the planes, which had a combined capacity of twenty-four. While the prospective passengers decided who would fly out immediately and who would have to wait for an additional plane, they were attacked by men with rifles and
shotguns. The victims in the attack were unarmed, and the result was sheer slaughter. The Otter was so riddled with bullets during the barrage that one of its twin engines was destroyed, its tires were flattened, and it couldn’t fly. Its pilot fled to the Cessna, which was still operational. The Cessna pilot, feeling helpless to intervene and wanting to save his own life, taxied from the gunfire and bodies and flew away, taking with him the Otter pilot and a woman who’d been wounded when the attack began as she boarded the Cessna.
Now, at Ogle, they described the gruesome scene at the Port Kaituma airstrip. One of the certain dead there was the congressman, and also some reporters who were with him. Other attack victims were badly wounded. Those who suffered slight injuries or seemed initially unscathed ran into the jungle. The witnesses at Ogle didn’t know whether the one-sided firefight ended then or not. There were so many men with guns, lots of fallen bodies, pools of blood.
Their account was immediately relayed to the office of Prime Minister Forbes Burnham. Although the details were sketchy, they were enough to confirm where the slaughter must have been instigated: Jonestown.
For more than four years, members of an American group called Peoples Temple had been carving out a 3,000-acre farm community in the heart of the near-impenetrable jungle. The spot was about six miles from Port Kaituma. They’d named the settlement for their leader, Jim Jones. The Guyanese government initially welcomed the newcomers. A colony of Americans in Guyana’s North West District provided a welcome barrier to intrusions by Venezuela, which claimed much of that region and sometimes threatened invasion. But Jones and his followers soon proved troublesome. They set up schools and a medical clinic without regard to the regulations of their new home country, and protested when ordered to comply with Guyanese policies. Jones had legal problems back in America that spilled over into Guyanese courts, and, most irritating of all, relatives of some Jonestown residents claimed that their family members were being held there against their will. Leo Ryan, a U.S. congressman from the Bay Area of California, inconvenienced the Guyanese government by insisting that he visit Jonestown to investigate. A few days previously, Ryan had arrived in Guyana with a TV crew and print reporters in tow, along with some of those raising the ruckus—Concerned Relatives, they called their organization. The visit was messy from the beginning. Jones said he wouldn’t let
Ryan, the media, or the Concerned Relatives into Jonestown. Ryan made it obvious he’d go there anyway and demand entrance, with the press recording it all and making Guyana look foolish and primitive to the whole world. After much negotiation, Jones grudgingly agreed to let Ryan and some others in. They’d flown out of Georgetown on Friday, November 17, in the company of a staffer from the U.S. embassy who’d reported back that night that things were going well. And now, this.
There were difficulties maintaining direct radio communication between Georgetown and Port Kaituma. Besides the near-incoherent initial testimony from the three attack survivors in the Cessna, no one in Georgetown had access to additional information. They had to guess what might be happening, with only one thing certain: the United States government would be furious.
Guyana was a proud, though economically struggling, socialist nation. Still, its geographic proximity as well as reluctant, pragmatic acceptance of American power made it crucial to get along with the United States. If a U.S. congressman was really dead, the American government might very well send in troops, and that violation of Guyanese sovereignty, with its potential for international humiliation, couldn’t be risked. About 7 p.m. on Saturday, Prime Minister Burnham convened a meeting in his office with John Burke, the U.S. ambassador. He also included his top ministers, and officers of the GDF and the National Service, Guyana’s military training program for teens. The National Service had a jungle camp about forty miles from Jonestown.
Burnham told Burke what little he knew. It was impossible, the prime minister said, to do much immediately. It was virtually impossible to land a plane at Port Kaituma after dark—the narrow airstrip was gouged out of the triple-canopy growth and would have to be illuminated by lanterns. There was no way of knowing how many gunmen had converged on the airstrip earlier, or what their intent might be beyond the murder of Congressman Ryan and his party, which apparently included a number of residents who wanted to escape from Jonestown.
Desmond Roberts, one of the Guyanese military men at the meeting, had warned the prime minister and his staff for months that Peoples Temple was probably smuggling guns into Jonestown, but Burnham refused to investigate. Now Roberts pointed out that Jones’s followers might have accumulated a considerable arsenal. How many armed men might have control
of the Port Kaituma airstrip, or else lurk in the jungle outside Jonestown, awaiting fresh targets? This could be more than a single ambush. Perhaps it was a large-scale insurrection. The Jonestown settlers seemed fanatical in their loyalty to Jones. If he called for an uprising, they would surely obey.
Over the years, Guyanese immigration officials had logged Americans as they arrived to join the Peoples Temple contingent. Now a roster of Jonestown residents was brought in and studied. It seemed that among the nine hundred or so Americans assumed to be living there, perhaps one hundred were men of fighting age, many of them possibly Vietnam veterans who knew how to handle guns in jungle firefights. The GDF couldn’t blunder in. Caution was required.
Ambassador Burke demanded that the GDF make every effort to get into the area as soon as possible. He was particularly concerned about those wounded at the Port Kaituma airstrip. They needed immediate protection and medical assistance. And, he insisted, whoever perpetrated this outrage must be brought to justice as soon as possible by the Guyanese government. America expected nothing less.
Burnham promised Burke to do what he could. GDF troops would immediately be flown to an airstrip at Matthews Ridge, a community of 25,000 about thirty miles from tiny Port Kaituma. From there they would take a train partway, then night march through the jungle, reaching Port Kaituma around daylight. Then they would assess the situation and take appropriate action. Burnham asked that the ambassador urgently convey to the American government his deep personal regret regarding this incident. It should be noted, the prime minister said, that the Guyanese government had done all it could to facilitate Congressman Ryan’s visit. With that, the meeting broke up. It was about 9 p.m. If any attack survivors remained at the Port Kaituma airstrip, they were still unaided after at least four hours.
Roberts put together a contingent of troops. There weren’t many available, perhaps a hundred. They were herded onto transport planes and flown to Matthews Ridge. They disembarked and boarded a train, rumbling into the night toward Port Kaituma. Halfway there they disembarked; to Roberts’s great displeasure, he’d been ordered to stop at the National Service camp and gather some of the teenagers there into his force. He thought that was a terrible idea—no one knew what kind of fight the troops might have to make, and kids with guns would only add to the danger. But he obeyed his superiors. Now the group totaled about 120.
They went forward on foot—stealth was required, since gun-wielding Jonestown insurrectionists might be anywhere. Jungle marches were difficult even in daylight, and nearly impossible at night. The northwest Guyanese jungle was among the world’s most dense, and infested with poisonous snakes and aggressive, biting insects. There had been a tremendous storm in the area the previous afternoon, and with almost every step the soldiers’ boots sank into thick, gooey mud. But they slogged ahead, and reached Port Kaituma around dawn. There was no sign of opposition, armed or otherwise. Some soldiers were left to secure the airstrip and radio Georgetown that planes could fly in to evacuate the wounded and airlift bodies out. Ryan was confirmed among the five dead. There were many wounded, several seriously and in need of urgent medical care if they were to survive. Most of the soldiers cautiously continued down the red dirt road out of Port Kaituma into the wild. After four miles, they reached the narrow cutoff that led to Jonestown. The Peoples Temple farm was now just another two miles away. The soldiers lacked combat experience. They advanced slowly, certain a fight was imminent. Gunmen might be waiting for them anywhere. But no attack came.
As the sun rose, the air grew stifling. Each breath seared the nostrils and lungs. The jungle was soggy from the previous day’s violent storm. As the soldiers finally neared Jonestown, clouds of steam wafted up from the ground, making it difficult to see. Around them they heard jungle sounds—birds squawking, monkeys howling, the rustle of unseen animals in the nearby brush—but, as they reached the settlement perimeter, the area in front of them was eerily quiet. That suggested ambush, with a well-armed squadron of Jonestown militia lurking silently in wait until the interlopers came within range. The thick ground fog made it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. Some of the soldiers couldn’t even see their feet; their boots were obscured by steamy morning mist.
In whispers, officers ordered the men to spread out and surround the central area of the settlement. From previous visits by Guyanese military and government officials, it was known that a sizable pavilion dominated there. It was as good a point as any on which to converge.
The ring of soldiers tightened, all of them waiting for the inevitable shots indicating that the Jonestown gunmen were in place and finally firing. But there was no noise at all. The tension heightened, and then the soldiers found themselves stumbling over something, maybe logs placed
on the ground by Jonestown rebels to impede them. When the soldiers looked down and waved away what they could of the ground fog, some of them screamed, and a few ran howling into the jungle. Their officers came forward, peered down, and what they saw made them want to scream, too. But they maintained a shaky composure, and did what they could to regroup their men. The pavilion loomed, and they wanted to go there, but the way was blocked by what lay on the ground, in every direction. As the fog lifted and they could see better, they got on the radio and reported back to Georgetown that something terrible had happened in Jonestown, something even worse than armed insurrection and the attack at the Port Kaituma airstrip. They struggled to find the right words. What they had found in Jonestown that morning was almost beyond imagination, let alone description:
Bodies everywhere, seemingly too many to count, innumerable heaps of the dead.