Fort Lee Traveller, December 7, 1978
By Frank Wright and Marie M. Russo
It started out as a fact finding mission by an American congressman.
It ended as one of the most horrendous acts of self-destruction in history.
The location: Jonestown, Guyana.
The Incident: alleged mass murder/suicide on Nov. 18 of more than 900 members of the Peoples Temple Cult.
A week later, as millions watched, in horror and disbelief, the news reports of what had occurred in Jonestown, members of the 16th Field Services Company (FSC), 240th Quartermaster Battalion were alerted to leave for Dover Air Force Base, Del. Their mission was to assist in the gruesome task of identifying more than 900 badly decomposed bodies.
The mortuary section from the 16th FSC is believed to be one of only four Army graves registration sections in CONUS, according to the training officer for the 240th Quartermaster Battalion.
DURING COMBAT their mission is obvious – to identify and evacuate deceased personnel. In peacetime, it is rare when graves registration personnel get to practice their skills. They are, sometimes, called on to help in disasters where large numbers of lives are lost, like the collision of the two Boeing 747 airliners in the Canary Islands last year and the Guyana tragedy.
Twelve enlisted members from the 16th FSC and their commander, Capt. Timothy J. Wilcox, left Fort Lee for Dover Air Force Base Sunday, November 26 and returned a week later.
They along with members of mortuary sections at Forts Bliss, Texas and McCellean, Ala., were organized into an Army Task Force commanded by Wilcox.
Members of the FBI, State Department, Navy, Marine Corps along with Air Force and Army technicians joined forces to complete the mission of identifying cult member’s remains coming out of Guyana.
“THE OPERATION was well organized and around the clock shifts were set up,” said Wilcox. “The hours were long and demanding.” But the knowledge gained from working with pathologists, FBI identification specialists and civilian mortuary experts was “invaluable and could not be duplicated in any training environment,” he added.
“Many of your people were performing in a combat-like environment for the first time,” Wilcox continued. “It was a culture shock, and everyone performed in an outstanding manner.
“The mission was a true test of their training,” Wilcox said. “Now they realized they can do their job and are better prepared for combat. They’re rid of the apprehension they felt going to Dover.”
Members of the 16th FSC who participated in the Dover identification mission were: SSgt. James E. Goodnoe, NCOIC of the company’s Graves Registration Section; Sergeants Cliff J. Robertson and Benjamin T. Blair; Specialists Four Darnell L. Dandridge, Rusty G. Davis, Kennerly A. Kern, Daniel R. McKnight and Tommy T. Baughman; and Privates First Class Willie Lewis Jr., Terry Caston, Charles H. Johnston and Martin W. Utt.
“IN MY ENTIRE career,” said Wilcox, “I have never been so proud of Army personnel as those who performed under these extremely demanding conditions.”
In conclusion, Nick Thimmesch, a Washington, D.C. newspaper columnist published in Sunday’s Petersburg “Progress-Index,” said, “If anyone in this horror story deserves a salute, it is the Army people who worked with those bloated, decomposing bodies, and wound up doing a first class job.”