November 18, 1978
On November 18, 1978, U.S. Representative Leo Ryan, who had gone to Jonestown to investigate claims of abuse, was murdered, along with four members of his delegation, by Jonestown gunmen. That same day, Jones ordered his followers to ingest poison-laced punch while armed guards stood by.
Within hours after the incident was reported, a Combat Control Team was deployed to Guyana to provide communications and control as part of an Airlift Control Element (ALCE). Headquarters Southern Command - responding to a request from the US Ambassador in Guyana - immediately launched a five-man element to Georgetown, Guyana. The CCT from the 1300th Military Airlift Squadron (MAS) at Howard Air Base in Panama included Captain Mike Massengale (TALO) and four combat controllers: SMSgt Al Huddleston, TSgt Wayne Dalton, SSgt Leonard Whitten, and Sgt David Netterville. They were first sent to Georgetown on a C-130 from Volant Oak assets - rotational aircraft from the United States – temporarily operating at Howard Air Base.
Lines of communication to the Jonestown community were virtually nonexistent, and the Ambassador requested military assistance to fill the void. He needed a reliable communications link between Jonestown and the capital city - Georgetown. To meet the need, it was decided that Captain Messengale and SSgt Whitten would remain at Georgetown Airport with the MRC-108 and other communication equipment. While SMSgt Huddleston, TSgt Dalton, and Sgt Netterville were deployed to Port Kaituma in the Cessna with portable HF, UHF, VHF, and FM communications equipment. With no way to get to Jonestown by road, the two-engine Cessna was contracted to transport them to Port Kaituma, an airstrip near Jonestown.
At Port Kaituma, Huddleston established a line of communication with Whitten in Georgetown, using the team's PRC-47 HF radio.
Upon arrival at Port Kaituma, Huddleston and his team immediately established HF communications with the Messengale and Whitten team in Georgetown, using their portable PRC-47 radio. Within hours, Huddleston and the rest of his team were again moved and airlifted by Guyanese helicopter from Kaituma to Jonestown. Upon arrival at Jonestown, Huddleston’s team worked with the Guyanese Defense Force (GDF) to determine the magnitude of the mass suicide. The preliminary body count was set at 750+.
After assessing the situation, Huddleston’s team set up a control point and reestablished communications with the ALCE in Georgetown. A situation report (SITREP), including the body count, was transmitted to Georgetown.
Within hours, Huddleston’s team was then tasked to survey an adjacent airfield at Mathews Ridge for C-130 operations; the plan was to use it for body recovery. However, the airfield was soon determined to be unsafe for C-130 operations. Later, it was determined that the bodies would be shuttled from Jonestown to Georgetown. As a result, Huddleston’s team was tasked to stay in Jonestown to control helicopter traffic and maintain the HF communications link to Georgetown.
Body recovery began on the fourth day after the CCT arrived in Jonestown. The US Army graves registration personnel began the process of identifying and bagging the remains for transport by US Air Force HH-53 heavy lift helicopters. They were first delivered to the airport in Georgetown and then transferred to C-141s for a flight to the East Coast Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
The body recovery effort lasted for ten days. During that time, the CCT maintained the only communications link with Georgetown and provided air traffic control in and around the Jonestown helicopter landing zone (HLZ).
The CCT was extracted by the last HH-53 – flown to Georgetown – then returned to Howard AB Panama by C-130.