On Nov. 19, 1978, David Netterville was stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Panama when he got orders to ship out to an undisclosed location. Netterville and two others loaded up into an airplane, assuming they were headed to Nicaragua, where the Sandinista revolution was brewing.
“I was ready. I was pumped. I was young,” said Netterville, now 68.
Instead they flew to Caracas, Venezuela, where they picked up five CIA agents, then flew east to Georgetown, Guyana, an English-speaking nation on the northern coast of South America.
“I had never heard of Guyana in my life,” Netterville told the McComb Rotary Club on Wednesday.
Soon Guyana would be seared into his brain forever, as he was among the first Americans to arrive at the People’s Temple at Jonestown after a mass suicide-homicide left cult leader Jim Jones and more than 900 of his followers lying dead and swollen in the tropical heat.
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Netterville was born and raised in McComb and graduated from McComb High School in 1968. With the Vietnam War underway, he wanted to enlist in the Army and become a helicopter pilot — a job with a high mortality rate at that time — but his parents pressured him to go to college instead.
Netterville went to Southwest Mississippi Junior College and University of Southern Mississippi before joining the Air National Guard in 1973, which led to a career in the Air Force.
He trained at Pope Air Force Base, Fort Bragg, N.C., and was then stationed at Howard Air Force Base, Panama, with the 1300th Military Airlift Squadron, which handled air traffic control in remote locations.
On the flight to Guyana, he learned U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan had been killed the day before while investigating complaints about the Jonestown compound. When Ryan tried to depart from the regional airstrip at Port Kaituma, he and many of his companions were gunned down, while a few escaped into the jungle.
Netterville, his fellow airmen and the CIA agents landed at Kaituma en route to Jonestown.
“We were walking around fully armed. The people came out,” Netterville said of the escapees.
The CIA men took charge of them before flying to the Jonestown compound in a Guyanese Army helicopter.
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Photos of the journey show a distant clearing in the jungle as the helicopter approached Jonestown. Closer images show rooftops of buildings. Then bodies come into view — hundreds of bodies — lying dead all around the buildings.
Netterville could not believe what he saw — and neither could his higher-ups. When the airmen reported 475 bodies after an initial count, their superiors refused to believe them.
A further count turned up 918 corpses, including 303 minors — 137 of them under the age of 10. Nearly all the animals were dead as well.
“It really upset me to see little kids killed by Jim Jones,” Netterville said.
The main cause of death turned out to be grape-flavored cyanide. Jones had evidently convinced many to commit suicide, while others were forcibly given the poison or shot.
“A lot of people did not want to die, and I could see where they had struggled against the other people,” Netterville said.
“I saw people there with the syringes stuck in the back of the neck.”
Jim Jones was there, too, dead from a gunshot to the head. The airmen recognized him from photos.
“He had a safe in his house. I was one of the ones who went over and pried open his safe. He had everybody’s passports,” Netterville said.
There were hundreds of Social Security checks there as well — all of which were turned over to the CIA.
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Guyanese officials wanted to bury everyone in a mass grave, but the U.S. Army sent a graves registration team to collect the bodies and fly them back to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.
Netterville and his fellow airmen stayed at the compound for a week directing 300 to 400 aircraft a day in and out. They slept in one of the houses at the compound.
“It was pretty busy from daylight to dark,” Netterville said. “We stayed in one of the little hooches there. We tried to stay as far away from the bodies as we could.”
The stay extended through Thanksgiving, and their commanding officer saw to it that they got turkey TV dinners flown in.
Netterville received five medals for his service at Jonestown. He went on to spend a total of 25 years in the Air Force, amassing over 5,000 hours flying time, 855 parachute jumps, serving in every state, 54 countries and every combat engagement.
He then went to work for the Federal Aviation Administration as an air traffic control consultant. He and his wife Darlene live in Oklahoma City.
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Ralph Price of McComb combined Netterville’s photos and information into a six-minute youtube video. Go to youtube and search for David Netterville - Jonestown.