Search for Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea Part 1

About the search for Michael Rockefeller, son of New York mayor Nelson Rockefeller, history of his mysterious disappearance.


by John Godwin

Our helicopter danced and leaped crazily, buffeted by blasts of hot, moist air. Below, as far as our eyes could see, the jungle stretched like a crumpled green rug, the solid mass of treetops broken only by mudbrown patches of loraro and mangrove swamps. This was the Asmat coastline of southern New Guinea, the region known as "the land of the lapping death." A tangled morass of bog and forest, thick with insects and leeches but unmarred by a single road, airfield, or telephone wire.

Down there lived an estimated 18,000 natives, but no sign of human habitation was visible from above. Most of the villages lay so deeply buried in the jungle that their people rarely saw the sun.

It was mid-November, 1961, and I knew that the greatest search operation in the island's history was running full gear: Dutch and Australian aircraft crisscrossing the sky, canoes and launches nosing along the rivers, thousands of marines, police troopers, and tribesmen beating through the bush. But all this might have been happening in another country. From where we sat, there was nothing but the infinity of vegetation.

Before starting out I had asked Sergeant Gerig, the Dutch patrol officer flying with us, how he rated our chances of finding any lone man in this wilderness.

He shrugged. "About as good as finding half a needle in a thousand haystacks, mijnheer."

The man we were searching for, however, wasn't just "any" lone man. His name was Michael Clark Rockefeller, and he happened to be the son of the governor of New York and heir to one of the largest fortunes on earth.

Michael was a Harvard graduate, but otherwise refused to follow in his father's footsteps. After graduating cum laude and serving a hitch in the army, he went to New Guinea as a member of the Harvard Peabody Museum expedition. As he explained it, "I have the desire to do something romantic and adventurous at a time when frontiers in the real sense of the word are disappearing."

He couldn't have picked a better place to fulfill that particular desire. New Guinea is an island about as large as Texas and New York State combined, perched on the northern tip of Australia. It remains one of the least explored areas in the world; vast patches are as unmapped as the mountains of the moon. The island has never had an accurate census; the population is believed to number approximately 4 million.

Rockefeller's first expedition went to the Baliem Valley in the central highlands, a region of clouds and constant drizzle and perpetually warring Dani tribesmen, so secluded that explorers had tagged it "Shangri-la." The Harvard men stayed there until September, 1961, filming bloody tribal battles and collecting Dani weaponry and artifacts.

Michael returned home for a brief rest, but New Guinea seemed to draw him like a magnet. Two months later he was back, this time on behalf of the New York Museum of Primitive Art. He headed for the Asmat coast in the South. His object was to purchase some of the decorated bis poles which the natives carve in memory of their ancestors. Above all, he wanted samples of the human skulls that serve the Asmat warriors as tokens of prowess in combat as well as hut decorations.

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