Search for Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea Part 2

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


For the Asmats were headhunters (some of them were also cannibals), but their treatment of the trophies varied sharply from that of other head-takers in different parts of the world. The Asmats didn't shrink heads. Instead they stripped heads down to the skull, let them bleach in the sun, then painted them in artistic designs and stuck them on poles to proclaim their machismo.

Michael Rockefeller was 23 when he returned to New Guinea, a rangy, bearded lad whose round spectacles gave him a deceptively indoorish appearance. Actually he was an outstanding athlete in peak physical condition, untroubled by the murderous climate of the region (the humidity, I remember, was such that a cigarette pack I put under my bed at night showed a film of mildew by morning).

Unfortunately the young American knew little about the dangers of the Asmat coast. He took risks that made some of the more experienced locals blanch. And he rarely took warning.

The last persons to caution him were the Dutch Crozier fathers at the mission station of Agats. Michael arrived there in a 30-ft. catamaran made of two native canoes lashed together by planks and powered by a single 18-hp outboard motor. It was a highly maneuverable craft, but quite unsuitable for what he had in mind. The mission fathers shook their heads when they learned that he intended to cruise in it to the village of Atsj, 25 mi. down the coast.

They explained that this journey would take him across the mouth of the Eilanden River where it empties into the Arafura Sea. At this point the coastal tides often rolled out in waves up to 20 ft. high. No place for a fragile makeshift craft, heavily laden with trading goods.

On the morning of Thursday, Nov. 16, Michael started out just the same. His only companions were a Dutch anthropologist named Rene Wassing and two Asmat helpers. Around noon, just as they were passing across the mouth of the Eilanden, the warning of the missionaries came true. A huge wave suddenly surged over the boat, swamping the outboard motor. Now the vessel was drifting helplessly, the fierce tidal rip sweeping it out into the Arafura Sea. The two natives dived overboard almost immediately and reached land. But the white men hung on, stubbornly trying to tinker the engine back to life.

Twenty-four hours later they were still drifting with a dead motor. Both of them believed that the Asmats had simply left them to their fate--falsely, as it turned out, because the natives had already alerted the Dutch authorities. But the helpless drifting and the beckoning shoreline were too much for Michael's active temperament. He told his companion that he'd try to swim to the coast.

Wassing warned him against the attempt. The mangrove swamps of the coast were only about 3 mi. away, but the water was known to contain both sharks and crocodiles. Michael merely grinned and made his preparations. He stripped down to his shorts, tied his glasses firmly to his ears, and strapped on a jerry can and an empty gas container to make an impromptu float. He was an excellent swimmer, and with these supports the 3 mi. to land seemed easy.

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