Search for Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea Part 3

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


Wassing watched him disappear--the last confirmed witness to see the young man alive. For with this swim Michael Rockefeller joined Ambrose Bierce, Colonel Fawcett, and Amelia Earhart on the mystery list of vanished celebrities.

Late that afternoon Wassing was picked up by a Royal Netherlands Navy flying boat. His first question was about young Rockefeller. The navy pilots shrugged. Nothing had been seen or heard of him.

As soon as the flying boat docked, New Guinea's meager communications network began to hum. The Dutch administrator at Agats raised his superior at Merauke, 240 mi. away, by shortwave radio. Merauke radioed Hollandia [now Djajapura], the colony's capital. The governor informed The Hague, in far-off Holland. From there the message went to the Dutch embassy in Washington. And the ambassador telephoned Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in New York.

The governor immediately chartered a jet for $38,000 to fly him and Michael's twin sister, Mary, to the scene, more than 10,000 mi. from New York. Even before he arrived there, an immense search apparatus leaped into action.

Dutch Gov. P. J. Platteel mobilized every aircraft at his disposal, ordered out marines, police troopers, and every naval patrol craft to scour the area. Australia dispatched helicopters and a squadron of air force transport planes. Most important, some 5,000 local Asmats joined the search voluntarily, fired by the royal reward of 250 sticks of trading tobacco offered for any clue to Michael's whereabouts.

Also on the spot were nearly 100 reporters and cameramen (including me) representing the world's press, television, and radio.

Merauke, a small cluster of huts with normally 3,000 inhabitants, became search headquarters, and temporarily the most overcrowded spot in the Southern Hemisphere. The temperature hovered around 100 in the shade, air conditioning was unknown, ants ate through flashlight batteries, mosquitoes feasted on every exposed inch of skin, and newsmen slept four to a room. The water supply broke down immediately, so everyone went dirty and stank. The only drink available was lukewarm beer.

The main search area lay 240 mi. to the north and encompassed 1,400 sq. mi. of swamp and jungle. Governor Rockefeller exchanged his jet for a lumbering Dakota, slowly circling over the endless greenish-brown curtain under which his son had vanished. He and Mary took turns peering down with field glasses, scanning the treetops ... hoping.

Those of us using helicopters got a closer view--occasionally a little too close for comfort. Whenever our pilot spotted what could pass for a clearing near a few huts, we went down.

The scene was always the same. Thick, steamy heat that engulfed you like a moist towel. Branch huts built on stilts over reeking, dark brown mud. A wide, cautious circle of people staring at us as we climbed from our machine. The Asmats were totally naked--not so much as a loincloth among them. The men fingered flintstone knives and whipped 12-ft. spears with serrated shark's-teeth tips. Some of the women nursed a baby on one breast and a piglet on the other.

Our helicopter didn't seem to astonish them unduly. Other things did. I created a sensation by lighting my pipe with a match; you could hear them drawing their breaths in wonder. We always broke the ice by passing out the standard currency of the region: sticks of tobacco that could be smoked or chewed or bartered for something else.

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