Search for Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea Part 7

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


The missionaries, who knew their Asmats, took these boasts quite seriously. Father Gerald Hekman of the Evangelical Aid Mission even offered a substantial reward in axes and tobacco to anyone who brought in Michael's skull. There were no takers.

Some rumors, based on second-, third-, or even fourth-hand accounts, had it that Michael was alive, that he was being held captive by one of the coastal tribes, who were now even more isolated and unapproachable than they had been during the Dutch regime.

What made these stories so tantalizing was both their elusiveness and their persistence. Plus the fact that similar episodes have occurred in New Guinea.

During the W.W. II fighting in the Pacific, the Eilanden River region marked the most southerly point of advance for the Japanese armies. When U.S., Australian, and Dutch troops finally recaptured Merauke in 1945, thousands of Nipponese soldiers fled into the Asmat. The Japanese War Office wrote them off as dead. But an amazing number of them were very much alive. Most of their comrades either perished in the jungle or by Asmat spears. A few survivors, however, were taken in by the villagers and treated kindly for reasons it took them years to understand.

The Asmats believe that odd-looking and unusual people offer protection against their main dread--the adat, or forest demons. They like to keep such creatures in their villages as good-luck charms because the adat won't approach a settlement that harbors them. To the Asmats some of the Japanese must have looked very odd indeed. They were kept as part prisoners, part guests. They were given wives and whatever food the tribe possessed--but carefully watched and never allowed to leave a certain area. The Asmats often keep their own albinos in similar captivity as mascots against the jungle spirits. As the years passed, the Japanese grew accustomed to tribal life and made no serious efforts to escape. Those who did usually owed their getaway to the confusion of a tribal war. Others died in the villages without the outside world's ever learning of their existence.

There was thus at least a possibility of Rockefeller's survival some-where in the Asmat wilderness. But until one of the rumors came up with some concrete geographical data there was no chance for a follow-through.

Then, in October, 1968, a very tough-looking individual who called himself John Donahue walked into the New York office of Argosy magazine, demanding to see the editor. The executive editor was Milt Machlin, a chunky globe-trotting adventurer who had nosed around the remotest corners of the Pacific. To him Donahue confided that he, personally, had seen Michael Rockefeller alive only 10 weeks earlier! What's more, he had talked to him.

The man began his story by admitting that he was a wanted criminal, a professional smuggler and gunrunner. He certainly looked the part. On his most recent operation he and two companions stopped at a small island called Kanaboora, one of the Trobriand group lying off the northeastern tip of New Guinea. There, Donahue claimed, he met a half-crippled white man with a long sandy beard, whom the natives were keeping in their tribal council house.

The bearded man, who was wearing only a native lap-lap, peered at them shortsightedly, then introduced himself: "I am Michael Rockefeller. Can you help me?" According to Donahue he related how he had reached the Asmat shore after diving overboard and stumbled through the mangroves for three days, sleeping in the trees at night. He broke both his legs when a branch snapped under him, and lost his glasses. Eventually he was captured by a party of Trobriand Islanders, a seafaring tribe that often made long coastal journeys. They had brought him back to their home island and kept him there, believing him to be an "important sorcerer."

Donahue couldn't do anything for him at the time. He would have run the risk of drawing attention to his illicit cargo. But perhaps Machlin could.

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