In Quest of Michael Rockefeller

Above is a frame from the late great In Search Of episode in 1977 with Leonard Nimoy featuring the chief of the Otsjenet tribe denying they had killed and eaten Michael Rockefeller. He blamed the other Asmat tribes for saying it, declaring they wanted the Otsjenet to get into trouble. He said that he is chief and if they had killed Michael Rockefeller he would know it.

Not exactly a stellar denial.

However, for 1977 this was significant. It was only 16 years since Michael Rockefeller had vanished in their land. Many were still alive who remembered the events of 1961. The gruesome claims had smoldered for quite a while. They originated with a Dutch missionary who investigated soon after Rockefeller had vanished. Maybe true, maybe false. There were no facts. But it has become vogue in the last few years to believe the sensational rumors that the 20 year old Rockefeller was indeed eaten by cannibals. It seems such a Rice-Boroughs novelette way to die.

Michael Rockefeller, 1961

After graduating Harvard, Michael Rockefeller embarked on a documentary filmmaking journey to New Guinea. He would assist as sound man. Rockefeller was a gifted photographer as well. He truly enjoyed the primitive surroundings and after 6 months, when the doc wrapped, he  went to the nearby Asmat area of New Guinea. He studied the primitive tribes, traveled amongst them in the company of Dutch missionaries, grew a beard and looked quite the anthropologists. He was, however, collecting large amounts of Asmat art. The wood carvings in particular fascinated him.

His father, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, was a major collector and loved primitive art. Michael wanted the art he was collecting to be  displayed in the family museum in New York.

Michael had already bartered for some art and was now on his way to collect them with Dutch anthropologist Rene Wassing. It was November 17, 1961. As they entered the mouth of the river they were going to use in order to go upstream, their makeshift catamaran was caught in the tidal and cross currents. First their motor went, then the next wave capsized them. Two of the natives aboard jumped and swam for shore, but Michael and Wassing were pulled out to sea with the capsized hulk. Finally, Michael decided to make a go of it. He stripped to his undies and strapped (through his belt) two red and empty gas tanks to his waist for buoyancy. He swam off, sure he could make it. He was never seen again.

Asmat canoers.

Most know the story. Nelson Rockefeller went out to New Guinea to try and help. It became a media sensation. The huge searched failed, and Michael Rockefeller entered the realm of those famous or intriguing people who have vanished, like Glenn Miller or Amelia Earhart. He was declared to have drowned, but there was no proof. There was only one clue. One of the red gas tanks he had strapped to himself was finally found floating at sea. His belt must have broken and he lost his buoyancy.

Rumors, of course, circulated that he had made it to shore and had been eaten or went feral. Some parts of New Guinea, including the Asmat, still practiced headhunting, though they realized it was illegal.

The idea young Rockefeller had survived was not popularized until the 1970s. It was the result of the journey of Milt Machlin, one of Argosy magazine’s writers and editors. He had been tipped off by a strange man named Donohue who came into his New York office one day and said Rockefeller had been taken to a remote island named Kanapu. This turned out to be bunk, but Machlin’s journey culminated in his book The Search For Michael Rockefeller in 1974.

One of Michael Rockefeller’s pictures.

Machlin’s source for local information in New Guinea was the Dutch missionary Cornelius van Kessel. From more recent discoveries, however, it seems Machlin might not have had the best observational or logical skills to sift what he was told. Film he took on his journey in 1969 was rediscovered and some footage shows an armada of Asmat canoes and oarsman polling down a river. Some frames clearly show a white man oaring along with them. Either Machlin didn’t notice or he knew who the person was in the film and it was of no consequence. Fraser Heston discovered the old footage and it helped inspire his own documentary on the search for Rockefeller.

One account of the frame says that the man was dressed in the garb of the culture. Delicate way of putting it. If the birthday suit can be considered the apparel of a culture then, yes, quite. The white man looks well fed for have been living in the buff and rough for 8 years, if it was Rockefeller. Moreover, 1969 was post the counterculture, and it is possible that someone else from the West might have gone native.

I’m not knocking it. I recommend Heston’s documentary (The Search for Michael Rockefeller). Also Carl Hoffman’s book Savage Harvest, which is the book that has most recently popularized the idea of Michael having been killed and eaten by the Otsjenet.

Asmat wood carvings intrigued Rockefeller the most.

But I have to inject a few things from experience here. Machlin’s seminal work is clearly in the mold of the ultimate ur-seeker of lost celebrities, Fred Goerner, a CBS radio journalists who lit the flame and carried it the highest for the search for Amelia Earhart. Goerner created a sensation with the Saipan theory in his 1965 book The Search for Amelia Earhart.  Others have elaborated upon it, and an entire genre in the search for Earhart has been created. But Saipan is a little more accessible than New Guinea’s Asmat lands.  Other researchers and journalists have visited the island and discovered that the natives like to tell stories they think will please the hearer. It seems Goerner fell for a lot of well-intentioned stories. In the 1970s he ended up drastically amending his theory, but he continued to maintain it was “inconceivable” that those stories he heard on Saipan about a white woman pilot before the war could not have been true.

It is beyond the scope of this article to elaborate in too much detail on the Saipan theory, but it reveals how the most inconsequential Pacific rumors became the kernel of entire theories. The Earhart on Saipan stories began with Josephine Akiyama, who as a young woman had lived on the island around 1937. In this year she remembered  that a plane crashed in the lagoon and a man and woman pilot were taken out by the Japanese troops, taken into the woods, and then she heard the shots of a firing squad. The man and woman never came out.

However, time has revealed how the story cannot be true, and not one of those who supports the Saipan theory even relies on it. The Japanese commander of the island did not have that authority, and it is now known the Japanese knew who Earhart was and even the emperor’s bother was keen to have her found. Akiyama’s story sounds like something that happened in the war. Sadly, this type of execution of American pilots happened. Nevertheless, from her memory an entire legend has emerged, one completely disconnected to what she reported. This legend is one of Earhart on Saipan, one of imprisonment, even execution, perhaps natural death, perhaps even having been taken to Tokyo (!) or New Jersey (!!!!!).

Another of M. Rockefeller’s photos.

The difference with Rockefeller/cannibal theory and the Earhart/Saipan theory is that Rockefeller was really on New Guinea. But like Earhart the idea that he was merely lost at sea does not seem acceptable to many. It’s a banal fate. Historians did not consider it too banal for Earhart, but it is for Rockefeller, despite the fact he was between 3 to 10 miles off shore when he began swimming.

Like the Saipanese the Asmats don’t mind telling stories to please the hearers, and Carl Hoffman warns us in his Smithsonian article that the Asmats most certainly can be like that. Thus we have to consider the facts and the logistics of the theories rather than take the oral testimony at face value.

It begins with Milt Machlin. As an Argosy writer, he really wasn’t the stuff of investigative reporting. Nor did he have to be. The bogus tip that brought him to New Guinea also brought him to van Kessel, who was sure the natives had told him the truth in 1962. He is essentially Machlin’s source.

Machlin was quite a character, but a lot of credit is given to him that simply isn’t true. Wikipedia even claims he coined the term “Abominable Snowman” and “Bermuda Triangle.” Vincent Gaddis wrote the groundbreaking article on the Triangle for February 1964’s Argosy issue. Perhaps he didn’t write the title (The Deadly Bermuda Triangle) and Machlin, possibly the editor, did. But Machlin most certainly did not coin “Abominable Snowman.” That term came about in 1921 and was largely due to Henry Newman mistranslating the Sherpa words Metoh Kangmi (filthy or disgusting snowman) as “Abominable.” The British dailies loved the term “Abominable Snowman” and ran with it. Milt Machlin wasn’t even born until 1924.

Despite the tendency of the more erudite approach today to downgrade Machlin’s material, basically little has been added, from what I can tell, to augment the view that Rockefeller didn’t drown.

Milt Machlin

Carl Hoffman and others believe that Rockefeller was killed as he came ashore, that it was an act of revenge for the lives that a Dutch expedition had taken in a 1957 raid on Otsjenet leaders. The story’s credence also hangs on the account of Dutch missionary Cornelius Van Kessel,  but more so on something a little more specific than a general retelling. Van Kessel had said that the Otsjenet described him as wearing funny shorts (American undies). Thus it appears that Van Kessel’s source was an eyewitness, and Van Kessel is the conduit for most everything from Machlin to Hoffman (he had read Van Kessel’s written report). So that essentially the belief stems from the missionary who soon after the whole affair questioned members of the tribe.

There was an incredible “underwear” story that proved very influential with Earhart’s search as well. A New York con man tried to blackmail G.P. Putnam, her husband, with the story that he had seen Earhart on an island near New Guinea wearing only athletic shorts. He was taken seriously because Earhart did, in fact, wear men’s athletic shorts while flying because they were more comfortable.  How this east end New Yorker picked that up, it is hard to say.

At an opposite to the cannibal theory, Fraser Heston pursues the possibility that Rockefeller did survive and went native. He has a frame of film, after all, that shows a bearded and quite nude white man in 1969.

Nelson Rockefeller with the gas tank.


The facts at hand make it hard to accept that the Otsjenet would kill and eat Michael Rockefeller and not keep as practical souvenirs his red gas tanks, for whatever reason.

The Otsjenet knew the power of the Dutch and what they did in 1957. They never took revenge on the white missionaries, and they did know Rockefeller by name. It seems strange that they should decide to kill him, a fatigued man as he was wading into shore. They knew what the Dutch could do in return.

There’s rumors that his head was shrunken, but then there are claims it was not and just buried. There are rumors of who was involved and who amongst the Otsjenet had his hip bone, etc. But nothing has been proven. There are no facts, and the Asmat land is a land where tribes engaged in frequent warfare and revenge. One tribe blaming another for Rockefeller’s death is a possibility, and now perhaps some have made it a reality.

But that bright red gas tank found floating at sea remains the only tangible clue. Like with the Amelia Earhart legend, the rest is oral, contradictory and sketchy. And Machlin almost completely copied Fred Goerner’s sensational approach as used in his search for Amelia Earhart on Saipan. It seems, however, that the establishment wants to believe the sensational conclusion for Michael Rockefeller today. Perhaps it is true. There is just no proof except for a floating gas tank.

*         *          *

Since 1990 Gian J. Quasar has investigated a broad range of mysterious subjects, from strange disappearances to serial murders, earning in that time the unique distinction of being likened to “the real life Kolchak.” However, he is much more at home with being called The Quester. “He’s bloody eccentric, an historian with no qualifications who sticks his nose into affairs and gets results.” He is the author of several books, one of which inspired a Resolution in Congress.


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