His training completed, Maynard Smith got his sergeant’s stripes and was sent to the Eighth Air Force in England. There, he was assigned to the 423rd Bombardment Squadron, 306th Bomb Group. Smith found it hard to fit in. His privileged background set him apart from men hardened by the Great Depression. He was also 31-years-old, significantly older than most of his comrades, and even most of his officers. And he was a small guy, with a chip on his shoulder. As described by Andy Rooney, later famous as a curmudgeonly 60 Minutes commentator but then a 24-year-old Stars and Stripes correspondent, others saw Smith as a: “pompous little fellow with the belligerent attitude of a man trying to make up with attitude what his five-foot-four, 130-pound body left him wanting“.
Since his surname was Smith, and he was a small guy with a bad attitude, other airmen nicknamed him “Snuffy” after the short, ill-tempered, shiftless and thoroughly obnoxious comic strip character Snuffy Smith. For his part, Smith, who had precious few endearing personality traits, was just as snobby as the child of privilege he seemed to many. As he put it, most of his comrades were: “people that I had no interest in but was forced to associate with simply because I was in the army“. Combat would change that plot and how Smith was perceived – at least for a while.
25. A Mission That Started Easy, Before the Plot Changed
Andy Rooney had a good take on people like Smith: “In the real military such men are the misfits that cannot be changed, only tolerated; until they can be transferred elsewhere and become someone else’s problem. They are certainly not the kind of soldier one expects to become a genuine hero as had Sergeant Maynard Smith. Perhaps no one in the 306th Bomb Squadron was more surprised that Snuffy Smith had become a hero to the Air Force and a household name back in America, than the disheveled little man himself”.
Because of his attitude, few aircrews wanted Smith. It took six weeks before he flew his first combat mission, on May 1st, 1943, as a ball turret gunner. That day, 78 B-17 “Flying Fortress” heavy bombers targeted German U-boat pens in Saint-Nazaire, in occupied France. The mission went well at first, with no German fighters encountered en route. Flak was lighter than expected above the target, and the few German fighters that took to the sky – after the bombs had already been released – were easily evaded when the B-17s flew into cloud cover. Then the story’s plot changed, because such good fortune was too good to last, and it didn’t.
On the way back, the formation’s lead navigator mistook the Breton Peninsula’s coast in northwest France for the southern coast of England. Thinking they were over home territory, he brought the bombers down to 2000 feet, straight over what turned out to be German-occupied Brest, France. That’s when the plot took a dramatic turn for the worse. The formation was immediately engulfed in murderous anti-aircraft fire, while dozens of Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighters fell upon the B-17s and began to tear them to pieces. Snuffy’s Fortress caught it bad, as German flak ripped its fuel tanks and ignited a massive fire in the fuselage.
Snuffy scrambled out of his ball turret after it lost power. While Snuffy juggled fighting the flames and tending to badly injured crewmen, three airmen parachuted out of the stricken bomber, never to be seen again. The heat was so bad that it threatened to melt the fuselage and break the bomber in half. Smith threw burning debris and exploding ammunition out of melted and blasted holes in the fuselage, and sprayed the fire with extinguishers until they ran empty. He even peed on the flames in an attempt to put them out, before he finally got it under control.
23. A Plot Twist That Transformed the Tale of a Jerk Into the Saga of a Hero
Maynard Smith had his hands full tending to the wounded comrades while fighting off an inferno, when things took yet another turn for the worse. German FW-190 fighters spotted Snuffy’s stricken B-17, and fell upon the bomber to finish it off. Snuffy was the only crewman physically able to man the machine guns and try to fight them off. So he alternated between firing bursts from the B-17’s left and right waist guns, fighting the flames, and comforting injured crewmen. Over the next ninety minutes, Smith put on a virtuoso multitasking performance, as he exerted himself more frantically than a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest.
Snuffy Smith the hero was a plot twist nobody saw coming. Eventually, the bomber reached England, landed at the first available airfield, and broke in half soon as it touched down. It had over 3,500 bullet and shrapnel holes in it. The pilot wrote that Snuffy was “solely responsible for the return of the aircraft and lives of everyone aboard“, and he was recommended for a Medal of Honor. On July 15th, 1943, the Eighth Air Force arranged a ceremony covered by two radio stations, for Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to personally present Smith with the nation’s highest award.
22. In an Unexpected Plot Twist, Snuffy Smith Got a Medal of Honor
Seven generals were invited, along with busloads of reporters. A US Army Air Forces band was in place, and a low level flyover by eighteen B-17s was scheduled. There was a hiccup, however, in a story full of hiccups and plot twists: no Snuffy. Nobody had told him, and while the bigwigs waited for the ceremony to start, the guest of honor was in the mess-hall on KP duty, cleaning slops as punishment for repeatedly returning to base late from leave. He was tracked down, hurriedly gussied up, and sent to the ceremony where Secretary of War Stimson draped a Medal of Honor around his neck.
Smith flew five more combat missions before he was grounded for “operational exhaustion” – PTSD – and assigned office work. He was not a humble hero, and milked his Medal of Honor for all it was worth. He kept apart from and refused to socialize with fellow airmen, signed autographs like a movie star, and slept in until ten while his comrades arose before dawn. While everybody else got around on foot or by bicycle, he had MPs drive him around. Such privileges rubbed others the wrong way.
21. It Did Not Take Long for This Unexpected Hero to Go Back to Being a Disliked Jerk
Finally, the outfit’s operations officer recommended that Smith be demoted to private for an “insufferable” attitude and poor performance. The hero was often AWOL, and displayed “no responsibility to his duties, or to his officers and fellow NCOs“, and it took repeated warnings and reprimands to get any work out of him. The USAAF agreed, and on December 17th, 1944, Snuffy Smith’s tale witnessed another plot twist when he was busted down to private. It was a demotion that he angrily described as “the rotten deal that lousy outfit gave me“. A medical board grounded him that same day, and he was sent back to America soon thereafter.
Back in Michigan, Smith was still a hero. His hometown welcomed him back with a parade that featured the state’s governor, Harry Kelly, and gifted him a pricey gold wristwatch. He got his discharge papers soon afterward, and settled in Washington, DC, where he worked for the IRS. He was bitter about his time in uniform, which he told a friend “was just so much time of my life wasted“. When the Pentagon tried to set up some PR interviews, Smith made sure that they wouldn’t call again “when I [got] through putting them in their proper place“.
20. A Wartime Hero’s Peacetime Heroics Had an Unexpected Plot Twist
Negative press followed Maynard Smith for years. In 1946, his ex secured an extradition warrant for missed child support payments from the same Michigan governor who had honored him a year earlier. A judge refused to extradite Smith after he promised to catch up on the payments. Washington’s Evening Star ran a story with the headline Extradition of Smith, War Hero, Is Refused in Non-Support Case. A few years later, he was busted by the Food and Drug Administration for peddling a quack remedy to restore “lost manhood”, and got a suspended sentence for false advertising. The Detroit Free Press ran a front-page story with the headline Salve Puts War Hero in Jam.
Snuffy was in the headlines again in 1952, this time with good coverage – at first. That summer, he rescued a suicidal young woman from a sixth-floor ledge in Washington, while hundreds of onlookers watched from below. As the city’s Evening Star put it in a headline, Medal-of-Honor Man Saves Young Mother From Suicide Plunge. There was a plot twist, however. It turned out that the whole thing was a stunt. Smith, who wanted to run for Virginia governor, wanted to get his name in the press. He paid the woman $500 to fake a suicide attempt, so he could fake-rescue her.
Maynard Smith’s fake heroic rescue was a plot twist that nobody saw coming. The scandal of the fake heroism tarnished his reputation, and dulled the shine of his real wartime heroism. Some even questioned whether the aerial heroics that led to his Medal of Honor had been real, or whether Smith had juiced up that story too. By the time the mess was over, Smith had done days behind bars. He kept out of the headlines from then on, and gradually grew less bitter about his wartime experience.
Smith retired to Florida, started attending veteran reunions, and became active in his local VFW post. He also began to embellish his heroism, which needed no embellishment. He had fought a fire inside his B-17 while firing at the German fighters outside. He added the false claim that he had also taken over from the injured pilot and flown back to base, despite never having flown before. The man was certainly not Hollywood’s idea of a hero, but despite all his shortcomings, he deserved his place among the ranks of America’s bravest. He died of a heart attack in 1984.
The hurling of baseless accusations of subversion and treason, especially as it relates to communism and socialism, is known as “McCarthyism”. It is named after Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, an unscrupulous and unethical demagogue. In the early 1950s, he alleged that he had discovered a massive plot involving Soviet spies infiltrating the US government, universities, the film industry, and other vital sectors of the American economy. At first, he claimed that the communist agents numbered in the dozens, a figure that gradually grew until it reached the hundreds. He claimed to know their identities, and that he had their names in lists that he waved about wherever he went. In a plot twist that everybody should have seen coming but too few did, McCarthy’s “lists” were bunk.
The lists were random sheets of paper, sometimes blank ones, and the spies were figments of McCarthy’s imagination. He simply made it all up. However, because a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is still tying its shoelaces, it worked. McCarthy whipped up and rode a wave of anti-communist hysteria to national prominence before he was finally censured by the US Senate and his career cratered. Later, it turned out that the seedy Senator had been a drug addict. Worse, in a plot twist, few could have expected, McCarthy’s drugs were supplied by the DEA’s predecessor.
17. In an Unexpected Plot Twist, the DEA’s Predecessor Supplied America’s Biggest Demagogue With Drugs
Senator Joseph McCarthy was a severe alcoholic who by the early 1950s consumed more than a quart of liquor a day. His staffers often worried about what he might say, especially after his highly liquid lunches. The booze explains many of his reckless speeches and assertions made before reporters about an America overrun with communist spies, and that he possessed lists with the names of hundreds of Soviet agents. The wild allegations were often simply the rantings of a loaded drunk.
McCarthy was also addicted to morphine. The fact that he used illegal drugs was well known to Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, predecessor of today’s Drug Enforcement Agent (DEA). Anslinger hated drug addicts and had gone on a crusade to destroy blues singer Billie Holiday for her morphine addiction. As such, one might think that he would have felt obligated to arrest McCarthy. Luckily for the senator, America’s drug czar was his personal friend. In a plot twist, rather than place him in handcuffs, Anslinger supplied McCarthy with drugs.
16. The Loathsome Head of the DEA’s Predecessor Became Close Friends With This Loathsome Senator
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was led for 32 years by Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, a loathsome figure who spearheaded the criminalization of drugs. An extremely bigoted racist even by the standards of his day, he demonized racial minorities and immigrants. He also hated jazz, mongrel music of African, Caribbean, and European origins mating on American soil. He thought it was musical anarchy, and proof of primitive impulses in black people, just waiting to erupt. As he described it in internal memos: “It sounded like the jungles in the dead of night“.
Anslinger became friends with Joseph McCarthy, as the two bonded over their anti-communism. When he learned about the senator’s addiction to opium, Anslinger’s first concern was not his duty to enforce the law. Instead, he grew worried that his friend might be vulnerable to blackmail if his addiction was discovered by enemies – especially communist enemies. Anslinger covered up for McCarthy, shielded him from arrest, and in an unexpected plot twist, saw to it that the senator was safely supplied with drugs.
15. The Drug Czar Who Supplied a Senator With Drugs
Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger arranged for Senator Joseph McCarthy to pick up as much high-quality morphine as he wanted from a Capitol Hill pharmacy controlled by agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. It was a plot twist that America’s first drug czar described in a thinly disguised autobiographical novel he wrote after his retirement: “One of the most influential members of Congress at the time and one of my most dependable supporters was a confirmed morphine addict. He was an amiable man but would do nothing to help himself to get rid of his addiction …
“He refused medical advice and insisted that no one would ever be permitted to interfere with him or with whatever habit he wished to indulge in … He was also a heavy drinker but it was his addiction to morphine which was the greatest threat to himself and his country even though, in the national interest, his uninterrupted supply of the drug was guaranteed by my Bureau. On the day he died I mourned him deeply as a friend but also thanked God for relieving me of a great burden and a certain danger”. Thus, America’s first drug czar covered up for Joseph McCarthy.
14. In Theory, This Weapon Should Have Been Devastating
Warfare was revolutionized by the combination of gunpowder and cannons. Heavy siege artillery rendered medieval castles obsolete, while lighter field pieces wreaked havoc upon infantry and cavalry. Before modern breech-loading artillery, muzzle-loaded field cannons used solid metal shots to reach out to distant targets. For closer targets, cannons were packed with smaller projectiles such as grapeshot, a bundle of small metal balls, or canister, even smaller metal balls. They transformed cannons into giant shotguns that mowed down all in front of their muzzles. In practice, just about any bits of small metal fired from a cannon could produce a similar shotgun effect, and one of the deadliest was heavy chain.
Chain would swirl around at incredible speeds when it exited a muzzle, and chop down people in its path like an electric saw through watermelons. Because mankind likes mayhem, that got some people to think: what if instead of one cannon that fired chain, we had twin cannons that fired a chain stretched between them? The idea was to have artillery that simultaneously fired from two side-by-side barrels a pair of iron balls, linked by a chain. As the balls whirled around each other, the chain between them would scythe down enemy soldiers in its path like wheat. So in 1642, a Florentine gun maker named Antonio Petrini cast a double-barreled cannon to test out the concept.
Antonio Petrini’s idea was good in theory, but it failed in practice. In order to work, the gunpowder in each barrel had to ignite simultaneously – extremely difficult even with modern technology, and impossible back then. A fraction of a second’s difference in ignition would fire one ball ahead of the other, to whip around the muzzle and scythe the cannon’s crew instead of the enemy. So Petrini dropped the project. However, the concept of a double-barreled cannon continued to crop up in subsequent centuries, as tinkerers with mayhem on their minds sought to transform it into a practical reality. One such instance occurred in 1862, when a dentist named John Gilleland raised money from the Confederate citizens of Athens, Georgia, to make a double-barreled chain cannon.
It was cast in a single piece, with 3-inch bores that slightly splayed outward to keep the chain between the balls taut. When tested, Gilleland’s cannon proved devastating – but in a plot twist that should have been expected, its devastation was uncontrollable. As a witness recalled, the projectile: “had a kind of circular motion, plowed up an acre of ground, tore up a cornfield, and mowed down saplings. The chain broke, the two balls going in opposite directions; one of the balls killed a cow in a distant field, while the other knocked down the chimney from a log cabin. The observers scattered as though the entire Yankee Army had been turned loose in that vicinity”. Gilleland’s cannon was never used in combat. It is displayed nowadays in front of Athens’ City Hall.
In 1905, Kenneth Barnard Thomas Folkes was born in Gloucester, England. By the time WWII began, he had worked for a dozen years as a law clerk for a firm that handled many criminal cases, before he got a job with a carpet manufacturer in the Midlands. In 1940, he enlisted as a private with the Corps of Military Police, but mentioned only the legal work in his background questionnaire. Between that, a sharp mind, and a fair knowledge of French, he was transferred to the Intelligence Corps and commissioned as a second lieutenant.
Folkes was a self-promoter. He claimed that within a few months of enlisting, he had interrogated a prisoner of war and outsmarted him “until he told me what he wanted to hide“. Nobody questioned his claims, and by late 1940, he was offered command of New Zealand’s fledgling Security Intelligence Bureau (SIB), and a promotion to major. Once in Wellington, NZ, Folkes inflated his employment background. He presented himself to the locals as a former Midlands lawyer, now devoted to the security of New Zealand’s war secrets. What followed was a medley of unexpected plot twists that came close to upending the country.
Major Kenneth Folkes wanted to earn a reputation, and he did – but in an unexpected plot twist, it was not the reputation that he wanted. His name would forever be linked to Sydney Ross, a small-time criminal and conman. Born in 1909, Ross held a series of short-term jobs, mostly as a laborer. In the 1930s, he piled up 17 criminal convictions and did time for theft, burglary, false pretenses, and fraud. In 1939, he was sentenced to nearly four years for breaking and entering and theft. During this prison stint, he befriended an older convict, Alfred Remmers, a former policeman who had been fired for committing burglaries on the job and was now behind bars for forgery.
Ross was released from prison on March 28th, 1942, with nothing but a battered briefcase, some clothes, and a train ticket. A day later, he had met New Zealand’s Prime Minister, had a car, money, accommodations, and the undivided attention of Major Folkes, who saw in the released convict an answer to his prayers. Between the spy catcher and conman, New Zealand was brought to the brink of martial law. The country would forever after retain a healthy skepticism of its intelligence services.
10. A Story That Started Well, Before the Plot Changed Dramatically
Kenneth Folkes’ career in military intelligence began well, before the plot of his story took a series of unfortunate twists. He had enlisted as a private, and in less than a year, had risen to major and was in charge of an entire country’s counterintelligence. To be sure, New Zealand was a small and out-of-the-way country, but still – it was a rapid rise. Once he got to New Zealand, however, things soured for Folkes. He saw the New Zealanders as backward colonial bumpkins, ignorant of even basic security practices, and intellectually lazy. In reality, his contempt for New Zealand’s practices was a reflection of his own intellectual laziness and unjustified arrogance.
Folkes had only a few months’ training in British military intelligence practices, had limited experience, and held an imperialistic worldview that deemed New Zealanders inferior to the English. That mix was toxic, and blinded him to the possibility that there might be ways to do things other than what he had learned in his few months of training back in Britain. That was bad, but what made things worse was that Folkes let his disdain for the locals show. Unsurprisingly, they resented that, and grew antagonistic in reaction to his contempt for them.
9. An Incompetent Spy Catcher and His Hapless Crew
Major Kenneth Folks’ New Zealander colleagues saw him as “aggressive, discourteous, and impertinent“, and leaked those assessments to the press. Within a few months of his arrival, local newspapers ran editorials that compared Folkes to Reichsfuhrer SSHeinrich Himmler, whom he slightly resembled physically. Newspapers also questioned whether Folkes’ Security Intelligence Bureau (SIB) was too much like the Gestapo – and an inept one at that. SIB men were derided as mediocrities, draft dodgers, and incompetent snoops who repeatedly screwed up.
In one episode, Folkes’ men subjected an innocent American in charge of geophysical survey work to “stealthy pursuit” that was anything but stealthy. In another bungled endeavor, they ran a five-day operation to try and “trap a suspected spy” at a Wellington hotel. In a plot twist, they went about it in such an incompetent way that the operation was an open secret to “the innocent suspect, the hotel staff, and half the town“. The SIB and its head were widely ridiculed as hapless spy catchers who futilely spun their wheels out of the way of New Zealand with no spies to catch. Then salvation and serious work seemed to arrive in the form of career criminal Sydney Ross.
On March 29th, 1942, just one day after he was released from prison broke, homeless, and without prospects, Sydney Ross met with the Minister of National Service, Bob Semple. He told him that a Nazi agent, recently landed by submarine, had tried to recruit him to join a sabotage cell, part of a vast network whose tentacles stretched across the country. Semple immediately took Ross to see Prime Minister Peter Fraser – meeting New Zealand leaders must have been really easy.
Fraser had just received classified reports from Australia, where real spy rings had been uncovered. He was thus primed to accept that his country could have similar rings and that there could well have been a Nazi plot to sabotage New Zealand. The prime minister referred Ross to Major Kenneth Folkes, and the head of the SIB saw the recently released felon as a godsend. Finally, here was a real threat and an opportunity for his men to round up real spies and shut up the critics. Folkes gave Ross money, a car, and accommodations, and set him up as an undercover agent with the alias “Captain Calder” to gather intelligence on the Nazi network.
For three months, Sydney Ross reported back to Major Folkes about the results of his undercover efforts to unravel the Nazi sabotage plot. It was alarming information, which Folkes passed in turn on to New Zealand government bigwigs. Apparently, enemy subversives were more widespread and dangerous than anybody had imagined. They planned to blow up key targets, kidnap or assassinate Prime Minister Fraser, Minister of National Service Semple, and other cabinet members, all as a prelude to a Japanese invasion. Ross claimed that the network was headed by his prison pal Alfred Remmers, now dying of leukemia and living in the countryside, and that Remmers’ house in Wellington was the conspirators’ base of operations.
Folkes demanded in July, 1942, that the government supply him with troops, declare martial law, and grant his SIB emergency powers to arrest and detain suspects without trial. Before he suspended civil rights throughout the country, Fraser asked the police to investigate. In no time flat, they discovered that the supposed “Nazi headquarters” was occupied by an elderly government clerk, dry cleaners, and three nurses, all innocent of any foreign contacts, let alone subversion and espionage. To Folkes’ horror, it began to dawn on him that the SIB might have committed its worst blunder yet.
6. There Was a Plot Alright, Just Not the Plot This Hapless Spy Catcher Thought
There was a plot alright, but it was not a Nazi plot to sabotage New Zealand. Instead, it was an ad hoc plot by a conman to take advantage of gullible spy catcher. As his scam began to unravel, Sydney Ross grew desperate to hang on to his employment as an “undercover agent” and the pay that went with it. To keep the hoax alive, he resorted to yet another elaborate hoax to bolster his story. He dug a deep hole in a forest, lacerated his back with barbed wire, then staggered to the roadside, where he gave a passing driver £10 to summon help. He then claimed to have been tortured by Nazis and forced to dig his own grave at gunpoint, before he pulled off a miraculous escape. However, doctors who inspected his wounds determined that they were self-inflicted.
The story of the “Impudent Jailbird” who had tricked Major Kenneth Folkes and the SIB, whose men had been “blatantly hoodwinked“, hit the newspapers in late July 1942. This latest screwup was the final straw. The SIB was taken over by the police commissioner, and the now-thoroughly-discredited Major Folkes was sent back to Britain in disgrace. Ross returned to prison, where he remained until his release in 1946, shortly before his death at age 37 of tuberculosis. It was an anticlimactic end for a man who had almost ended the rule of law in, New Zealand. After the war, Folkes returned to his job with a Midlands carpet manufacturer and died in obscurity in 1975. A self-promoter and fabulist to the end, his headstone described him as a recipient of the Distinguished Service Order. He had never received such an award.
In 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte had been at war with Britain since the breakdown of the Peace of Amiens two years earlier. He had a powerful “Army of England”, 210,000 strong, camped in northern France and ready to invade Britain if his navy could secure its safe passage across the English Channel. British diplomats had been busy though, and in April 1805, their efforts paid off when they convinced Russia to ally with them in a coalition against France. A few months later, Austria joined them, and Napoleon had to abandon the invasion of England in order to deal with his enemies in Europe.
The Army of England became the core of what came to be known as La Grande Armee (The Great Army). In 1805, it grew to 350,000 well-equipped, well-trained, and well-led men. Napoleon wanted to hit the Austrians while they were still on their own, before they were reinforced by Russian armies. Austrian General Karl Mack von Leiberich sealed off the gaps in the Black Forrest in southern Germany that Napoleon would use if he marched to Austria from northern France. He then planned to wait until his Russian allies arrived. The linchpin of his defense was the fortified city of Ulm, and Napoleon wanted to winkle Mack out of it. So he turned to a spy, Karl Schulmeister, who concocted an effective plot to achieve his master’s goal.
Karl Schulmeister (1770 – 1853) was a German-born smuggler who became a French spy and inveigled his way into Austrian intelligence. He arrived in Vienna in 1805 in the guise of a Hungarian nobleman exiled from France on suspicion of espionage. There, he met and won the confidence of the Austrian army’s commander, Karl Mack. Mack got Schulmeister commissioned as an officer, and put him in charge of military intelligence. Schulmeister immediately began to feed his patron false information. Napoleon desperately wanted Mack’s army to come out of the well-fortified city of Ulm so it could be more easily destroyed, and a scheme was cooked up to get the Austrian general to do just that. Specially-printed French newspapers were sent to Schulmeister, that contained fake news about massive unrest in France.
Schulmeister shared that information with Mack, and convinced him that Napoleon had marched back home to restore order. He also informed the Austrian general that the French forces nearby were in full retreat to suppress rebellions in France. Mack seized what he saw as an opportunity to attack the French while they were in disarray, and marched out of the Ulm fortifications with his entire army of 72,000 men. That’s when Mack discovered that there was a plot twist. The French were not in disarray, and numbered 235,000 superbly trained men. They fell upon and defeated the Austrians, surrounded the survivors, and forced Mack’s surrender on October 20th, 1805. Out of 72,000 men, the Austrians lost 60,000 killed, wounded, captured, and missing in the Ulm Campaign. The French lost only 2000 men.
Michael Clark Rockefeller was born in 1938, the son of future New York Governor and US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. He was also a great-grandson of business magnate John D. Rockefeller whose wealth, when adjusted for inflation, makes him the richest American of all time. Michael was thus among fortune’s favorites, with the world at his feet, green pastures all around, and unlimited horizons. For a scion of plutocrats, he was not a spoiled trust fund brat who coasted on the family wealth, but instead showed promise and a desire to leave his own mark.
Rockefeller attended the Buckley School and the elite Philip Exeter Academy, America’s most prestigious prep school. There, he excelled as a varsity wrestler. He continued his education at Harvard, where he graduated cum laude with a degree in economics and history. Then in 1960, although medical exemptions were easily obtainable at the time to get rick kids out of the draft, he did a stint as a lowly private in the US Army. In an unfortunate plot twist, all that promise and potential came to a macabre end in 1961, when he was killed and eaten by New Guinea cannibals.
Michael Rockefeller was not cut of the same businessman cloth as the tycoons who made his family America’s richest clan. Instead, he was into art and travel. In 1954, his father established the Museum of Primitive Art, America’s first museum dedicated to the works of tribes from Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. Michael was made a trustee. After his stint in the US Army, he went to Papua in western New Guinea, now part of Indonesia but then still under Dutch colonial administration. Michael was a soundman in an expedition sent by the Peabody Museum to film an ethnographic documentary about the Dani tribe. The resultant documentary, Dead Birds, won accolades and awards and ended up in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. At some point, Rockefeller took a short break from the expedition to study the Asmat tribe, which dwelled along Papua’s southwestern coast.
They fascinated him. So when the Peabody expedition was over, Rockefeller returned to Papua to further study the Asmat and collect samples of their arts. He secured hundreds of objects such as spears, drums, shields, and bowls. He also collected totem-like structures known as bisj poles that were used in ceremonies and ceremonial carvings known as spirit canoe. The expedition came to an abrupt end on the morning of November 18th, 1961, when Michael, a Dutch anthropologist named Renee Wassing assigned to him as a governmental chaperone, and two local kids, boarded a motorboat. Their route crossed the mouth of the Betsj River, a tricky stretch where outrushing water met incoming tides. Calm waters suddenly grew turbulent when the wind picked up, giant waves began to crash all around, and the boat was swiftly swamped, its motor overrun.
The local kids swam to the nearby shore. Michael Rockefeller and Renee Wassing did not want to abandon their possessions, however, and stayed in the swamped boat. It was a bad decision. The boat drifted further out to sea, and continued to fill with water until it finally overturned. The duo clung to the hull, as their possessions sank or drifted away. Early on November 19th, 1961, they were about fourteen miles from shore, and Rockefeller decided he could reach it. He told Wassing “I think I can make it“, and struck off. He was not seen again. If he had waited, he might have been saved along with Wassing, who was rescued the next day. A huge search operation failed to find Rockefeller. He was declared legally dead in 1964, presumed to have drowned, or been eaten by a crocodile or shark. The Dutch colonial authorities knew otherwise.
In a plot twist, Rockefeller had reached shore, only to be taken down by Asmat tribesmen. The Dutch suppressed the information, however, because it made them seem unable to control their colonial charges. Decades later, researcher Carl Hoffman uncovered reports that detailed “who had his head, who had his femur, who had his tibia, who had stabbed him, who had speared him“. Local Catholic priests also wrote at the time that Rockefeller had been killed and eaten by Asmat tribesmen. Hoffman traveled to the region in 2012, and collected further evidence that confirmed Rockefeller’s macabre end. He even confirmed that some Asmat men pictured by Rockefeller were the same ones named in colonial and missionary reports as the men who had stabbed, ended, and eaten him. Many of the Asmat works collected can now be seen in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading