Michael E. Bussey, 88, member of 'River of Doubt' expedition


Michael Eugene Bussey, the last surviving member of the 1926 Dyott Expedition that confirmed Theodore Roosevelt's 1914 exploration of Brazil's treacherous River of Doubt, died Saturday of complications of cancer at his home in Odessa, Texas. The former Baltimorean was 88.

Mr. Bussey dropped out of high school and ran away to the sea to work as a ship's radio operator. He was an 18-year-old waiting for another ship job in New York when he learned that British explorer George Miller Dyott needed a radio operator for his expedition to photograph and report all evidence sustaining Roosevelt's trip.

He was hired for $100 and sailed with the expedition from Hoboken, N.J., aboard the SS Van Dyke on July 25, 1926.

Theodore Roosevelt's book "Through the Brazilian Wilderness," recounted his 1914 journey in which three men died, and he suffered an abscess and a 105-degree fever.

The Roosevelt party lost most if its documentation when a dugout carrying photographs and other records was crushed in the rapids.

"For years the River of Doubt has been the subject of geographic controversy," wrote Mr. Bussey in a diary that was privately published for family members.

"When Col. Roosevelt reported that his expedition had put on the map a river 900 miles long, slightly longer than the Rhine; and a little shorter than the Ohio, the dispute was launched. And it has continued ever since.

"In some quarters, the River of Doubt was looked upon as a joke. There are people who still believe it is a myth, and I have heard it said that it received the dubious sounding name because Roosevelt was not sure whether it ran uphill or down."

In the Dyott expedition, Mr. Bussey's job was to operate a large 500-watt radio from a ranch along the river and broadcast dispatches to the New York Times. After the second radio operator became ill, Mr. Dyott selected Mr. Bussey to follow him into the jungle.

Of his journey, Mr. Bussey wrote, "I had pictured myself in shiny black boots, wide flaring riding pants, crisp white shirt crossed by a Sam Brown belt from which hung my trusty .45. Around my neck hung binoculars and my head was topped with a snow white pith helmet. That picture faded rapidly!"

It took until Feb. 1, 1927, for the party to reach the headwaters of the River of Doubt, where in addition to facing poisonous snakes and piranha, they were beset with swarms of "stinging, biting, sucking insects," wrote Mr. Bussey.

A daughter, Joan C. Heard of Odessa, recalled her father's account: "He said the insects were the greatest threat and danger. Bees were attracted to the sweat and would cluster on the arms, in the groin and fly into ears."

Other fears concerned Indians who left arrows as warnings and threats, and Brazilian Army deserters who had fled into the jungle.

The churning and boiling river journey in dugouts took two months to complete and exacted a tremendous toll on the explorers' health. Mr. Bussey came down with malaria and suffered from insect bites. Supplies ran low, and they were forced to kill monkeys and wild boar for food.

His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas E. Bussey, who lived on Eutaw Place, hadn't heard from him in more than two months until a radio operator in the Philippines picked up a faint signal from the explorers and alerted the New York Times that they were well and alive.

They arrived at Manaos on April 2, after a journey of 1,000 miles and proof that Roosevelt had indeed traversed the river that was later named for him by the Brazilian Government in recognition of his exploration.

"I plan to keep going, explore whenever possible, with radio as my life's work," he told The Sun after returning to Baltimore in 1927.

He earned his bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins University XTC in 1932 and a law degree from the University of Maryland. He worked as a social worker for the Baltimore Department of Public Welfare until joining the Red Cross as a field director in 1940.

"He lived all over the world and was working in Vietnam when his field office was blown up by American artillery aiming at a bar across the street," said his other daughter, Patricia A. Miller of Fallston.

"It was then that he decided to retire to Texas, saying, he didn't 'want to die by being hit by a Baltimore transit bus,' " she said with a chuckle.

Mr. Bussey was described by his daughters as a quiet, self-reliant man who enjoyed building furniture in his leisure and helping build sets for the Globe Theater, a Shakespearean repertory theater in Texas.

A third expedition to the Theodore Roosevelt River in 1992 led by Roosevelt's great-grandson, Tweed Roosevelt of Boston, was the subject of a PBS documentary, "The River of Doubt 1914-1992."

Mr. Roosevelt took a belt that Mr. Bussey had worn on his expedition in 1926 as a talisman, and that pleased him.

"We talked to him from a bend in the river on a satellite telephone and that really impressed him," Mr. Roosevelt said yesterday from Boston. "That he was thrilled made us very happy. I can say that his trip was more difficult and dangerous than ours. I told him that the river was as pure and untouched as when he and my great-grandfather had visited here."

Mr. Bussey's daughters said the experience never fully left their father, and on his deathbed last week, his mind rolled back 70 years ago as he told them that a piranha had landed in his dugout and he was trying to kill it.

Mr. Bussey, who was born in Yonkers, was descended from an old Maryland family that had come to Calvert County in the late 1600s. He was married in 1939 to Mary H. Doyle, who died in 1964. He was married again in 1974 to Gertrude M. Chisholm, who died in 1994.

A memorial service will be held today in Odessa.

He also is survived by a son, Aaron Bussey of Baltimore; a stepson, R. Fripp Chisholm of Fairfax, Va.; a stepdaughter, Martha Frost of Norfolk, Va.; seven grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

Pub Date: 10/04/96

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