Writer’s note: Dennis Martin was my cousin. My grandmother was on the mountain the day he went missing. My family searched for weeks, even months. I grew up hearing the story of “little Dennis Martin” and his heartbreaking disappearance. It deeply affected my family and the surrounding community.
Next June will mark the 40th anniversary of the longest and most intensive search for a lost person ever in the Great Smoky Mountains. No trace of the missing boy was ever found.
Dennis Martin disappeared June 14, 1969, while on a camping trip with his family at Spence Field in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Dennis disappeared just six days before his seventh birthday. The whole community was shaken.
“This family tragedy has forever changed the way the Martin family views the mountains,” Dennis’s first cousin, Fred Martin, said.
Dennis was playing with his older brother and two other boys that they had met on the mountain. Around 4 p.m., the boys decided to sneak up on their parents and scare them. All of the boys, except Dennis, snuck around behind the parents. But Dennis was told to sneak up another way because he had a bright red shirt on that could have been easily spotted. After the other boys scared the parents and Dennis did not appear, William Martin, Dennis’ father, began to call his name. Family members began to search for him just three-to-five minutes after he disappeared.
Dennis’ grandfather, Clyde Martin, hiked down the mountain to get help. He arrived at Cades Cove at 8:30 p.m. and told a park ranger, who immediately called for help and hiked back up the mountain with the grandfather.
Darkness began to set in with still no sign of Dennis. Thunderstorms rolled in and the temperature began to drop during the first hours of the search. Rangers and family searched all night through the rain, but not a clue was found. “I looked until I was absolutely worn out… then came a thunderstorm that was one of the worst I have ever been in. All we could do was just sit there and pray, it was a terrible night,” Nita Martin, who was at Spence Field when Dennis was lost, said.
Dennis went missing on a Saturday and, by Monday, the Dennis Martin case was on national news. On Tuesday the search party included family, rangers, military units, civilian groups, dog handlers and TVA personnel – some 365 searchers. By the fifth day there was a greater sense of urgency as the search force grew to 690. Dennis Martin needed to be found quickly. Searchers were instructed to call out Dennis’ name because he was a quiet boy who would probably not call out for help but would answer to his name.
Media coverage was extensive, and “sightseers” became a serious hindrance to the search. The FBI was contacted because of suspicions that he was possibly kidnapped. By the sixth day of the search, a day plagued by thunderstorms, 780 dedicated searchers continued on and over 56 square miles had been covered up to that point. On Saturday, the seventh day, 1,400 people braved the elements and searched for him with no luck. During the second week hundreds of people still searched for him. Robert Martin, Dennis’ great uncle , stayed on the mountain for two straight weeks before coming home.
On June 29, more than two weeks after his disappearance, the park called for a limited search. The limited search consisted of three experienced rangers searching full-time. They searched for two-and-a-half months, but never found a trace of him. “Nothing was ever found. Not a speck of clothing, not a shoe, nothing, not a sign,” Nita Martin said. “It is the most heartbreaking thing I have ever been through, it was the worst night I have ever lived through,” she added. Dennis’ grandfather stayed on the mountain for months as well.
“Old Man Clyde searched for months…he just refused to let go of it,” former park service employee and author of Lost!: A Ranger’s Journal of Search and Rescue Dwight McCarter said. No trace of Dennis Martin has ever been found.
The Martin case changed the way Great Smoky Mountain National Park performs search efforts. In 1969 rangers performed the search a lot like they would fight forest fires, with lots of people and equipment. Now there are specific procedures set up if a person is missing.
The Martin search parties had “limited resources and used a lot of local rescue folks…Everybody probably needed a lot of training,” McCarter said. “They really did their best. It is just a mystery I wonder if we will ever solve.”
“The Martin family are absolutely the greatest people,” he added. “I have the utmost respect for the family and I really wished it had turned out better.”
By BOB HODGE • The Knoxville News Sentinel • March 1, 2009
Dennis Martin disappeared in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on June 14, 1969. The search for the 6-year-old boy lasted until mid-September. It included everything from bloodhounds to helicopters, cost $65,000 and still did not turn up a trace of the boy.
KNOXVILLE — It was a simple plan that Dennis Martin, his brother and two other boys hatched.
While five adults watched and talked from a grassy area at Spence Field, the boys decided to see if they could sneak up on the old folks and maybe give them a start. Three of the boys went one direction. Dennis, six days short of his seventh birthday, went another.
A few minutes later the three, which included Dennis’ older brother Douglas, jumped on the adults. Dennis was nowhere to be seen.
He hasn’t been seen since.
That was June 14, 1969.
What became of Dennis Martin is one of the most enduring mysteries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The search that ensued after his Saturday afternoon disappearance would last until mid-September of 1969 and involve thousands of searchers. Everybody from old-hands who grew up on the land that became the park to National Guard units and Green Berets from Fort Bragg, N.C., spent weeks combing that part of the mountains. The search would include everything from bloodhounds to helicopters, cost $65,000 and not turn up a trace of the boy.
1 of 3 missing
Martin is one of three people — Trenny Lynn Gibson and Thelma Pauline Melton are the others — who went into the park and, as far as anyone knows, never came out.
Gibson disappeared on Oct. 8, 1976, while on a field trip with Bearden High School. The 16-year-old and her classmates were hiking near Andrews Bald and Clingmans Dome. No one on the trip remembered seeing her after 3 p.m. that afternoon.
The 58-year-old Melton of Jacksonville, Fla., was hiking near Deep Creek Campground on Sept. 25, 1981, with two friends when she went missing. Melton was familiar with the trail, having hiked it many times before, and was out ahead of her friends when she disappeared.
All three cases involved massive searches that not only failed to turn up the missing persons, they also failed to turn up any suggestion of what may have happened to them.
But the search for Dennis Martin was the most intense and lasted the longest.
At the time of the disappearance his father, Bill, then a Knoxville architect, described Dennis as a “husky, healthy boy” who was not particularly afraid of anything. He had some experience camping and hiking in the mountains with his family and, despite heavy rains the night he disappeared and during the following week, family and searchers hoped he would be found alive.
On June 20 the road to Cades Cove was closed as more than 400 volunteers took to the mountains. If he was found alive a helicopter was standing by to fly him to the Marine Corps Base on Alcoa Highway and from there an ambulance would take him to the University of Tennessee hospital.
The search and hoped-for rescue was getting national attention. Clairvoyant Jeane Dixon, who gained nationwide fame for predicting the assassination of President John Kennedy, told the News Sentinel she “sensed” Martin was still alive. Seven days after he disappeared she told the paper “the boy was still breathing last night.”
The only clues that turned up were quickly discounted.
Some boy-sized footprints were found in divergent sections of the search area, but park officials and those involved with the search said the chances of the footprints being Dennis Martin’s were remote.
Whatever happened to Dennis Martin? a portion of Spence Field as it appears today, with the Appalachian Trail running through it. Kurt Repanshek photo.
Each year there are thousands of search-and-rescue incidents logged across the National Park System. They typically involve missing hikers, visitors who get injured in falls, boating accidents, or climbing accidents.
Far and away the bulk of the incidents quickly are resolved, usually in less than a dozen hours. During 2007, for instance, the National Park Service reported 3,593 SAR incidents. Of those, 2,566 individuals were uninjured, another 136 died.
Rarely do SARs go unresolved, but in 2007 there were 19 cases where the individual who spurred the search never was found. Such unresolved cases grow cold over the years, but never forgotten. One from 1969 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park still seems fresh and painful in the minds of some of the rangers who participated in the search.
“The search in Utah that took place a few years ago, for the Bardsley boy, just brought back memories of Dennis Martin for me. Big time memories of the Dennis Martin search,” recalls Larry Nielson, who was the Cades Cove District ranger in 1969. “It was similar in so many ways.”
Garrett Bardsley was a 12-year-old Boy Scout who vanished without a trace during a camping trip in the Uinta Mountains in 2004. While fishing by a lake with his father he got his feet wet and headed back to camp a short distance away and never came back.
Though a continent and 35 years separated the disappearances of Garrett Bardsley and Dennis Martin, the cases were similar in the frustrations and puzzlement they exacted from those who went searching.
Word that Dennis, a soon-to-be-7-year-old, went missing 40 years ago on Father’s Day spurred one of the largest hunts in National Park Service history. Before it ended the FBI investigated, more than 1,400 searchers combed Great Smokey’s rugged backcountry, an estimated 70,000 linear miles were said to have been walked, and 1,110 helicopter sorties were flown. Noted psychic Jeane Dixon suggested where the boy might be found, the White House monitored the search, and active Army and National Guard troops on summer maneuvers joined the hunt.
For two weeks they searched.
The Martin family, from Tennessee, was celebrating that Father’s Day Weekend as it traditionally had, by heading into the Smokies. On June 13, the Friday before Father’s Day, father William, his young sons Dennis and Douglas, and their grandfather, Clyde, were striding up onto the backbone of the Smokies.
Setting out from the Cades Cove Campground, they moved up the Anthony Creek Trail for little more than a mile and then veered right onto the Russell Field Trail and continued on for several more miles in the warm summer weather.
The Martins moved along Leadbetter Ridge above the Left Prong of Anthony Creek and made their final run of the day to Russell Field. A grassy break in the forest, this clearing offered room for the youngsters to burn off whatever energy they still carried after the long day’s hike. For the adults, the bald offered panoramic views across the Smokies and time to relax, visit, and watch their offspring grow in the mountains. There the Martins spent the night, rising on June 14 for the final 90-minute or so push east to Spence Field and its simple, three-sided shelter, where more relatives were waiting.
While the Martins long had traced this route to Spence Field, for Dennis Martin, whose seventh birthday was but a week away, the 1969 hike and camp-out with his grandfather, father, and 9-year-old brother was his first over-nighter, a passage that would sharply define the separation between him and his younger siblings and mark his acceptance into the mountains.
Arriving at Spence Field, the Martins found a clearing that trends northeast-southwest, one that basks under sunny skies but which also offers little shelter from pounding thunderstorms, which are common in the Smokies come summer. From here the Anthony Creek drainage funnels any rain that falls on the north side of the bald quickly down into Tennessee, while the Eagle Creek drainage does the same for the south side, flowing in crooked and rocky leaps and bounds into North Carolina where it dumps its fill into Fontana Reservoir.
The Smokies are rippled with drainages eroded by creeks that bound over ledges and dart through boulder-choked stretches before coming to rest momentarily in pools. The mountains flanks in many places feature cliffs both steep and cut with crevices.
Roaming these mountains and their shadows are the occasional wild cats that pass through the area and the resident black bears that easily can, and actually do, reach 500 pounds by feasting on the fish and vegetation that are so abundant in the Smokies.
Into this realm of bears, panthers, feral hogs, and rattlesnakes wandered Dennis. The slight, 4-foot-tall youngster and his older brother had been playing with two other boys on the forest clearing. While the adults relaxed on the west side of the bald within view of the youngsters, the whispering boys conspired around some clumps of serviceberry bushes to split up, circle the knob through the cloaking woods, and surprise the adults from behind. Douglas and the other two boys went south and then west, Dennis went northwest, along the Appalachian Trail, and disappeared into the forest.
“We knew what they were doing,” 32-year-old William Martin would say later. “We also knew when they sent Dennis another way, because they thought the red T-shirt he was wearing would spoil their scheme.”
Three minutes, perhaps, but no more than five, passed without anyone spotting or hearing Dennis. At that point his father began calling out to his young son. He then followed the Appalachian Trail west for about a mile before doubling back, thinking Dennis surely had rejoined the others at Spence Field and was waiting for dinner. When William Martin found this hope shattered, he headed west again, this time all the way back to Russell Field, only to return, alone, to Spence Field.
While the boys’ father was making these frantic searchers, their grandfather, Clyde, headed all the way back down Anthony Creek to Cades Cove, a distance of roughly 8.5 miles, and reached the ranger station shortly before 8:30 p.m. to summon help.
Initially, the response summoned by word of Dennis having gone missing was not unlike any other “hasty search” that has been mounted in the country’s national parks and national forests. A small group quickly looks in the immediate area where the missing person was last seen, and if their efforts prove fruitless, the search broadens, both in terms of terrain and searchers.
These days searches have been refined to the point that in 90-95 percent of the cases the subject is located within 12 hours. But 40 years ago searches weren’t so methodical.
Before long the hunt for Dennis Martin turned into the largest-to-date SAR mission in Park Service history. Spence Field would turn into a military base camp, with landing zones cut from the surrounding forest. The Park Service staff quickly became overwhelmed by the turnout of volunteers and struggled to manage them.
Complicating the search for Dennis was rain. More than 2.5 inches of rain – and possibly 3 inches in and around Spence Field — fell throughout the night. The aftermath not only challenged searchers the following morning, but it would confound them in the ensuing days.
That Dennis Martin became lost was not that unusual. Thousands of national park visitors find themselves lost or injure themselves and need rescuing by rangers every year. More often than not those searches are conducted in mountainous settings above 5,000 feet.
Some settings, such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park, feature dense, confusing and cloaking thickets of vegetation that can trap you if you stray from an established trail. Other landscapes can lead you astray with maze-like canyons or trails that thread through fins of rock or scurry across featureless slick-rock. Some who go lost become confused and disoriented by hypothermia, heat exhaustion, or altitude sickness. And some are trapped by water.
Where had Dennis Martin wandered off, and how come other hikers in the area didn’t see him?
In hindsight, the Martin case came to be the example of how not to conduct a search-and-rescue mission. Too many people were on the ground without proper supervision, a strong overhead team was not in place to direct operations, search training perhaps had not been practiced as much as it is today and certainly was not as perfected.
For two weeks the active search dragged on. At one point 71 Green Berets were engaged, living in the mountains, eating rattlesnakes they came upon in their fruitless search for Dennis.
A park spokesman at one point, no doubt in a moment he later wished he could erase, practically promised that the boy would be found: “He may be a little bit the worse for wear after being out in the open so long, but I’m confident we’ll find him.”
Park Service officials finally had to admit it was fruitless to continue the hunt after crews intensively covered nearly 60 square miles of the park’s backcountry. The boy’s family, refusing to believe the boy died in the mountains, offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to his whereabouts. It went unclaimed.
Ask Larry Nielson today where he thinks Dennis Martin is and his answer is quick, and short: “I think he’s up there,” he replies, referring to the thicket-tangled spine of the Appalachians.
Just six days shy of 7 years old, Dennis Martin was a boy with curly brown hair and a happy smile. The red T-shirt tucked into his green hiking shorts made it easy for the grown-ups in his group to see him run along Spence Field in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. His dash from the bright sunlight into the dark brush on the afternoon of June 14, 1969, was the last time Dennis Lloyd Martin – “Denny” to his family and friends – was ever seen.
People lost in the wilderness are not typical missing persons cases. Regardless of the age of the lost person, they prompt a quick search. The search for the Knoxville boy was the most massive in the park’s history. But it was marked by errors and hampered by fog and flash floods.
Forty years later, the child’s fate remains one of Tennessee’s greatest mysteries.
The case still haunts Dwight McCarter, 64, of Townsend, a retired park service ranger who took part in the search. The Dennis Martin case takes up a good portion of “Lost!”, his book about searches for lost campers and hikers.
“Children are important to us,” he says in his slow, deep mountain drawl. “They tug at our hearts.”
A prank that ended in heartache
There are three main theories as to what happened to Dennis Martin.
The first is that he simply got disoriented and perished in the rugged terrain. The other two are that he was attacked by a hungry bear, or taken by a human predator.
But there is no mystery about the happy events before his disappearance. He was on his first overnight camping trip, part of the long Martin family tradition of Father’s Day outings in the Smokies. With him were his 9-year-old brother Doug; his father, Knoxville architect Bill Martin, and his grandfather, Clyde Martin. The group spent the night in Russell Field with Dr. Carter Martin of Huntsville, Ala. and his two sons.
The next morning, June 14, the group hiked to Spence Field, where several other Martin family members were gathered.
Around 3 p.m., the grown-ups watched Dennis, Doug and Carter Martin’s sons huddle up, look over at them, then split off. The grown-ups knew the children were planning to circle around and startle them, and readied themselves for the prank.
Doug and the Alabama Martin kids went one way. Dennis went in another direction, alone.
When the first three kids sprang, everyone thought Dennis was late, since he was smaller and had a longer route to make the circle. But less than five minutes passed before the adult men in the group split up and began a search.
McCarter, believes that what most likely happened to Dennis is that he got lost, became disoriented and Dennis perished in the wild. But he does not rule out either of the other two theories.
He cites several reasons why the massive search could have missed Dennis or his body.
A 48-inch-tall boy can easily elude detection in rugged mountain terrain, and especially in a rhododendron or laurel thicket. The sound of a roaring creek can prevent a searcher from hearing a child’s shouts for help. And in some cases, lost and disoriented children have been known to hide from searchers.
As for an animal attack, McCarter said, “That is possible.” Bears normally will not attack humans, but in June 1969, their normal food sources were greatly diminished. And near Spence Field about two weeks before Dennis disappeared, McCarter said, rangers released a “bony, scrawny bear” caught in a wild boar trap baited with corn – something that bears normally do not eat.
The Martin family declined to be interviewed for this story.
They came to believe someone took Dennis, said McCarter, who stayed in touch with the Martins for several years.
The afternoon that Dennis disappeared, Harold Key, 45, of Carthage, Tenn., was near Rowans Creek in the Sea Branch area with his family when he heard an “enormous, sickening scream.” A few minutes later, he noticed a rough-looking man moving stealthily in the woods near where he had heard the scream.
“I thought he might have been a moonshiner,” Key later told News Sentinel writer Carson Brewer.
Unaware of the search for a lost boy, Key did not report the incident until several days later, after he had returned home and learned of Dennis Martin.
But Key did not recall the exact time this occurred, and part of the time frame he gave included a period that would have made a connection to Dennis Martin’s disappearance impossible. Park officials also discounted the likelihood of a connection because of the distance from where Dennis was last seen, and the FBI concluded it did not have sufficient evidence to launch a complete investigation.
As darkness fell on the first day of Dennis’ disappearance, thunder and lightning filled the sky, and 2 1/2 inches of rain fell. It rained again June 17. Early in the second week of the search, nearly 3 inches fell.
Each storm would have demolished any new tracks that Dennis might have left after the previous storm.
“The rain washed everything away,” said McCarter.
Too much of a good thing
Volunteers helping park rangers in the search included college students, Boy Scouts, hunters, on and off duty firefighters and police, members of 57 rescue squads from four states, and military personnel, including 60 Green Berets diverted from a training mission.
“The thing that stood out to me was what a huge search it was, and the mystery of what happened to the boy,” said Gerald Segroves, who covered the story for the Associated Press. Now a retired News Sentinel copy editor, Segroves told of searchers on their hands and knees, looking into brush for the boy.
According to the park’s final official report, the number of searchers rose steadily from a few hundred to a peak of 1,400 on June 21. After that, the numbers began dwindling, along with hope that Dennis could be found alive. By the time the search officially ended in September, the searchers had logged 13,420 man hours. Helicopters spent nearly 200 hours in the air.
All of that was too much of a good thing, states an internal Park Service memo written after the search.
As the search began, “Everyone kept feeling that the boy would be found in the next hour, and it was probably this reason why the search organization did not keep pace with the rapid manpower buildup,” park Superintendent Keith Neilson wrote. “This search developed so fast that we failed to realize the need for quick organization, from the standpoint of manpower, overhead and public relations.”
The large numbers of people would have overlapped or even obliterated new clues or signs of the missing boy.
Dwight McCarter, a retired Great Smoky Mountains National Park ranger, worked on the case of Dennis Martin, who went missing at age 6 in 1969.
“There were so many footprints, a mass confusion of footprints,” McCarter said.
Several days into the search, two men from Townsend noticed a shoe print near the West Prong of the Pigeon River. It was the size of a child’s Oxford type shoe, which Dennis Martin was last seen wearing. McCarter said this lead was not fully followed up because searchers had already been in the area.
McCarter was just 24 years old and still learning from senior rangers and other mentors. Today, he says the two things he most wishes would have happened were massive searches of the area where that print was found and of the Sea Branch area where the scream was heard and the rough-looking man was seen.
William Martin, right, gives park officials an account of the first hours of the search for his son, Dennis Martin, 6, on June 20, 1969 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Pictured are, from left, unidentified, Park Superintendent George Fry and Chief Ranger Lee Sneddon.
McCarter said Sea Branch is downhill of where Dennis was last seen, and it is possible for a physically fit man to carry a small boy between the two points. Perhaps more significantly, Dennis Martin could have reached that location alone.
A few years after Dennis was last seen, a man came across the skeletal remains of a small child in Tremont’s Big Hollow. The bones included the skull, and were already being scattered by animals. The man kept the find to himself for years because he had been illegally hunting ginseng and feared he would be prosecuted.
In 1985, he contacted McCarter, who he knew personally, and told him about the skeleton. McCarter and 30 volunteer rescue squadsmen from Swain County, N.C., searched the area but found nothing. By this time, animals would have had more than enough time to destroy the remains.
The area is about 3 to 3 1/2 miles downhill from where Dennis was last seen and in the same direction as the Oxford shoe print found by the West Prong, McCarter said.
It is about 9 miles from where the scream and unkempt man were reported.
About six or seven years ago, a man searching for his birth parents contacted park officials to explore the possibility that he might be Dennis Martin, Park spokesman Bob Miller said.
Miller does not recall what made the man think he might be Dennis Martin. But after a quick comparison of the known facts of the man’s life with those of Dennis Martin, Miller said, “We were able to put to rest his suspicions that he was Dennis Martin.”
The size and scope of the Martin search produced many lessons that led to improvements in future searches.
“It’s the old adage of it being better to work smarter, not harder,” park Deputy Superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald said. “We learned that flooding an area with huge numbers of people is not the way to go in all cases, because you tend to lose some valuable clues and good tracking sign.”
Authorities also learned how to more efficiently manage searches.
In 1972, in Utah, a loosely knit group of search and rescue workers formed a fledgling organization that became the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), now recognized internationally as a leading conduit for exchanging information and developing new methods. Though it was not a direct outgrowth of the Dennis Martin case, lessons learned from the search for him quickly made their way into NASAR guidelines, McCarter says.
“And that has saved lives, definitely,” McCarter said.