TOWNSEND, Tenn. (WATE) – The largest search for a missing person in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to this day, still remains unsolved. At the center are a family who continued to search for years following and a community with memories of helicopters flying overhead, or parents volunteering their time to help.
The search for 6-year-old Dennis Martin is remembered in East Tennessee and beyond, because of the mystery surrounding his disappearance. The 16-day search that began June 14, 1969, is cited by professionals as a definitive search that contributed to the science of search and rescue management.
But what happened to Dennis Martin? Those who study the search, and even one who scoured the Smokies looking for the young Knoxville boy, ask the same questions without an answer.
June 14, 1969: Dennis Martin goes missing
The Martin family planned a weekend camping on the Appalachian Trail in the Spence Field area. It was accessible at the time by three routes: Two trails and one Jeep road from Spence Field to other locations.
It was late in the afternoon when Dennis disappeared, only six days before his seventh birthday. Dennis, his 9-year-old brother and two other unrelated friends had been playing near Spence Field when they decided to “sneak up” on their father, grandfather, and other adults, according to Clay Jordan, the current Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s deputy superintendent.
Dennis, last seen wearing a red T-shirt, short green trousers, and low cut oxford shoes, went behind a shelter in the area. The other boys went to the front. It was the last time they saw Dennis.
Within minutes, Dennis’s father, William C. Martin began calling and looking for his son. Martin and his father, Dennis’ grandfather, Clyde Martin, checked nearby trails with no signs of Dennis.
“It’s the wilderness version of finding a needle in a haystack,” said Jordan.
By the time Clyde Martin reached the Cades Cove Ranger Station, it was 8:30 p.m. and raining. The terrain was impossible for professional searchers until the next morning.
June 15 – June 29, 1969: Search continues
As the days went on, more volunteers, rangers, National guard, and family joined the search for Dennis. By the end, 1,400 people covered hundreds of acres within the park for any signs of Dennis, with no success.
Day 2: Nine jeeps and three trucks are used to transport searchers
By this time, any hikers or campers in the area had been questioned about what they saw the day before.
Only one helicopter is in use bringing supplies, like search equipment, to the base camp setup at Spence Field.
The number of searchers on this day was 240.
Day 3: Hundreds of offers to help come in
Trail and drainage searches continue, the number of searchers grows by 60 to 300. Two bloodhounds arrive and begin searching during the day. Military helicopters also arrive.
Day 4: 50 Tennessee Air National Guard arrive
Fog grounds two military helicopters until 11 a.m., searchers are re-searching areas covered the days before.
Day 5: Predictions began rolling in from multiple clairvoyants
The Martin family began to believe the predictions are significant. The number of searchers grew to nearly 700.
Rain on some days prevented helicopters from landing on Spence Field or even flying. Overnight, searchers built bonfires with the hopes of attracting Dennis.
Day 7: An additional 200 Army National Guardsmen were called in to help
Special forces plan to stay indefinitely.
“Searchers were hauled up in a big two-ton flatbed truck. Then they’d go and haul another load of them. The impact to the area hauling more and more people,” said Dwight McCarter, a retired park ranger who assisted the search.
A week into the search, numbers of searchers reached the peak at 1,400 from 35 different organizations. A week later, the White House began monitoring the situation and the search.
“The sheer amount of people with the Army, the local volunteers, a lot of people,” said McCarter.
Searchers are given instructions “to finders of boy” that include:
- Determine if dead or alive.
- Notify Chief Ranger as quickly as possible.
- Signal helicopter with signal (i.e. flag on tree, use smoke)
Day 11: FBI continues investigation
Bloodhounds are unable to find concrete evidence of Dennis.
Day 14: White House begins monitoring search
A neighbor to the Martin Family requests 300 Federal troops via a phone call to a state Senator. The help is accepted following criticism that the National Park Service was not accepting outside help, according to notes taken at the time and included in a case study.
Day 16: Operation closed at the end of the day, Martin family meets about next steps.
A modern case study, based on facts and notes from the on the search, revealed Dennis’ parents, an FBI agent, the chief ranger, district ranger, and sub-district ranger discussed what to do next.
The results were the Martin family offered a reward, there was no evidence to support a kidnapping, and a crew of three were prepared to search for up to 90 days.
There were no signs of Dennis.
Remembering the search: Retired park ranger reflects
Retired Park Ranger Dwight McCarter, who worked for the park service for decades and said he assisted with more than 100 searches within the park. He says, most commonly, searches involved young boys. He keeps a list of most of the search and rescue operations he’s been a part of, only a handful still left unsolved.
At the time, he had only been on the job for a few years and was a “newbie” on searches. He says he remembers following the veteran searchers and learned by watching them work.
“He was definitely there, but what happened to him? That’s the question,” said McCarter.
He isn’t phased being back on part of the Appalachian Trail that leads to Spence Field, in fact, he says he’s a different searcher today than he was 50 years ago, simply because, he has more experience. He says, that’s a good thing, and he takes his time on a search “diddly-ing along” instead of racing through, potentially missing clues.
McCarter said he never heard the Martin family say that they believed Dennis was not in the area through the duration of the search and in the years following. He said Dennis’ grandfather asked McCarter to hike with him throughout the park, “two years later, three years later, Old Man Clyde was out there searching for that boy.”
Decades later: The search changed protocol
The “Dennis Martin Case Study” details the daily activity and choices made in 1969 by national park officials and searchers to educate modern-day professionals on the extreme complexities of a search.
There is modern evidence that the number of searchers in the area during the search for Dennis could’ve potentially damaged major clues to his discovery.
“It seems inconceivable that we wouldn’t find somebody. But given the density of the forests, the ruggedness of the mountains in the southern Appalachians, and the fact that the heavy rain came in and would’ve washed some clues, it’s really not hard for somebody to believe that’s been around search and rescue.”
-Clay Jordan, GSMNP Deputy Superintendent
Training now recommends search and rescue efforts be calculated and monitored by fewer searchers who are tasked with looking for clues or details that could point to the whereabouts of a missing person.
Further research and data shows inundating a scene with searchers can damage evidence, accordinig to Jordan.
Search protocol isn’t the only change in five decades, but also the technology hikers are able to carry with them in the wilderness.
GPS devices allowing hikers to communicate with first responders and give a pinpointed location are available.
Lessons learned: Tips for staying safe when hiking
Hiking experts suggesting making a itinerary for any hiking trip, whether it happens with a group or alone, then sharing it with someone who will check-in if they haven’t heard back by a certain time.
Once a plan is in place, stick to the itinerary and the planned trails. In case of an emergency, it will be the first place park rangers or first responders will begin looking.
In the same plan, include a contact phone number for the ranger station and a set a time when the hike will be completed.
If hiking with children, hiking expert Joey Holt recommends a guide-and-sweep technique. This means a hiking guide leads the group and the “sweep” hikes in the back, putting all children in the middle of both throughout the hike. The guide technique allows an adult to check the trail for unwanted dangers and lead hikers safely.