The loss of a child might be the most devastating of all tragedies. It is every parent’s greatest fear, and the burden of protection – perhaps the most important of parental duties - weighs heavy on those of us blessed enough to have children. The loss of a child leaves the bereaved parents not only reeling from grief but from guilt, the guilt that they have failed in their most sacred of duties: protecting their offspring. In most cases, the parent has nothing to feel guilty about. Accidents do happen, no matter how careful we try to be. Children sometimes simply do not listen to or follow the directions of the adult figure in their lives which sometimes leads to their demise. Certainly, no parent should ever blame themselves should their child develop cancer or some other insidious disease. Still, the parents of lost children often feel they have done something wrong or that they could have done something differently. If they had, they reason, their child would still be alive. The pain of loss dulls over time to some degree, but the guilt seems to be there always, just beneath the surface waiting to bubble to the top if given even half a chance. These are the thoughts that passed through my mind as I revisited one of the most puzzling missing persons cases in U.S. history: the disappearance of Dennis Martin.
It was the summer of 1969 when Bill Martin decided to take a Father’s Day weekend camping trip. It would be a trip for the men of the Martin family and a time to get back to nature. Bill loaded up his father, Clyde, his oldest son, Doug (9 yrs.), and Dennis, who was less than a week away from his seventh birthday, and headed for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Martin men spent the first night of their trip at the Russell Field shelter. Early on the morning of June 14th, the group hiked west for two miles until they reached their destination: Spence Field. Spence Field was a grassy area running east to west on the main Great Smoky ridge. The Appalachian Trail and the Tennessee/North Carolina border run along the apex (4,800 ft. above sea level) of the field. Streams and creeks on the north side of the ridge drain into the Volunteer State while water courses on the south side of the ridge descend into North Carolina. The area features steep slopes, deep ravines, fast moving creeks, and scores of laurel and rhododendron vines, but the grassy and flat Spence Field seemed benign enough on this sunny and cloudless day. That being the case, the group settled into a shelter cabin on the western end of the campground.
After putting their gear away, Bill and his father sat contentedly and watched the boys, who had found two play mates from another family camping nearby (coincidentally, this other family also had the last name of Martin). The men watched as the group of young boys came together in the tall grass and whispered to each other. Then, almost like a football team breaking a huddle, they sprinted off in two different directions: Doug and his two new friends ran to the wood line to the south, Dennis, alone, ran into the woods to the northwest. The boys had planned a prank on their father and grandfather. They decided to run into the woods, sneak up behind the men, and then jump out and startle them. Why one of the three other boys did not go with Dennis has never been clear. What is clear is that after Dennis ran into the woods that afternoon, he would never be seen again.
Doug and his two friends carried out their plan and sprang from the woods to “scare” Bill and Clyde. Dennis did not. The men and the boys waited between three and five minutes – thinking Dennis might have misunderstood the timing of the prank – before becoming concerned. Bill, Clyde, and the other boys set off to look for Dennis but found no sign of the young boy. Calls went unanswered, the only noise was the wind whistling through the forest canopy as a storm approached. After searching on their own for over an hour, Bill Martin managed to report his missing son to park authorities. The reaction was swift with several park Rangers responding but their efforts were stopped short when a ferocious thunderstorm rolled into the area. Spence Field received between 2.5” and 3” of rain over the next several hours. Hail fell from the heavens in some spots. The streams and creeks in the area rose quickly and were described as “high and turbulent” in the official incident report. No sign of young Dennis was found. Bill, Clyde, and Doug had to sit and wait out the storm knowing Dennis was out there somewhere alone.
The initial search the following day consisted of upwards of 50 people ranging from Park Rangers to maintenance personnel. Also joining the effort were members of the Sevier County Rescue Squad, the Blount County Rescue Squat, and the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club. The searchers began combing drainages in the area. Rain continued to fall intermittently, washing away potential tracks and sign, winds kicked up and the temperature dropped into the 50s, increasing the chance of the boy becoming hypothermic. The searchers beat the bushes until well past dark. There was no sign of Dennis.
As word of the missing boy got out, more and more people made the trek to Spence Field to help. The number of searchers would swell to 1,500 before the operation was called off. It would become the largest search in National Parks history with the volunteers investigating at least 50 square miles. No one found any sign of the boy. Some believe the search party became too large and unwieldy. Clay Jordan, Deputy Park Superintendent, in a 2019 interview with USA Today said, “Today, we would not have anywhere near that number (searching).” The hearts of the people who showed up to help were in the right place but looking back, far too many well-meaning but inexperienced volunteers were allowed to participate. It is quite possible that some sign left by the boy was trampled by people who did not know what to look for. In addition to the mistake of allowing too many novice searchers to participate, officials decided, due to the prolific rainfall, not to call in dogs to search for Dennis’s scent. The officials were likely correct in that Dennis’s scent near Spence Field was likely washed out, but he was still out there somewhere and should have been creating new scent trails search dogs might have been able to lock on to (These and other miscues have been used as teaching tools ever since for search and rescue teams in training). Even so, the fact that absolutely no sign of the boy was found was shocking. “Something should have been found,” said Dwight McCarter, a veteran tracker and retired Smokies Ranger struck by the complete lack of sign.
By the second day of searching, Bill’s wife and Dennis’s mother, Violet Martin, had arrived on the scene. She was devastated by the developments but hopeful. “I have a feeling we’re going to find him,” she said. “Maybe God sent this ordeal to us so we could appreciate things more.” Others, however, were beginning to lose hope. Some searchers were told surreptitiously to start closely examining any bear, coyote, or bobcat scat. Others were dispatched to areas where vultures were spotted circling. The hours and the days dragged on, still no Dennis.
The first of several self-proclaimed psychics chimed in on Wednesday, June 18th. The Martins, and to some degree Park authorities, did not dismiss the visions of these seers outright. The areas recommended by the clairvoyants were all dutifully searched. “I believe some people have the ability to see or predict things,” said Bill Martin at the time. Whether the Knoxville-based architect had given any thought to such matters prior to the disappearance of his son remains unknown but desperation had set in and all involved wanted to leave no stone unturned in the hunt for Dennis. One such example came from a Mrs. Schwaller of Linden, Michigan who contacted authorities to say Dennis would be found in a spot “near a stream by a small waterfall with white pine trees in the area.” Unfortunately, like other visions reported by the various psychics who contacted authorities, this description was so vague that it could have been applied to hundreds of spots in the region. Still, the parents grabbed on to each of these visions as if they were life rings and the searchers did their best to check them all out.
Excitement was briefly aroused on the fourth day of searching when volunteers located a set of faint child-sized tracks about a mile from Spence Field. After examination, authorities dismissed them as having been made by members of a Boy Scouts troop that was searching the area. Potentially, this was yet another missed lead. Tracker Dwight McCarter, still aggravated about the way the tracks were dismissed, would tell USA Today 50 years later, “They didn’t find tracks from a bunch of kids. They found tracks from one kid.” It will never be known with any certainty who made those faint impressions or what they might have led searchers to discover. Later, Dennis’s seventh birthday would come and go (June 20th) without any trace of him having been found.
On June 23rd, the Spartanburg, South Carolina Police Department provided a “police dog” to help in the search. According to the official report, “The search met with negative results.” The description of the canine as a “police” dog and not a "search" dog could be simply a semantic error or it could be significant as not all police dogs are trained for search and rescue. Other dogs were called in – far later than they should have been - but they fared no better. Rumors began circulating from the beginning that the dogs were not attempting to find Dennis’s scent and failing; rather, they were refusing to track at all. The canines, so the story goes, simply sat down and whined, refusing to work. This is one of the big factors that has set off the “high strangeness” radar of so many, however, I simply cannot say whether it is true or not. I found references to dogs not being successful, but never found any source that stated the dogs refused to track.
Fate can be cruel and she turned especially so on June 24th. Searchers came across a young man wearing a red t-shirt and green shorts (the same color of shirt and shorts Dennis had been wearing when he vanished) walking the perimeter road of the Cades Cove campground. It turned out the boy’s name was Michael Devlin and he was camping in the area with his parents. The parents agreed to change the boy’s shirt so as to avoid any future confusion. On the 26th, a man called in to Carson Brewer of the Knoxville News-Sentinel and told him to inform the searchers to “Look in the trees and treetops. Stop looking on the ground.” Did this caller have some kind of inside knowledge of the case? Was he another alleged psychic? We will likely never know. This cryptic phone call is another of the strange details surrounding the case that just does not sit right with many.
The official search would end on June 29th. Unofficial efforts would continue into September. The Martin family, refusing to believe their son was dead – in their defense, no body, blood, or any other spoor that might lead to that conclusion was ever found – put up a $5,000 reward for information leading to the return of their son. Authorities never bought in to the Martin’s kidnapping theory, but could not dismiss it outright either. In any case, the reward remained unclaimed.
The scope of the search for Dennis Martin has given pause to some. Never before had such a large force of government resources been used in a missing persons case. Between the National Parks Service employees, various county rescue squads, and military personnel involved, nearly 30,000 man-hours were invested in the search. This total does not include private citizens who volunteered their time. It is the involvement of those military personnel that has raised suspicion among many that something unusual, something other than the disappearance of a small boy, had occurred at Spence Field that June day in 1969. While it is not unusual for the National Guard to help in such matters, I have been told it is highly unusual for a regular military outfit to do so, much less a Special Forces unit like the Green Berets. The story was they were in the area on a training exercise and were instructed to come help in the search. As a non-military person, this did not seem like anything unusual to me but I have since been told by friends in the military that this simply does not happen. A bit of research revealed that the Green Berets are considered a Special Operations Force of the U.S. Army and exist to deploy and execute “nine doctrinal missions,” none of which include search and rescue operations. Digging a bit deeper, secondary missions sometimes taken on by U.S. Special Forces include, among others, combat search and rescue, hostage rescue, and manhunts. This being the case, perhaps the involvement of the Green Berets is not as strange as it at first seems. Other details, however, do lend an air of mystery to their presence. Many witnesses claim the “special ops guys” were standoff-ish, unfriendly, and “did their own thing,” which intimates a lack of communication and coordination with the other searchers. In addition, multiple reports state that these military units were armed with rifles while conducting their searches. This does sound unusual to me but I have been unable to absolutely confirm this assertion. I have seen photos of military personnel arriving at Spence Field but have not seen any weapons.
One thing that cannot be denied is that the government and the military were heavily involved in the search for Dennis Martin, much more so than any other missing persons case I can recall. A fixed wing plane, multiple helicopters, a dozen jeeps, multiple National Guard Units, and Special Forces were called in. Several military command posts were established that seemed to be working independently of the National Parks Service and FBI. In the official case report on the incident it states that President Nixon was monitoring the situation and wanted to be kept up to speed. The sheer scope of the government and military involvement regarding this event was unprecedented. The question many ask is why? It is true that Tennessee Congressman James "Jimmy" Quillen requested assistance from the government but the sheer scale of the effort would have required much more than a call for help from a Representative. In any case, the military commitment was extraordinary. You can look up all the numbers here but here are some statistics from the case report to chew on:
- The Army flew 938 sorties into Spence Field
- The Air Force flew 78 sorties into Spence Field
- The military moved between 1,800 and 2,000 personnel in and out of the area via jeep over the course of the search
- Involved branches/military resources included:
o Tennessee Air National Guard
o Tennessee Army National Guard
o United States Special Forces
o The U.S. Marine Reserve, Knoxville, TN.
o U.S. Army troops from Fort Benning, GA.
o Air Force personnel from McGhee-Tyson AFB, TN.
o Air Force personnel from Robbins AFB, FL.
o Personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, TN.
o Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation
o Two Huey helicopters
o Two HH-53 (Jolly Green Giant) helicopters
o One U-10 fixed wing airplane
o Two CH-53 helicopters
o Two Air Force communications trucks
o Two Chinook helicopters
I must admit to being quite taken aback regarding the investment of time, money, and resources the federal government committed to the search for a civilian missing person. I do not think it a stretch to state that it was highly unusual. George W. Fry, at the time Superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, echoed a similar opinion in a letter to Tennessee Representative James H. Quillen sent on June 26, 1969 – three days before the official search for Dennis Martin concluded. He wrote, “In my entire experience with the National Park Service I have never heard of or participated in a search the extent of which this has built up to.” It may be the cynic in me but I simply do not believe that the government was acting out of the goodness of its heart in this matter. Neither do I believe a personal relationship with someone in Congress could yield such a deep level of involvement. Military personnel were flown in from as far away as Florida. It is very strange.
The final piece of weirdness is quite likely the most well-known piece of the entire strange puzzle that is the Dennis Martin case. It seems a family (Keys was their last name) hiking between 3-6 miles (I’ve found documentation supporting both these numbers) from the spot where Dennis vanished reported hearing a young boy scream in the woods. One of the family members spotted movement in a brushy area and thought it must be a bear. Instead, it turned out to be a man walking in the woods with something red slung over his shoulder (remember, Dennis was wearing a red t-shirt when he disappeared). The details of this report have morphed together and now you will find that the Keys saw a “bear man” walking upright through the woods. This birthed the theory that young Dennis had been snatched by a wood ape or sasquatch. Other reports describe the figure as an “unkempt man.” Largely ignored, another version of the Keys visual is that they saw only a “suspicious” man in dark gray work clothes that drove away after being seen. Either way, the FBI gave the Key report no credence and failed to share the information with Bill Martin, something that angered him greatly as he believed in his heart his son had been kidnapped.
It has been 51 years since little Dennis Martin disappeared. Bill Martin died in 2014, never knowing what had become of his youngest boy. The rest of the Martin family has been silent and has not discussed the case publicly since the search was called off all those years ago. There have been a few “false alarms” over the years when it seemed the remains of Dennis Martin might have been discovered. The most recent occurred in 1985 when a ginseng hunter reached out to tracker and retired Smokies Ranger, Dwight McCarter and told him he had come across a child-sized skeleton below Spence Field near an uprooted tree. A search of the area, however, yielded nothing. Most have come to the same conclusion as Clay Jordan, Deputy Park Superintendent, who said, “I think it is virtually impossible that we will ever know what happened to Dennis Martin…It’s become one of the enduring mysteries of the Smokies.”
Spence Field looks quite different than it did a half-century ago. Trees now cover what was once open ground. Leaf litter and other forest debris cover the earth where meadow grasses once grew. “For every year, nature layers up about an inch,” Dwight McCarter said. “And it’s been a lot of years.”
As a parent, most of us sympathize greatly with the torment Bill Martin must have endured after his son disappeared practically before his very eyes. Such pain is something to which we believe we can relate, but can we? Can we really?
I, for one, pray I never find out.
Lakin, Matt. “Missing in the Smokies.” USA Today, 12 June 2019, pp. 1A–3A.
Lakin, Matt. “'An Enduring Mystery': Why Dennis Martin's Disappearance Fascinates Us, 50 Years Later.” KNOX News, 6 June 2019, www.knoxnews.com/story/news/local/2019/06/06/dennis-martin-missing-smoky-mountains-disappearance/1338089001/.
Balloch, Jim. “From the Archives: Search in Smokies for Lost Boy, Dennis Martin, Produces Lessons for Future Searches.” Knoxville News Sentinel, 2 Oct. 2018, www.knoxnews.com/story/news/2018/10/02/massive-1969-search-dennis-martin-produces-lessons-future-searches-smokies-archives/1496635002/.
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StrangeOutdoors. “Dennis Martin - Strange Disappearances from US National Parks.” StrangeOutdoors.com, StrangeOutdoors.com, 27 Oct. 2017, www.strangeoutdoors.com/mysterious-stories-blog/2017/10/22/dennis-martin-strange-disappearances-from-us-national-parks.
Swancer, Brent, and Paul Seaburn. “Some Very Strange Information on the Bizarre Vanishing of Dennis Martin.” Mysterious Universe, 9 June 2017, mysteriousuniverse.org/2017/06/some-very-strange-information-on-the-bizarre-vanishing-of-dennis-martin/.
“United States Army Special Forces.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 June 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Army_Special_Forces.