Child’s Disappearance has Haunted Park Officials for Over 52 Years

The day before Dennis Martin would have turned 7, his father shouted his name from the sky, fighting back tears in a last desperate plea to bring him home.

Maybe Dennis heard it. Maybe he tried to answer.

Maybe the wind that whipped and wailed across Spence Field drowned out the words of father and son alike.

Or maybe the missing boy who sparked the largest search in the history of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was already past saving.

A 50-year mystery

June 14 marks 50 years since a grinning Dennis Lloyd Martin darted across the Tennessee line and out of his family’s sight during a weekend camping trip.

He never came home. Nearly 1,500 searchers — from park rangers and FBI agents to backcountry hunters and Green Berets — combed a stretch of nearly 60 square miles and walked away empty-handed.

Lessons learned and mistakes made in the failed search have become textbook training for rescuers and outdoorsmen the world over. But not a single verifiable trace of the boy has come to light in the decades since.

The Martin family clung for years to the hope Dennis might have somehow survived — maybe wandered out of the park on his own, dazed by hunger, thirst and the elements; maybe kidnapped by some sinister stranger who saw an opportunity and seized it.

Park officials and the last of the men who tried to track him doubt he lived long past the first night.

“I think it is virtually impossible that we will ever know what happened to Dennis Martin,” said Clay Jordan, deputy park superintendent. “Human nature being what it is, we want to have an answer to something. We want to have an explanation. But it’s become one of the enduring mysteries of the Smokies.”

A family tradition

The day couldn’t have been better for camping.

Bill Martin didn’t see a single cloud in the sky as he sat down on a knoll in Spence Field that Saturday afternoon of June 14, 1969.

Martin, an architect in Knoxville, had driven to Cades Cove with his father, Clyde, and his two sons — Doug, 9, and Dennis, 6 — the day before for a weekend of hiking and camping. Tomorrow would be Father’s Day. Dennis would turn 7 in six days. And this weekend marked another turn in a family tradition that dated back more than half a century.

Martin men helped settle the cove, tilling the rich bottomland soil at the start of every spring and driving cattle up the mountain to range on the tall grass in treeless meadows like Spence Field, known as mountain balds. Every June, fathers and sons trekked uphill and set out salt licks to last the herds until the fall drive down the mountain to market.

The creation of the park in 1934 ended that farming, but the tradition lived on as a Martin family reunion. This year marked the first time Dennis joined the trip.

Dwight McCarter, a tracker and retired parks ranger, walks on rocks where Dennis Martin's family picnicked in Spence Field, as the 6-year-old boy vanished from sight and was never found on June 14, 1969, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The search for the Knoxville boy is still the most massive in the park's history.

“Denny,” as his parents called him, was small but strong, about 4 feet tall and 55 pounds with dark brown eyes and wavy brown hair. He was about 6 months behind his age group in school but field-smart and fearless. He’d never camped away from home before but knew how to handle himself in the woods, carried along on hikes before he learned to walk. He often led the way on trails, walking so fast adults couldn’t always keep up. 

A game gone wrong

Saturday began with breakfast at nearby Russell Field, where the family had spent the night, and a hike to Spence where other Martin relatives waited at the camping shelter.

With lunch eaten and the dishes done, adults settled down at the knoll to talk and enjoy the view while Dennis, Doug and two more boys ran and played in the field. Dennis was easy to pick out, wearing a red T-shirt, green shorts and Oxford shoes.

Spence Field sits about 4,800 feet above Cades Cove and runs east and west along the Appalachian Trail on the Tennessee-North Carolina line — Tennessee to the north, Carolina to the south. A clear day yields views that span miles.

Steep slopes, jagged ravines and tangled hells of laurel and rhododendron vines teeming with copperheads and rattlesnakes lie below. Bears and bobcats mark their territory on trees along the trails, beside furrows dug by wild hogs scrounging for roots. The bears that summer had been unusually bold and hungry after a drought the previous year that left the ground mostly bare of acorns, the backbone of their usual diet.

Just before 4:30 p.m., the boys put their heads together and whispered as the adults watched. Then they scattered — Doug and the others to the south, Dennis to the north and west toward the Tennessee side. The grown-ups chuckled and waited.

Bill Martin and the others jumped in pretend surprise when the boys burst out of the brush behind them with shrieks and laughter. After a few minutes — maybe two or three by the father’s count; no more than five, he insisted — came the question: Where’s Dennis?

Doug and the other boys lost sight of him when he headed west. They didn’t want his red shirt to give them away.

Father and grandfather called his name. He didn’t answer.

The group fanned across the field, splitting up to check the trails. Hours ticked by.

Clyde Martin, the grandfather, hiked to the Cades Cove ranger station to report Dennis missing. Bill Martin crossed paths with a park naturalist headed up the trail from Cades Cove. He’d seen nothing.

Clouds gathered overhead as a breeze swept across the field. In the distance, thunder rumbled.

Downpour and darkness

The storm broke with a sudden fury, dumping nearly 3 inches of rain over the next few hours that sent the family scurrying to the shelter and turned the trails to rivers of mud. High winds drowned out the calls for Dennis, along with any chance at hearing an answer.

Dennis walked away with nothing but the clothes on his back and the shoes on his feet — no hat, no rain gear, nothing to protect him. Temperatures that night dropped into the low 50s, chilling campers to the bone. The family ventured from the shelter occasionally to call his name, to no avail.

“I doubt he ever heard them,” said Dwight McCarter, a retired park ranger who’s helped track more than two dozen people lost in the mountains. “I don’t know that they could have heard him. To be a child caught out in that kind of storm in those kinds of temperatures without shelter, it’s not a good thing. Their system isn’t built like adults. Hypothermia sets in quick.”

McCarter and other rangers assembled for search-and-rescue duty at 5 a.m. the next day, June 15. He later wrote about the case in a memoir, “Lost!”

Getting to the scene took most of the morning as the rangers struggled past flooded streams, standing water and washed-out roads and trails. Park officials used trucks and Jeeps to haul searchers to Spence Field. By afternoon, more than 240 people had converged on the scene, from rangers to local rescue squad volunteers to Boy Scout troops, with more on the way.

The crowd included Dennis’s mother, Violet, who learned at church her son had disappeared.

“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.”

Mistakes made, clues lost

For every truck and volunteer, McCarter saw a potential sign of Dennis lost — trampled, washed away, churned to mud beneath a tire. He’d grown up in the Smokies, taught from childhood how to recognize the broken twigs, the disturbed ant trails and other clues that point to a lost traveler’s track in the wild.

He still shakes his head at the thought.

“All those people,” he said. “That’s a lot of footprints. All those trucks. We searched and searched and searched. Something should have been found. But you have to know what to look for. Get just a few of us trackers in first, and give us a chance.”

Park officials later acknowledged bungling the search from the start with too many overeager volunteers, too many inexperienced eyes, too many careless feet. Nominal commanders on the scene soon lost control, overwhelmed by the number of searchers. Some volunteers had never set foot in the park before. Some didn’t know how to use a compass.

“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,” Keith Neilson, who went on to serve as park superintendent, wrote in an after-action review. “We failed to realize the need for quick organization. … It was the most intensive and large-scale search that any of the park personnel had ever participated in.”

‘It will take a miracle’

That realization didn’t come until months later. Searcher ranks ballooned in the days that followed. More volunteers drove up in more vehicles with water, food and supplies.

The details of the case — a missing child, a sudden disappearance, a race against the elements in the nation’s most-visited national park — made for instant headlines. President Richard Nixon notified park officials he’d be keeping up with the search, prompted by his friend U.S. Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee.

Airmen from McGhee Tyson National Guard base arrived, along with rescue squad members from across Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia. Green Berets on a training exercise in the nearby Nantahala National Forest showed up to help.

By Monday, June 16, the crowd topped 300 people; by the next day, more than 365. Rain continued throughout the week, and rangers hauled in gravel to shore up roads rendered impassable by flash-flooding. By the seventh day, search ranks peaked at 1,400 people. One volunteer accidentally shot himself in the leg; another broke an arm when he fell off a bridge.

“Today we would not have anywhere near that number,” said Jordan, the deputy superintendent. “Over 100 people is considered a good-sized search in this day and age. We can manage those folks. But in those days we just didn’t know how to go about looking for somebody who’s lost. It’s the wilderness version of the needle in the haystack.”

Helicopters flew in but spent much of the time grounded by rain and fog. Once airborne, spotters found the leafy tree canopy impenetrable. Search dogs sniffed the woods in vain.

“We never did get enough to run a track,” said former state Rep. H.E. Bittle Jr., who offered his bloodhounds for the search. “We just didn’t have nothing to go on, and there’d already been so many in and out of there.”

The searchers weren’t squeamish. Men and women hacked their way into the park’s deepest thickets, some so dense searchers had to belly-crawl to get through. A crew of Green Berets ran out of rations and barbecued a rattlesnake.

“It will take a miracle” to find the boy or even a trace of him, an airman told one reporter. “But I believe in miracles, and so do the rest of us out here. We’re not about to give up. We’ve just got to pull this miracle off.”

The pair of prints

One of the only clues discovered came Tuesday, June 17, the fourth day of the search.

A pair of hikers stumbled across a faint set of small tracks along a water break in the Eagle Creek area, about a mile below Spence Field. They followed the prints about 300 yards before losing the trail at the edge of a stream.

One appeared to be a bare footprint, the other a shoe print — maybe from an Oxford, maybe from a tennis shoe — each about child-sized. Rangers made a cast of the prints. The Martins said the prints looked too big for Dennis.

Dwight McCarter, a tracker and retired parks ranger, stands in front of the shelter where Dennis Martin's family stayed, in Spence Field, as the 6-year-old boy vanished from sight and was never found on June 14, 1969, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The search for the Knoxville boy is still the most massive in the park's history.

Park officials dismissed the tracks as left by Boy Scouts from a search party. Green Berets reported they’d already made a sweep.

“When we get through with an area and say he’s not there, he’s not there,” said Lt. Col. Howard Kinney, the commander.

McCarter, the retired ranger, thinks his bosses gave up too early. Standing at the mouth of the water break today, he looks back and sighs in regret.

“They didn’t find tracks from a bunch of kids,” he said. “They found tracks from one kid. He was by himself, and none of those Scouts who’d been through were barefoot. That would be reasonable, that he might have hit this trail. If it was dark, this looks like a trail. If you didn’t have a flashlight and you didn’t know the terrain and you’re 6 years old …”

He pauses.

“You’d be awful young to have to make those kinds of decisions on your own.”

Fading hopes

As the search dragged on, tips poured in from psychics, astrologers and self-styled sleuths.

Jeane Dixon, who claimed to have predicted President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, reported a vision of Dennis still breathing. Searchers would find him, she foretold, behind a waterfall on the North Carolina side of Spence Field. They found nothing.

Bill Martin took to the air in a Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter to call for his son from a bullhorn. Searchers questioned whether the sound could even be heard over the wind and the roar of the chopper blades.

Dennis would have turned 7 that Friday, June 20. Rangers watched for buzzards and drew up plans for how to recover the boy’s body.

Sunday, June 22, marked the eighth day. Searchers had covered 56 square miles of ground, all with no results. The odds Dennis could have survived this long — with no food in his pocket, no coat on his back, no ripe berries on the vines — dwindled hourly.

On June 25, the Martin family headed home. On June 29, park officials suspended all major search operations.

A handful of rangers continued efforts until Sept. 11, when the park declared the search closed. The search cost 13,420 man-hours and roughly $70,000 — equivalent to about a half-million in today’s dollars.

“We’ve done everything we know to do,” said Lee Sneddon, the chief ranger.

The Martins offered a $5,000 reward for anyone with information leading to Dennis. Bill Martin told reporters he suspected his son might have been kidnapped.

“I’ve got nothing to go on, no evidence,” the father said. “But it’s a possibility, and the only one we have that the boy is still alive.”

A scream on Sea Branch

The case took a new twist when Harold Key, a state highway engineer from Middle Tennessee, approached park officials more than a month after Dennis disappeared.

Key said he visited Cades Cove with his family that weekend from Carthage and wandered into the woods, hoping to see a bear. He couldn’t retrace his steps but felt sure he’d been somewhere near Spence Field that Saturday, sometime between 6-7 p.m.

“When we got about half a mile or maybe three-quarters of a mile from the car, we heard a scream,” Key told News Sentinel reporter Carson Brewer. “A trouble scream. … An enormous, sickening scream … We couldn’t tell which direction it came from, but it sounded like it came from higher on the mountain to me.”

Minutes later, something moved in the brush.

“I looked across the creek and saw a man in the bushes,” Key recalled. “I couldn’t tell much about him because he was going down the creek toward the cars … He was definitely trying to keep from being seen. … I thought maybe he was a moonshiner.”

Key said he crossed the creek and found what looked like a crudely drawn map on a scrap of paper about where the man would have been. When he came back, he noticed the only other car parked at the roadside, an older-model white Chevrolet, gone.

He didn’t learn about Dennis Martin until the next day. At first he kept quiet, “but I got to thinking that maybe the scream had something to do with that boy’s disappearance.”

Rangers ultimately concluded Key must have been at Sea Branch, a small stream that crosses the south leg of Cades Cove Loop Road, west of Rowans Creek. That would have put him at least 5 miles from Spence Field — closer to 7 or as much as 9 miles away by trails.

To cover that distance in the space of two hours or less would have taken Olympic effort, especially for someone avoiding the trails. That’s without accounting for how a kidnapper or killer could have crept up on Dennis in the open meadow on a sunny day.

Key stuck to his story through the decades, all the way to his death this year at age 94. But park officials then and now say there’s nothing that connects the dots between whatever he saw and Dennis.

“As a scenario, I think that is the most far-fetched,” said Jordan, the deputy superintendent.

Rangers and agents of the FBI’s Knoxville office ran down dozens of tips, including one from a woman who claimed she’d seen a boy who looked like Dennis in the back seat of a passing car in Knoxville. Nothing held up.

“The fact should be well-noted that the family possibly does not want to accept the possibility that the boy will never be accounted for,” Neilson wrote in his report.

Smells on the wind

On July 3, McCarter and a small crew of the remaining searchers reported a stench on the wind as they headed up the West Prong trail below Spence Field.

“It was just a smell that wasn’t an animal, I didn’t think,” he recalled. “I’d smelled (dead) bear and deer. They smell different.”

A dead crow, park officials radioed back. That area was checked already. Move on.

McCarter questions that call to this day.

“It wasn’t a crow,” he said. “I’ve smelled a dead crow. This was worse.”

The spot would have been downwind from the water break at Eagle Creek where hikers found the child-sized tracks four days into the search.

How certain can he be today of what he smelled? On a scale of one to 10, “about a five.”

“I don’t know what it was,” he said. “But it was worth checking. It should have been checked.”

Dwight McCarter, a tracker and retired Great Smoky Mountains National Park ranger, hikes toward Spence Field where 6-year-old Dennis Martin disappeared and was never found June 14, 1969. McCarter was a young ranger during the search for the Knoxville boy, which remains the most massive in the park's history.

In July 1985, a man approached McCarter with a story of finding a child-sized skeleton in ground disturbed by an uprooted tree in Big Hollow near Tremont years earlier. The man said he hadn’t reported it because he’d been hunting ginseng illegally.

A crew of 30 men searched the hollow, to no avail.

In the 1990s, a man contacted park officials for details about the case. He thought he might be Dennis Martin. He wasn’t.

Bill Martin died in 2014, never knowing what became of his son. The family hasn’t discussed the case publicly since the search ended and didn’t want to talk for this story.

Armchair detectives still debate the case: whether Dennis was kidnapped, mauled by a bear, stumbled off a cliff in the dark or died of hunger, thirst or exposure.

Jordan, the park’s deputy superintendent, said he doesn’t expect to find an answer. Time, weather, scavenging animals and the forest itself have by now erased any surviving clues.

“It can be really hard to imagine that you can have so many searchers in the woods and not be able to find somebody,” he said. “So you look for some other explanation. For me, I don’t have to look for another explanation, because I know it can happen so easily. I think he wandered off in the wrong direction, ended up on the wrong trail and then just kept going.”

Lessons learned

Rescuers across the globe still use Dennis Martin’s disappearance as a training exercise. The National Park Service overhauled its search and rescue procedures in the wake of the case, and the lessons learned have saved lives for the past 50 years by Jordan’s estimate. Searchers in the Smokies have failed to find only four other missing people since.

“You have now people searching in the Australian Outback who know the name Dennis Martin,” Jordan said. “I would say that was one of those signature moments. The science of search management that has evolved since 1969 is really a lasting legacy that would go beyond all of our lives and helps other people all around the world.”

Spence Field today barely looks like the meadow of a half-century ago. Trees cover what was once open ground. Forest duff — dead leaves, fungus, dirt and other debris — coats the earth, deep and pillowy soft.

Even McCarter barely recognizes some of the spots.

“For every year, nature layers up about an inch,” he said on a recent visit. “And it’s been a lot of years.”

And the winds still blow across Spence Field.

One thought on “Child’s Disappearance has Haunted Park Officials for Over 52 Years

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  1. I believe either a bear or mountain lion killed Dennis, or he was kidnapped by BigFoot and strangers. God rest his soul.

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