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."