Published: 12:00 PM - 07-05-12
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 would become 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.
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. Six weeks after the boy vanished a man told park officials he had heard a scream in the Sea Branch area of the park the evening of June 14. Officials said Sea Branch was too far from Spence Field for it to have been the missing boy. In October a pair of boy's underwear were found near one of the shelters at Spence Field. Searchers had been led there by another clairvoyant, but Dennis Martin's mother said they didn't belong to her son.
By early July searchers had lost their fervor. Hundreds of searchers a day dwindled to handfuls and it wasn't long before most of them had given up. The National Park Service went with a search team of three men.
Newspaper coverage moved from the front page to the back page and finally off the page all together. The search was officially called off on Sept. 11, 1969. The last bit of news that year was about the pair of underwear found in October.
Dennis Martin became a footnote, his name popping up any time there was a missing person in the Smoky Mountains.
It was there when Trenny Gibson disappeared in 1976 and in 1982 when "Polly" Melton walked over a hill and out of sight forever.
Thelma Pauline Melton, Jacksonville, Fla.
The 58-yea-old Melton was last seen by her two hiking companions late in the afternoon of Sept. 25, 1981, on Deep Creek Trail. She was walking ahead of the other two, who last saw her walking over a hill. Melton was overweight and suffered from high blood pressure, so her two friends thought it was odd she would be walking so fast. According to stories from the time, when the two made comments about her pace Melton turned to them and laughed and kept going. The search for Melton was called off on Oct. 5, 1981.
Trenny Lynn Gibson, Knoxville
On Oct. 8, 1976, the 16-year-old Gibson, a sophomore, and about 40 other Bearden High School students were in the park on a horticulture field trip. The students were hiking from the parking area just below Clingmans Dome to Andrews Bald when Gibson was last seen hiking toward the parking lot. It was reported that there were groups of students both in front and behind Gibson when she was last seen. The search for Gibson lasted several months before it was officially called off. In 1982 Bob Gibson, the girl's father, told the News Sentinel he believed his daughter had been abducted and taken out of the park.
Bob Hodge may be reached at 865-342-6314.
©2009, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.