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A mother’s search for aviator who went missing 70 years ago

Nora Mayes in North Bend in 1961, not far from Black Lake in the Cascade foothills where her son's plane may have crashed. (Courtesy Lee Corbin)

News reports of deadly plane crashes are all too common, and with the loss a few days ago of a Boeing 737 MAX 8 in Ethiopia, this past week has been no exception.

And these weekly stories of Northwest history are often filled with tales from the past of air disasters that took lives and left families torn apart by tragedy.

This is yet another story of a long-ago plane crash, but this one is a little different than most of the others. This story is about the resilience of the human spirit. And how survivors and loved ones left behind find ways to adapt and carry on. This particular air crash story is about a mother’s enduring love.

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It was 70 years ago this past Monday when two naval aviators, 23-year old Ensign Gaston Mayes and 25-year old Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Benjamin Vreeland, took off in an SNJ-5 trainer. It was a World War II-era, single-engine Navy plane. They left from the old Sand Point Naval Air Station in Seattle — what is now Magnuson Park.

Lee Corbin is a retired pilot and a lifelong aviation history enthusiast. He spends a lot of time researching aviation history, and he stumbled across the story of the lost SNJ-5 several years ago.

“Vreeland and Mayes were scheduled to go out for a flight on March 11, and they took off about 10 o’clock in the morning and headed east toward the Cascades,” on what was supposed to be a two-hour flight, Corbin said earlier this week. “And apparently, at some point, they had engine problems.”

From newspaper accounts at the time, Corbin read that the Navy and volunteers searched diligently for the plane and the two pilots for about a week, but had no luck.

But Corbin says it wasn’t really the details of the crash or the account of the official search that caught his eye.

What captivated Lee Corbin was what Nora Mayes, mother of aviator Gaston Mayes, did in the months – and the years – after the Navy gave up searching for her son’s lost plane.

“It just fascinates me that Mayes’ mom, Nora Mayes, would care about her son so much so that she would make the trip every year for 19 years out here from just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee to try and find him,” Corbin said. “And then she got so close, it seems like, based on the evidence, and then it just never happened.”

“She never got the results she was hoping for,” he said.

Corbin says that Nora Mayes came to the Northwest in the summer of 1949, along with her husband Oscar, her daughter Bernice and her remaining son Bert. They came to search for Gaston Mayes themselves in the Cascade foothills near Snoqualmie Pass. The family drove logging roads, talked to lumberjacks and handed out flyers they had made describing the lost plane and offering a cash reward.

Incredibly, Lee Corbin says, Nora Mayes would ultimately return to the Northwest every summer for the next 19 years for a total of 20 annual visits in search of her son. And nearly every year she came, local newspapers would dutifully report her arrival and departure, and recount the details of her son’s missing plane.

The initial search area the Mayes family covered was dauntingly huge, but tantalizing clues emerged that narrowed the hunt by the mid 1950s to the area around Black Lake, a small body of water in the Cascade foothills about seven miles east of Carnation. Lee Corbin says that Black Lake is tiny, measuring roughly 600 feet by 1,700 feet, and is roughly 35 feet deep.

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This topographical map shows the location of Black Lake, about seven miles east of the Snoqualmie Valley town of Carnation. Courtesy US Geological Survey. (USGS)

Not long after the SNJ-5 disappeared, a forest ranger had seen the water in Black Lake change to the color of dye packets used in US Navy lifejackets like the kind Mayes and Vreeland would’ve been carrying. It’s unclear when, but Lee Corbin says that this ranger sent a letter to Nora Mayes detailing what he had seen.

In addition, Corbin says that loggers near Black Lake reported hearing a plane in that area having engine trouble on the day the two aviators had disappeared. And debris, possibly from the plane and the pilots – including a life vest and the sleeve of an aviator’s coat – had been found in the lake.

When she visited Black Lake, Nora Mayes also noticed two tall trees along the lakeshore that appeared to have been struck by something, perhaps a plane, that had sheared off the treetops. Lee Corbin theorizes that the pilots may have tried to crash-land the plane on the surface of Black Lake and perhaps struck the treetops on the way down.

For several summers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Nora Mayes was on hand when local scuba diving teams spent a week or so in Black Lake. The dive team even borrowed an early model of metal detector from White’s Electronics in Oregon. Lee Corbin says that multiple pieces of metal were detected, perhaps indicating that if the plane was indeed in Black Lake, but that it might have broken up on impact.

In spite of the years of multiple searches and dives, no conclusive debris from the fuselage and no human remains were ever found.

Gaston Mayes family

After reading all the old newspaper clippings he could get his hands on, Lee Corbin tracked down surviving members of Gaston Mayes’ family, including David Mayes. Mayes is 63 and lives in North Carolina. Nora Mayes was his grandmother, and Gaston Mayes was his dad’s brother – the uncle he never met.

The story of his grandmother’s search for her son is something David Mayes has been aware of all his life. He has theories as to why she spent so many years devoted to finding Gaston Mayes.

“Gaston was her first born, and my dad was second and then my aunt was the third child,” Mayes said by phone last week. “So Gaston was – you know how that first child is in a group of three children – he was probably her favorite.”

“And then he went down in the plane and she just, as a mother, I don’t think she ever got over that,” Mayes said.

“She went looking every summer, and she would talk about it and she would share all the details with us, me and my brother as grandchildren, and it was a topic she always spoke about every time we got together,” Mayes said. “I grew up eight miles away from her, so we saw each other quite a bit. And it was always on her mind.”

“She just never could get emotionally detached from it,” Mayes said.

Nora Mayes made a lot of friends in the Northwest, according to her grandson.

“She had dear friendships, as evidenced by the letters of people that communicated with her” between visits, Mayes said. “They would write regularly … and you could tell from the way they wrote, they had a very close relationship. [Of] course, she would go out and spend the summer, and you do that for 20 years, and you gain a lot of friendships.”

Mayes says that even after his grandmother stopped going to the Northwest every summer, she never really stopped searching for – and talking about the search for – her son, right up until she passed away in 1983.

“She continued to research and [make] phone calls, [write] letters and things, but no more trips,” Mayes said. “Every time we would get together, it always came up. It was always ever-present.”

David Mayes says he didn’t really understand his grandmother’s actions when he was a kid.

“Twenty years, every summer, that’s an awful lot,” Mayes said. “And I want to be careful not to judge my grandmother too harshly. I have enough to answer for in my own life.”

But David Mayes eventually had a son of his own. Several years ago, that son joined the military. It all made a lot more sense.

“When [my son] was in the Marine Corps and he’d been to Iraq … I thought over and over again, ‘Well, if he were to get captured or die, I’d be on the first plane to go after him, you know?”

“I don’t claim to understand fully what grandma felt for Gaston and why it drove her so much, but I do understand the love of another, or [the love of] a father for their son, and it’s very, very dear,” Mayes said.

David Mayes has visited Seattle before, but he’s never been to Black Lake, which sits on land owned by Portland-based entity called Snoqualmie Timber LLC. Mayes is aware of and has assisted with Lee Corbin’s research, and he’s heard about a new effort to scour the depths of Black Lake that’s being organized by a transportation history enthusiast named Shawn Murphy.

What if that new search turns up definitive evidence of the lost SNJ-5?

“I’d be on the next plane,” Mayes said. “Yeah, I would. I’d wanna be a part of that.”

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