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After years of mother’s search, Navy agrees that lost plane is likely in Black Lake

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)

The long-suspected final resting place of a military plane that disappeared after taking off from Seattle more than 70 years ago was formally recognized this week by an official of the US Navy.

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

Families of the two naval aviators aboard – 23-year-old Ensign Gaston Mayes and 25-year-old Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Benjamin Vreeland – were notified of a decision made by the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington D.C.

This formal recognition will likely pave the way for dedication of a monument to the missing men.

Based on new research and on the results of a recent search conducted by two local military aviation history enthusiasts – Lee Corbin and Shawn Murphy – the Navy now believes the missing plane and the two aviators are likely in Black Lake in east King County.

“That was good news,” said David Mayes of Carey, North Carolina as he described how he felt when Lee Corbin called earlier this week to let him know of the Navy’s decision regarding his long-missing uncle, Gaston Mayes.

Daniel Vreeland, nephew of the other missing pilot Benjamin Vreeland, was equally pleased.

“This is probably some of the better news I’ve heard ever about this whole thing,” Vreeland said by phone from near his home in Austin, Texas.

Though both David Mayes and Daniel Vreeland were born after the plane went missing with their uncles aboard, to hear each describe the effects of the tragedy, both families have wrestled with loss, grief and lack of closure for more than seven decades.

On March 11, 1949, Gaston Mayes and Benjamin Vreeland were flying a World War II-era SNJ-5 trainer that took off from the old Naval Air Station at Sand Point, now site of Magnuson Park in Seattle. The SNJ-5 never returned.

After initial search efforts failed to locate the missing aircraft, the mother of Ensign Mayes spent much of the next 20 years searching for her son. Piecing together clues with help from her husband and other family members and from loggers and others working in the woods that day, Nora Mayes came to believe her son’s plane had crashed into Black Lake, a small body of water in the Cascade foothills east of Carnation.

Mrs. Mayes, who lived near Knoxville, Tennessee, returned to the Pacific Northwest every summer until the late 1960s. Despite locating debris that appeared to be from the SNJ-5, and overseeing dive teams equipped with early metal-detecting technology, searchers failed to find conclusive evidence.

Nora Mayes passed away in 1983. David Mayes – her grandson – says this new development “would have given her a little bit of closure. She really wanted to find the body, that was her big drive for all those years to get closure, but it would still give her partial closer to know that the Navy was acknowledging that she was right” about Black Lake.

Lee Corbin and Shawn Murphy have spent the past few years devoted to conducting additional searches of Black Lake as well as combing archival letters and other materials shared by the aviators’ families. They also connected with Scott Williams of the Maritime Archaeology Society, who assisted with research and who authored a report on the team’s recent search of Black Lake. Williams’ report was forwarded to the Navy along with Corbin and Murphy’s other research.

Both Corbin and Murphy believe that while the deep sediment at Black Lake and likely violent destruction of the aircraft make it unlikely that identifiable remains of the SNJ-5 or of the aviators will ever be found, all evidence points to Black Lake as the final resting place.

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In an email to Shawn Murphy last week, George Schwarz of the US Navy’s Underwater Archaeology Branch wrote, “Based on the various sources of information that we’ve received from you and Scott, it does appear to our office that the SNJ remains likely reside in the lake.” Schwarz also offered to provide an official letter stating as much – which would likely facilitate dedication of a memorial to Vreeland and Mayes at or near Black Lake.

Lee Corbin, who first stumbled across newspaper stories about the lost plane and Mrs. Mayes nearly a decade ago, is glad to know that the Navy’s decision is bringing some closure to the families.

“I appreciate the Navy officially recognizing Black Lake as the probable crash site, and assume it will receive an archeological designation of some type,” Corbin wrote earlier this week. “Hopefully that’ll allow for a similar designation from the state.  Ultimately, we’d like to see if we can have a memorial placed on the shore of the lake.”

Shawn Murphy agrees with Lee Corbin, writing that the “decision allows once and for all the families to know the Navy recognizes the lake as being the site and opens up for appropriate memorials being done.” Murphy would like to see a memorial at the privately-owned lake as well as a more accessible memorial in the nearby communities of Snoqualmie or North Bend, where, Murphy says, countless local people welcomed and assisted Nora Mayes each year she returned to search.

David Mayes is grateful to Shawn Murphy and Lee Corbin for what they’ve done for the Mayes and Vreeland families.

“They’ve been fantastic, and they really put a lot of time and effort and money on their own part into it,” Mayes said. “Both of them are very serious about trying to locate the plane and have been invaluable with gathering information and putting pieces together, and they’ve both been keeping me updated.”

Daniel Vreeland is disappointed that the Navy didn’t make more of an effort to find the missing plane back in 1949, but, like David Mayes, he’s touched that Lee Corbin and Shawn Murphy never gave up.

“I’m really proud to know these two guys, and I’m still kind of in awe that they cared this much about it,” Vreeland said. “The more information I find out about how many people helped Mrs. Mayes do the searching in that area of the Northwest, it’s just amazing that all these people tried to help her.”

Both David Mayes and Daniel Vreeland plan to be present if and when a memorial is dedicated at Black Lake or in Snoqualmie or North Bend.

Both Shawn Murphy and Lee Corbin would still like to find irrefutable proof someday and, in a perfect world, see that the bodies of both aviators be properly interred alongside long-deceased family members – especially when it comes to Gaston Mayes and his mother Nora Mayes.

Short of this, Corbin, who is himself a retired military aviator, is philosophical about Black Lake.

The resting place of the two naval aviators, Corbin wrote, is “actually not a bad place to be interred, a pristine alpine lake and the aircraft that brought you there.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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