US Navy formally notifies families about long-lost Seattle plane

Jan 18, 2021, 9:49 AM | Updated: 10:57 am
Gaston Mayes, US Navy...
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)
(Courtesy Lee Corbin)

The families of two lost Naval aviators have received formal notification from the U.S. Navy about the likely whereabouts of the men and their SNJ-5 trainer aircraft.

Lieutenant Benjamin Vreeland and Ensign Gaston Mayes disappeared in March 1949 while on a flight from the old Sand Point Naval Air Station on Lake Washington. Gaston Mayes’ mother, Nora Mayes, spent most of the next 20 years visiting the Northwest during the summer and searching for her son.

The Navy now believes “it is probable that the remains of the SNJ-5 are buried in the silty bottom of Black Lake” in east King County, and credits three local men – Shawn Murphy, Lee Corbin, and Scott Williams – for their recent research and search efforts. Black Lake was long suspected as the crash site – and was searched many times as far back as the 1950s – but formal recognition by the Navy is a significant development.

In a letter dated Dec. 3, 2020, R.S. Neyland, PhD, Head of Underwater Archaeology for the Naval Heritage History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C., wrote:

The Naval History and Heritage Command’s (NHHC) Underwater Archaeology Branch is responsible for the management and study of U.S. Navy ship and aircraft lost worldwide. Recent correspondence with researchers Shawn Murphy, Lee Corbin, and Scott Williams, initiated a re-examination of the evidence for the loss of Lieutenant (j.g) Vreeland’s and Ensign Mayes’ 5 Texan (BuNo 90586) aircraft on March 11, 1949.

It is our understanding from the available records that, during the course of at least a decade after the accident, continued searches uncovered material evidence that indicate the aircraft may have been lost in Black Lake, King County, Washington. These searches and the information they have generated, in addition to eyewitness accounts, contemporary letters, and recent remote-sensing and diving surveys undertaken by Maritime Archaeological Society and volunteers, have all contributed to the determination by our office that it is probable that the remains of the SNJ-5 are buried in the silty bottom of Black Lake.

As managers of Navy’s sunken military craft, NHHC maintains a record of their location, and we have updated our files to include Black Lake as the general wreck location for SNJ-5 (BuNo 90586). Sunken military craft are under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Navy and as such, are protected from unauthorized disturbance under the Sunken Military Craft Act. The U.S. Navy considers these wrecks to be hallowed sites, representative of the courage and sacrifice of U.S. Navy Sailors throughout our nation’s history.

It is our hope that the determination of Black Lake as the probable final resting place of the SNJ-5 provides some measure of closure to you and your family as you continue to grieve the loss of your loved one. The service of Lt. (j.g.) Vreeland and Ensign Mayes will always be remembered, honored, and valued. We are grateful for the immeasurable sacrifice your family made in defending our nation. Thank you.

Word of the Navy’s determination was first shared via phone calls to David Mayes of North Carolina and Daniel Vreeland of Texas — nephews of the long-missing pilots — in October 2020. The December letter – more than 70 years after the two men disappeared – now makes the determination official.

Lee Corbin told KIRO Radio over the weekend that the Navy’s recognition of Black Lake as the likely resting place will help with his group’s determination and continued effort to locate the lost plane and definitively establish it as the aviators’ resting place.

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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US Navy formally notifies families about long-lost Seattle plane