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Remains of WWII airman found frozen in Sierra Nevada glacier

Posted: 2007-08-21 02:05:12
FRESNO, Calif. (AP) - Hikers discovered the remains of a man believed to be a missing World War II airman resting on top of a Sierra Nevada glacier not far from the spot where a missing aviation cadet's body was found two years ago, authorities said Monday.

The second set of human remains were found in a high alpine region of Kings Canyon National Park on Wednesday, no more than 100 feet from where climbers spotted the ice-entombed body of Leo Mustonen in October 2005, park officials said.

Rangers located the second body partially exposed on a remote glacier resting among granite boulders, his undeployed parachute stenciled "US ARMY" just inches away.

"It looks like his head was just resting on the rock," said Debbie Brenchley, the first Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks ranger to spot the remains on Friday after hikers reported the find. "You can see he has a wool sweater on, and a white collar and a ring on."

Icy winter storms and constant glacial movement had hampered park officials' efforts to find additional survivors of the Nov. 18, 1942, crash that killed Mustonen and three other young servicemen aboard a training flight over the Central Valley.

Last year's light snowfall left parts of that area bare of ice, and the melting snowpack revealed the legless body among the rocks, rangers said. Peter Stekel, a Seattle-based writer working on a book about the failed flight, came across the skeleton as he and a friend were searching the granite peaks for the plane's engine, rangers said.

"We've scoured the area over the last few years," said J.D. Swed, the parks' chief ranger. "We're confident that there isn't anything else to be found there - for the moment."

The Fresno County Coroner's Office is overseeing the retrieval of the remains, which were scheduled to arrive in Fresno on Monday night.

Military anthropologists based in Hawaii plan to analyze the body, which they believe could be one of three men who were flying with Mustonen when their AT-7 navigational plane disappeared after takeoff from a Sacramento, Calif., airfield on Nov. 18, 1942.

A blizzard is believed to have caused the crash that killed Mustonen, of Brainerd, Minn., pilot William Gamber, 23, and aviation Cadets John Mortenson, 25, and Ernest Munn, 23, of St. Clairsville, Ohio. All four were given a military funeral in San Bruno's Golden Gate National Cemetery, but for decades the servicemen's families have struggled to find closure.

Mustonen was finally laid to rest last year in his hometown, where his cremated remains were buried next to his parents' graves at a cemetery overlooking the Mississippi River.

Military officials planned to notify families of the three missing men Monday, said Robert Mann, deputy scientific adviser for the Hawaii-based Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command.

The names of the three men's relatives were not immediately released.

Troy Kitch, a command spokesman, said identification could take weeks or months, but officials were optimistic.

"Bringing answers to families is a big part of why we get a lot of satisfaction out of what we do here," Kitch said.

The discovery of Mustonen's remains two years ago raised the hopes of those who lost relatives in the 1942 crash that they would at last learn what happened to their brother or uncle. Many of those families were then let down when they found the remains belonged to someone else.

Mindful the new discovery could again put families through an emotionally trying time, Kitch said the command would attempt to identify the remains quickly.

"It's why it's so important that we don't overspeculate before we know really what we have," Kitch said. "Because it is a very sensitive issue when you're dealing with families that are missing their loved ones."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. All active hyperlinks have been inserted by AOL.
08/20/07 23:43 EDT

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