Backpackers Find Remains Thought to Belong to WWII Airman on Glacier

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

FRESNO, Calif.  —  Mountain backpackers have discovered remains believed to be those of a missing World War II airman resting atop a glacier near where an aviation cadet's body was found two years ago, authorities said Monday.

The second set of human remains was found in an alpine region of Kings Canyon National Park in the Sierra Nevada range on Wednesday, as little as 50 feet from where climbers spotted the ice-entombed body of Leo Mustonen in October 2005, park officials said.

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

On board were Mustonen, of Brainerd, Minnesota; pilot William Gamber, 23; and aviation cadets John Mortenson, 25, and Ernest Munn, 23, of St. Clairsville, Ohio. A blizzard is believed to have caused the crash.

All four were given a military funeral in Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, but for decades the servicemen's families have struggled to find closure. Mustonen was laid to rest in his hometown last year.

Military officials planned to notify families of the three men Monday, said Robert Mann, deputy scientific adviser for the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, which concluded in February 2006 that the first body was Mustonen's.

Rangers located the body exposed on a remote rock glacier between granite boulders, his undeployed parachute, stenciled "US ARMY," just inches (centimeters) away. The Air Force was part of the Army until 1947.

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

Icy storms and constant glacial movement had hampered park officials' efforts to find additional survivors of the crash of the training flight over California's Central Valley.

Last year's light snowfall left some areas bare of ice, and the melting snowpack revealed the body, rangers said.

A writer working on a book about the failed flight came across the skeleton as he and a friend searched the granite peaks for the plane's engine, rangers said.

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

Within a couple of months, forensic anthropologists will determine the downed airman's race and age at time of death by looking at the teeth and bones, Mann said. They will then extract DNA from the remains and compare it to genetic samples from the blood lines of the three missing men to confirm the man's identity, he said.

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