Airman's body stirs hope, tragic memories
By Marc Benjamin / The Fresno Bee
08/22/07 04:44:27

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Family members of three World War II airmen lost on a training mission over the Sierra say the discovery of one airman's remains has reopened sad memories but resurrected hope that their loved one can finally rest in peace.

Pathologists began examining the mummified remains Tuesday afternoon, a day after the airman's weathered body was removed from a Kings Canyon National Park glacier.

As they picked through the airman's possessions, pathologists found a 1940 Buffalo-head nickel and 1923 dime. A wallet found near the body is so brittle it will be left to Army anthropologists in Hawaii to open in a more controlled environment.

The airman also was wearing a gold ring with a square black onyx, said Fresno County Coroner Dr. David Hadden.

Despite these clues, a U.S. Army pathologist said it could take weeks or months to confirm the airman's identity.

The remains were found last week less than 100 feet from those of another airman, Leo Mustonen of Brainerd, Minn., who was discovered in 2005 at 12,300 feet on Mount Mendel.

Both men are believed to have been on a plane lost on a training mission in 1942. Two other men also were on the flight. Their bodies have yet to be located.

Mustonen's remains were found by ice climbers who were traversing the Mount Mendel glacier. Author Peter Stekel, who is writing a book about the ill-fated training mission, found the remains of the second airman last week. Unlike Mustonen's body, this latest set of remains was not encased in ice.

After Mustonen's body was found, family members provided DNA samples that could help identify any of the three remaining victims: 2nd Lt. William Gamber, 23, of Fayette, Ohio; John Mortensen, 25, of Moscow, Idaho; and Ernest Glenn Munn, 23, of Saint Clairsville, Ohio.

Barbara Adams said she hoped the body discovered last week was her cousin, Gamber, who was the pilot on the training flight. The three other men were cadets.

"Any family that has one of them wants it to be their loved one," she said.

Gamber, she said, was eight years older than she was and was a hero in his small hometown, just south of the Michigan state line.

"He was a wonderful basketball player and athlete," Adams said from her Northern California home.

Gamber was the second family member killed during World War II, she said. Another cousin, also a pilot, was killed over England.

Gamber's death compounded the first loss, she said.

"I remember my parents and mother, particularly, were very upset," she said.

A man who answered the phone at the Utah home of Carol Benson, Mortensen's niece, said the family wants to wait to comment until DNA is matched.

"They've got everything they need, so there is no sense even speculating," said the man, who declined to identify himself.

Lois Shriver, Munn's sister, said she was hoping the body could be her brother, the oldest of four children. He was the only son.

"He was a good farm kid," said Shriver, who was four years younger than her brother. "He was my idol."

She said she saw the story of the latest find on CNN on Tuesday morning.

"It's nerve-wracking," she said from her home in Pittsburgh. "It's brought back a lot of memories after 60-some years and you don't want to forget. ... It brings a lot of sadness back."

Added Shriver: "We never really got over it. Not knowing what happened was the worst thing."

Pathologists said the latest airman found in the Sierra had a good set of teeth, but no dental records are available to identify him.

Hadden described the man's skin as having a "parchment texture" similar to being mummified. The man's tousled brownish-blond hair could be the result of sun exposure, Hadden said.

The airman's right leg was missing, and only a 14-inch section of the left leg was attached to the body, Hadden said.

Paul Emanovsky, a forensic anthropologist with the Army's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii, said these remains look "exactly like the Mustonen case," both in the damage to the body and in the clothing the second airman was wearing.

"He was wearing the same kind of sweater and woolen shirt, but it was fragmentary," Emanovsky said.

The wallet, he said, was discovered near the body and may not be from the second airman. There are papers inside the wallet.

"We are not going to open it up until we get back to Hawaii, so analysis can be done more carefully," Emanovsky said.

A spectroanalyzer will be used to examine the contents.

"It can bring out some things you can't see with the naked eye," Emanovsky said.

A bone or tooth sample will be sent to Maryland for further analysis in confirming the airman's identity.

"One of the things that is going to expedite this case is that we have family records on file," he said.

The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6166.