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Few Clues To Frozen Airman's Identification

UPDATED: 8:27 am PDT August 22, 2007

The images on the photos carefully placed in a tattered wallet by a World War II era aviator have long since faded. He had 15 cents in his pocket -- a 1930 dime and 1923 Buffalo nickel. For now, that is all that is known of the identity of the man whose frozen remains were discovered by hikers on a Sierra Nevada glacier.

Fresno County Coroner Dr. David Hadden will conduct an autopsy this week in conjunction with an Army anthropologist and specialist in identifying remains of missing military personnel in an attempt to identify the body as one of three missing members of a training flight that crashed during World War II.

"Considering the remains have been in the ice for a large number of years in a glacier full of rocks, and involved in an aircraft accident, they're in fairly good shape," he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Physical evidence has led officials to believe the remains are of one of the missing aviators, but DNA will be used to determine the exact identity.

Mountain backpackers discovered the remains resting atop a glacier near where an aviation cadet's body was found two years ago.

The second set of human remains was found in an alpine region of Kings Canyon National Park in the Sierra Nevada range 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, Minn.; pilot William Gamber, 23, of Fayette, Ohio; and aviation cadets John Mortenson, 25, of Moscow, Idaho, 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.

Jeanne Pyle, 87, sister of Ernest Munn, said she heard news reports Monday night about the latest discovery. The family has been waiting a long time to bring her brother home, she said.

"We hope this turns out to be him. But you never know," said Pyle, who still lives near St. Clairsville about 110 miles east of Columbus.

Rangers located the body exposed on a remote rock glacier between granite boulders, his undeployed parachute, stenciled "US ARMY," just inches 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."

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