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Bill Gamber and fellow airmen at Mather Field near Sacramento, the place his... (Family photos)
He was sitting on top of the rocks when they found him, hunched
over like a writer might lean into a keyboard. With his left arm tucked
into his chest, the Army airman, or what remained of him after six
decades atop this California glacier, was wearing a coarsely woven
brown sweater. His wavy hair bleached by the sun, he had waited
patiently for this moment, his undeployed parachute still at his side.
When sunlight glinted off the airman's ring, Peter Stekel stopped in
his tracks. The Seattle author had been researching the story last
month of a crew of World War II servicemen whose plane vanished in 1942
after taking off from a Sacramento airfield when he discovered the
remnants of the 65-year-old accident scene. What Stekel found was a
tangle of plot lines - aviation mystery, scientific riddle, and a
heart-wrenching drama playing out for six decades in small towns across
the United States.
"I thought about this guy's family finally getting closure," Stekel
said. "I always thought that was a hackneyed phrase, and it is, until
you're in a position to understand what it really means," he
said. "My journal from that night says something like 'after 65 years
in the glacier, somebody's going to know who you are. You're finally
coming home.' "
The case is a forensic replay for military
anthropologists now trying to identify the remains. Two years ago, ice
climbers had found the frozen body of another one of the four crew
members, air Cadet Leo
Mustonen, 50 feet from
the body Stekel discovered Aug. 15 on Mendel Glacier in Kings Canyon
National Park. To identify Mustonen, authorities collected DNA samples
from the airmen's families. This time, with the DNA already in hand,
investigators hope to identify the second airman within weeks. For the
three remaining families, the anguished wait continues.
From DNA to
dental records to physical clues like a dried-up leather wallet, "we're
letting the evidence speak to us," said Dr. Robert Mann with the Joint
POW-MIA Accounting Command in Honolulu, the largest forensic lab in the
world. "With no living witnesses, we have to work with 60-year-old
pieces of a puzzle and put it together again."
Investigators are all but certain that the mummified remains are one of
the three men who vanished with Mustonen when their AT-7 Navigator
trainer plane disappeared Nov. 18, 1942. Pilot Lt. William Gamber, and
aviation Cadets John Melvin Mortensen and Ernest Glenn Munn, all were
in their 20s when they vanished. Though some plane wreckage was found
in 1947, the disappearance has haunted their families.
They include mothers and fathers who'd lost their only son and died
before knowing what happened; sisters now in their 80s with
memories of the brother who never returned; nieces and nephews who were
babies when the plane disappeared, their uncle a smiling stranger
behind the scrim of their imagination.
The Mustonens, at least, have their answer.
"It was a special gift to us, not just having him to bury but to learn
finally who he really was," said Leane Mustonen Ross of Jacksonville,
Fla. Now 62, she hadn't been born when her uncle Leo's plane went down.
The discovery of his body gave her the uncle she never knew.
And it was that old tell-tale grin that did the trick. "The first thing
they asked us was 'Did your uncle have a gap between his front teeth?'
and I said yes. I had a photo that showed it and they had his teeth.
Those teeth were the real giveaway."
Friends and family say Mustonen's mother died broken-hearted, never
coming to grips with her loss. Marjorie Freeman, 84 and still living
near Mustonen's hometown of Brainerd, Minn., vividly remembers her own
mother sharing coffee each morning with the missing airman's mom at her
Maple Street home.
"It was always the same," Freeman said. "She'd end up in tears. My mom
would reach out across the breakfast table and hold her hands and Mrs.
Mustonen kept repeating the same thing: 'Oh my poor Leo. If only they
could find him and bring him home.' "
Mustonen's mom died years ago, but finding her son's remains has at
least brought comfort to those few relatives still around to welcome
feel close to him now, as if he'd been a brother," his niece Leane
said. "He'd always been cloaked in mystery. Finding him on that
mountain made him real."
Just as relatives in 2005 endured the emotional whiplash, the other three families must now go through it all over again.
And only one can get the answer they're longing to hear.
Glenn Munn's younger sister Jeanne Pyle, now 87, got the call last month from a reporter in California.
"I thought, 'Oh my, we're going to go through all of this again.' "
Still living near the small Ohio farming town where the Munns grew up,
Pyle was certain her brother was the man they found in 2005.
years ago, we had so many people coming by - radio stations from
Columbus and Steubenville; even CNN flew in from California," she said.
"Glenn had blond hair and the one they found encased in ice had blond
hair, so we thought for sure it was him."
Once again, the memories are rushing
back - the little farm where their dad raised cattle and their mom made
cream and butter, the peaches and berries she and Glenn would pick.
"The kids all played together, worked together; we were very close and
looked out for one another."
Then just like that, it was over.
"Somebody talked Glenn into joining the service in 1942," Pyle said.
"He was just a kid, 22, but he was so excited to be going to
California. He'd never even been on a plane before, but he wrote mother
the most beautiful letters, telling her how excited he was to be
learning how to fly."
First came the call that his plane was missing, then word that the search had been called off.
was heartbroken," Pyle said. "She kept praying he'd turn up alive. She
lived to be 102, and she never got through talking about her son, how
handsome he was, how proud they were of their first child."
Worst of all, Pyle said, was the not knowing. "Losing a child is
terrible enough, but she never knew where he was, and that just leaves
a space inside you that you never get over."
Bill Gamber in his youth had been a hero to his younger cousin Dick
Christian. Always bigger than life, Gamber in his absence seemed to
loom larger still. For Christian, now 82 and a retired associate dean
at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, the missing
cousin was never really far away.
"I'd see some handsome guy who could do everything - straight A's,
great athlete - and I'd say, 'There's a guy like Bill Gamber.' He was a
guy with an unlimited future; he was smart and articulate and 6-foot-3,
and it all just ended. You'd think, boy, what that guy could have done
with his life."
Bill Ralston, a musician and retired educator in Cincinnati, was born
three years after Gamber's plane went down, but he was named after his
uncle and inherited Gamber's beloved silver-plated King trombone, the
instrument that inspired Ralston's own musical career.
"Growing up in the little town of Fayette, Ohio, Bill was the
All-American boy, captain of the basketball team and a great trombone
player," he said. "These were the war years, and my uncle was a symbol
of that era. Losing Bill, that whole town was devastated."
There's hardly anyone left to mourn John Mortensen. With two of his
sisters deceased and the third nearly 100 years old with
round-the-clock care, it's time once again for his niece Carol Benson
to do what she'd rather not do - answer the telephone calls from
reporters, fill in what little she knows about her long-lost uncle.
Now 69 and a retired schoolteacher in Ogden, Utah, Benson had lived as
a child in Moscow, Idaho, where her uncle was born and raised. She
recalls Mortensen being described "as a very compassionate person," but
she remembers little else, saying family members were never big on
broadcasting their feelings.
"We lived on a farm, and in those years, recovering from the
Depression, you didn't have the sort of communication you have nowadays
with relatives," she said, "so our families didn't spend a lot of time
As a child, Benson was given few details about the plane's
disappearance. "I was told he was on a mission and that they didn't
return. I remember my mom talking about it when they found the wreckage
in 1947. But from then on, they were pretty quiet people who kept
things to themselves. I guess everyone has their own way of dealing
Back in 2005, Benson and her husband, a retired engineer, "didn't want
to get involved because we don't like to be in the news; we're a family
that doesn't like to talk."
Hope, though, is a hard thing to smother, and "when they did narrow it
down to my uncle and Mustonen because they were the same height and
(had the same) hair color, then you really start hoping it would be
But it wasn't. So "this time, we don't want to go through that again.
We're not going to say anything else until they identify him."
That could still take weeks, largely because investigators are
meticulous as they go over the biological, DNA and physical evidence.
Though they declined last week to talk about their progress, they did
say that having DNA samples from the relatives on the mothers' side of
the three remaining airmen will help solve this case much faster.
2005, it took them weeks to locate relatives, then obtain samples. And
they never did get a sample from Mustonen's family because all the
candidates on his mother's side were already dead. Instead, Mustonen
was identified by process of elimination.
Asked whether the
discovery of a second airman, whose remains were apparently exposed as
the glacier receded, increases the likelihood of finding the other two
men, forensic anthropologist Paul Emanovsky was guarded.
"You never know what to expect in this job," Emanovsky said. He
and his colleagues travel the world recovering remains of service
members; 78,000 service members from World War II alone are still
missing. "We don't really know the circumstances of this crash. It's
possible the other two guys are on the other side of the glacier, a
thousand feet away. I suspect they're up there somewhere, but it's hard
Leo Mustonen's niece in Jacksonville knows both the anguish of waiting and the joy of knowing.
"There's a reason this is happening," Ross said. "I think it's a kind
of message to everyone who has lost loved ones and never recovered them
that there's always room for hope."
Until the remains are identified, though, the three remaining airmen
remain frozen in time, in graveyard memorials, and in the distant
laughter of the boy on the mahogany staircase in the old Gamber house,
or the teenager scaling apple trees in the Munn family orchard, or the
Mortensens' young aspiring pilot, heading off forever into the wild