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Leo M. Mustonen and Ernest G. Munn

Two WWII Airmen recovered from a California Glacier


On November 18, 1942, an AT-7 navigational training plane left Mather Airfield in Sacramento, California, carrying four airmen (the pilot and three cadets) and about five hours of fuel. The plane never returned. 

Although authorities searched for over a month, no sign of the plane was ever found until November 1947 when the wreckage was discovered by hikers on Darwin Glacier in the Sierra Nevada. The hikers, however, did not find the bodies of any of the airmen. They were 2nd Lt. William A Gamber, 23, of Fayette, Ohio (pilot) and the three cadets, Ernest Munn, 23, of St. Clairsville, Ohio; John Mortenson, 25, of Moscow, Idaho; and Leo M. Mustonen, 22, of Brainerd, Minn.

In October 2005, two ice climbers discovered the remains of one of the airmen. As reported by CBS News: the climbers told authorities that they saw "a frozen head, shoulder and arm while climbing the glacier on the side of 13,710-foot Mount Mendel in the Sierra Nevada on Sunday [October 16].... The body was 80 percent encased in ice, and still wearing an Army-issued parachute. Officials say the man's torn sweater reveals skin, and parts of his sandy-blonde hair are still intact."

When the body was found, information about the 1942 crash was so sketchy that various news organizations reported that the bodies of four airmen had been found in 1947 (when the wreckage was discovered). They also indicated that a body (the one discovered in 2005) had been missed in 1947. These reports were erroneous, however, since no bodies were ever recovered from the crash until 2005. Only four people were on board the AT-7.

The remains of the unknown airman were flown to Hawaii where investigators at the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base examined the body and its related items. By February 2006, the remains had been identified as Airman Leo M. Mustonen. According to TMC.net, "Mustonen, who had no survivors from his mother's side to provide the right kind of DNA, was identified primarily through elimination.... The other three men had siblings who provided DNA, which didn't match. Infrared analysis of a corroded name tag found on outer garments also gleaned a few letters that matched Mustonen's name."

Wire services referred to Mustonen as "a mummified human time capsule" with his Sheaffer fountain pen and a 1942 coin in his pocket.

He was buried on March 25, 2006, in a grave next to his mother's. His two nieces, Mary Ruth Mustonen (11 months at the time of his death) and Leane Ross (not born when he died), were in attendance at the ceremony in Brainerd, Minnesota.

In August 2007, the writer Peter Stekel who was working on a book about the ill-fated flight visited the area where Mustonen's body was discovered. Approximately 100 feet from the site, Stekel saw a second body. As he later reported, "...as I got closer and closer, I noticed what turned out to be a gold ring on his left ring finger." 

On February 8, 2008, authorities notified the family that Cadet Ernest G. Munn had been found. CNN reported that when he left for the service, he "told his mother never to cut her long hair. Authorities have notified his sisters, now in their 80s, about the [DNA] match. Munn is expected to be buried in May in Colerain, Ohio. His mother lived to be 102, never cut her hair and died awaiting word on his fate."

He was buried on May 17, 2008, in Colerain.

The remaining two bodies may be discovered in the near future, as the glacier continues to melt.


Location of the crash and bodies: A mystery? 

According to a 1947 military report, the wreckage of the plane was found on Darwin Glacier.  But that report may be inaccurate, according to one of the two university students who found the wreckage.

George Bond, one of the students, told writer Peter Stekel that "Maps of that day and age didn't have [Mt.] Mendel mentioned on them. Not many knew where Mt. Darwin was, much less Mt. Mendel. Of course, the army didn't know a heck of a lot more than that." 

According to Stekel, Bond is now convinced that he discovered the wreckage on Mendel Glacier. This would explain why the two bodies were found there.


Links to relevant articles

Writer Peter Stekel article in Sierra Heritage, September/October 2006: Mystery of the Ice Man

March 2006: 60 years after crash, Airman Mustonen is finally buried (sptimes.com)

Airman finally heads home (tmcnet.com)

February 2006: Airman hailed from Minnesota (usatoday.com)

November 2005: Airman's possessions studied to determine identity (washingtontimes.com)

October 2005: Excavation begins on mummy of suspected World War II flier (cbsnews.com)



For further reading

Final Flight: The Mystery of a WW II Plane Crash and the Frozen Airmen in the High Sierra by Peter Stekel is the only book on the subject and well-worth a read. From Amazon: "Through meticulous research, interviews, and his own mountaineering trips to the site, Stekel uncovers the identities of these four young men. Final Flight explores the story of the ill-fated flight and the misinformation surrounding it for over 60 years. The book is a gripping account that's part mystery, part history, and a personal quest to uncover the truth of the events that occurred on November 18, 1942. In the process, Stekel rewrites the young aviators' last daysand takes us on their final flight."

There are few other books about preserved bodies found in glaciers.

One is James M. Deem's Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recovery of the Past. It tells the stories of Ötzi the Iceman, the soldier from the Theodul Glacier, the dairy maid from the Porchabella Glacier, the story of the guides accompanying Russian scientist Joseph Hamel as they climbed France's Mont Blanc, the frozen children of the Andes, the mystery of George Mallory on Mount Everest, and the discovery of KwädayDan Ts’ìnchí in a Canadian glacier, illustrated with over 65 photographs and rare archival illustrations.

Another is Ancient Ice Mummies which contains a discussion of both Long Ago Person Found and Ötzi the Iceman from the Alps. From Amazon: "One of the world's foremost authorities on glacier mummies explores their curious preservation and unravels the clues they have left locked in ice and frozen in time, in this engaging, illustrated book."