FRESNO, Calif. (AP) - For nearly 60 years, the names of a pilot and three crew members who died when their plane crashed into an icy peak in the Sierra Nevada have been etched on a military gravestone while most of their remains have rested on a lonely mountain.
On Friday, a coroner was examining fresh clues given up by a receding glacier this week and trying to identify the frozen body of a fair-haired World War II airman that climbers found intact and still wearing his parachute.
The identity could solve part of a decades-old mystery of what happened after the AT-7 navigational training plane left a Sacramento airfield Nov. 18, 1942, for a routine training flight through the Central Valley - never to be heard from again.
Five years later, an engine from the plane, clothing, a dog tag and scattered remains were discovered far off the plane's course, and the crew members were given a ceremonial burial. But for some family members the fate of their loved ones has never been resolved.
"We'd given up all hope," said Lois Shriver, 80, of Pittsburgh, the youngest sister of aviation Cadet Ernest Munn, who was on the flight. "Living without knowing whatever happened, that was hard."
It's taken her years to overcome the loss, and the possibility that his body was recently found raises expectations and brings back hard memories. Like the body found this week, her brother also had blond hair.
Shriver was 17 and living at home when news came that her brother's plane was missing.
Military personnel, rangers, highway patrol officers, loggers and others spent about a month looking for the craft before the search was suspended in December 1942, a time of year when the Sierra is typically buried deep in snow.
Climbers found the wreckage and the identification tag of Cadet John M. Mortenson in the remote backcountry of Kings Canyon National Park in 1947 on a steep glacier near Mount Darwin and Mount Mendel, above Evolution Valley.
One of the climbers who found the debris led the Air Rescue Service and rangers to the site on Sept. 27, 1947 to confirm the crash site.
"A small piece of frozen flesh was found on a spur of rock at upper edge of glacier," according to a copy of the report posted on Accident-Report.com, a Web site that tracks military crashes. "Small pieces of clothing and a blank navigation log ... were found in the vicinity of the flesh. Insufficient remains were found for identification of bodies or to indicate the number of persons aboard."
The search team concluded that further investigation was inadvisable because of dangerous conditions and because the debris was scattered and buried in snow and ice.
The crew was honored with a military burial at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, one of the largest military graveyards on the West Coast.
A single headstone bears the names of the pilot, 2nd Lt. William A. Gamber, 23, of Fayette, Ohio and three aviation cadets: Munn, 23, of St. Clairsville, Ohio; Mortenson, 25, of Moscow, Idaho; and Leo M. Mustonen, 22, of Brainerd, Minn.
On Friday, Fresno County coroner Loralee Cervantes was thawing the body and searching for other clues, such as a military identification number on clothing, that might help name the man.
"If we're lucky, we'll be able to read something," Cervantes said.
A team of forensic experts and military body recovery specialists have been working to melt away the 400-pound block of ice and granite that encased the body when it was airlifted from the side of 13,710-foot Mount Mendel on Wednesday, Cervantes said.
Climbers found his head and arm jutting out of solid ice in the Mendel glacier on Sunday, but difficult conditions kept a search team from reaching the site for two days.
The ice preserved the body's skin and muscle, as well as the man's sun-bleached hair and his green uniform, including thermal undershirt and sweater, Cervantes said. The team also uncovered a fountain pen, a sewing kit and the rip cord for his unopened parachute.
"There's a very good possibility for identification," said Paul Emanovsky, a forensic anthropologist with the Joint Prisoner of War Accounting Command, which recovers and identifies military personnel.
Relatives of missing soldiers have been calling the Fresno coroner's office from around the country, hoping the man - frozen in his 20s - could be a father or brother who disappeared decades ago.
Shriver said she thinks the body could be her brother, but she's cautious. As recently as two years ago, she visited his grave even though she knew there was nothing of him there.
"It was just for closure," said Shriver. "No one will ever know what we felt until they go through it."
On the Net:
Accident Reports.com: http://www.accident-report.com/AT7.html
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