ID of WW II Airman Sends Important Message to Today's Troops

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 9, 2006  - The military's persistence in determining the identity of an airman missing in action since World War II sends an important message to families of all missing servicemembers and all men and women serving in uniform today, the commander of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command told American Forces Press Service.

The command announced today that its forensic lab at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, recently identified the so-called "glacier airman," who was discovered frozen in a California glacier in October, as Aviation Cadet Leo Mustonen. His remains will soon be returned to his family for burial, officials said.

The identification, made 64 years after Mustonen's AT-7 navigation plane crashed into Darwin Glacier in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, demonstrates the Defense Department's commitment to ensuring the fullest possible accounting of all missing servicemembers, Army Brig. Gen. Michael C. Flowers said by phone from his Hickam Air Force Base headquarters.

It exemplifies the command's motto, "Until they are home," and helps bring closure to families wondering about their loves ones' fates, he said. "We brought him home," Flowers said of Mustonen. "And his family can now rest assured that he rests in peace, knowing what his fate was."

For more than six decades, the 22-year-old Brainerd, Minn., airmen's fate had been unclear. He was among four airmen reported missing after takeoff from Mather Field in Sacramento, Calif., in November 1942. Also onboard the flight were 2nd Lt. William Gamber of Fayette, Ohio, the pilot; and two other aviation cadets, Ernest Munn of St. Clairsville, Ohio, and John Mortenson of Moscow, Idaho.

An exhaustive month-long search failed to locate the aircraft. Hikers crossing the glacier five years later stumbled upon the wreckage. U.S. Army soldiers were dispatched to the site, where they retrieved artifacts linked to Gamber's missing aircraft, officials said. They also found three sets of human remains, which were buried as a group with full military honors in Golden Gate National Cemetery, in San Bruno, Calif., in 1945.

The story of the missing airmen reopened 60 years later, in October 2005, when hikers crossing the site found more human remains preserved in ice on the Mendel Glacier. The glacier is next to Darwin Glacier in the Sierra Nevadas. Park rangers from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and a forensic anthropologist from JPAC's Central Identification Laboratory recovered the remains, which were later shipped to the JPAC lab.

The remains arrived wearing a World War II-era Army-issued parachute stenciled with the words, "U.S. Army," JPAC officials said. The unidentified airman also arrived with a comb, various coins and other personal items in his pockets.

Investigators at the command began searching the records of men lost during World War II and found that 25 to 30 military planes crashed on training missions in California during the World War II years. They narrowed their search based on locations of wrecks already found and bodies previously identified. Experts at the JPAC lab used the airman's clothing, teeth and mitochondrial DNA to determine his identity. All four families whose loved ones were involved in the 1942 crash were notified of the identification.

Flowers said the resolve demonstrated in identifying Mustonen's remains sends a strong message to America's men and women in uniform. "They can rest assured that as they go out to fight our nation's conflicts, that no matter what happens to them, if they were to fall in battle and not be recovered by their comrades, that someone will continue to look for them and not rest until we can bring them home," he said.

JPAC's members work year-round to repatriate and identify the remains of about 88,000 U.S. servicemembers missing from past wars. Those missing include one from the Gulf War, more than 1,800 from the Vietnam War, 120 from the Cold War, more than 8,100 from the Korean War, and more than 78,000 from World War II.

Flowers said the command is committed to a mission that dates back to World War II and is now embodied in the U.S. military Code of Conduct. While most countries around the world bury their war dead where they fall, the United States promises its servicemembers that it will do everything in its power to bring them home.

Working to fulfill that promise sends joint-service teams from JPAC to potential crash and burial sites around the world. "We go out worldwide to recover those who are missing or to find those who are missing so that families can have closure and so we can keep our promise to our soldiers and airmen and Marines and sailors that they will come home," Flowers said.

Once teams recover remains and repatriate them to the United States, the command's Central Identification Laboratory uses state-of-the-art scientific techniques to determine their identity. JPAC is currently working to identify more than 1,000 sets of remains in its lab.

Flowers urged families of missing servicemembers to ensure they have provided DNA samples to help the identification process. "We would ask that for those out there who have missing relatives and have not given a family reference DNA sample to contact us or their service casualty representative so we can get that sample," he said.

DNA sampling and other state-of-the-art advances are helping JPAC experts make positive identifications that once weren't possible. Flowers said that process is only expected to improve with time.

There's tremendous gratification in the JPAC mission and the service the command provides, the general said. "If you get just one letter, one phone call or one visit from some of these family members, it speaks volumes," he said. "They are very, very appreciative, and that's what we work for-to come to that closure and bring their loved ones home."