‘It’s been a long struggle’
November 25, 2005
FRESNO, Calif. – When a flight crew training for combat in World War II disappeared in the Sierra Nevada on Nov. 18, 1942, four families were left waiting for a word or a body to bury – for some end of the grief that was only partly eased when wreckage and scant remains were found five years later.
Now, 63 years later, one family might get their wish.
“It’s been a long struggle,” said Millie Ewing, the sister of pilot and Ohio native William Gamber.
Military anthropologists analyzing the well-preserved body of an airman found encased in ice last month in Kings Canyon National Park have narrowed their options to four men who flew out of Sacramento’s Mather Field on the mission that went astray: Gamber, 23, and aviation Cadets John Mortenson, 25, Leo Mustonen, 22, and Ernest Munn, 23, of St. Clairsville, Ohio
Experts were able to read a name on a faded badge on the serviceman’s clothing, but they won’t reveal it until they confirm the identity through DNA. It could take weeks, or months – but that’s not long for family members who waited for decades.
“What we do has to stand up to scientific and legal scrutiny, so that the family knows for sure this is their loved one,” said Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green, with the Hawaii-based Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, which identifies remains of missing service members. “These families have been waiting for a long time, and they deserve that.”
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The details and the wait have been nerve-racking for Lois Shriver, who, like Ewing, was never able to bury her brother Munn, a cadet with slicked-back blond hair who still smiles, handsome, in a family picture.
Munn, like the other three, was given a military funeral in San Bruno’s Golden Gate National Cemetery, but the grave is empty – a bitter memory for Shriver, who was 17 when the cadets disappeared.
“You never forget these things,” she said.
The four young men left at 8:30 a.m. on an overcast day with five hours of fuel aboard the AT-7 craft for a navigational training flight through the Central Valley.
The weather had been stormy and gusty. Training missions had been canceled the day before, when “it rained cats and dogs” according to a diary entry by serviceman William Bechter, who trained at Mather Field in 1942, and died in action the next year.
Leonard Spivey, a friend of Bechter who graduated from the base as a navigator three days after the accident, said strong winds and poor visibility may have led the plane far off course. It crashed nearly 200 miles from home.
“Imagine being in a hot air balloon on a windy day,” he said. “At that time, we didn’t have sophisticated navigational devices.”
Spivey read Bechter’s diary entry from the night the plane disappeared: “The war was brought close to home tonight when one AT-7 … failed to return from this morning’s hop.”
Bechter wrote that flights scoured the valley for days. They gave up a month later, after 581 hours of fruitless ground and air searches, according to a 1942 military accident report.
Five years later, ice climbers scaling the 60 degree slope of the Mount Darwin glacier found the first hard evidence of the crash: pieces of the motor, scattered shoes, clothing, and a piece of frozen flesh.
Among them was a badge with the name of Mortenson, of Moscow, Idaho. That appears to eliminate him as the frozen airman because the uniform on the remains also bore a name tag.
Forensic anthropologists in Hickam Air Force Base, in Oahu, Hawaii, have examined the body and sorted through decades-old dental records to piece together the identity of the airman who died of massive trauma in the crash. The ice tomb preserved the skin and muscle, the young man’s fair hair, even the trinkets he carried in his pockets – a 1942 calendar, coins, a fountain pen, and a comb.
Physical remains weren’t conclusive, so officials are gathering samples of DNA from the airmen’s families to look for a match, said Nielson-Green.
The news of the find generated a lot of excitement in Munn’s hometown of St. Clairsville, about 110 miles east of Columbus, where most who grew up with him just “married and settled down,” said Shriver. Two of her sisters still live there.
The find brought back bittersweet memories of the ambitious youngster who wanted to see the world beyond his parent’s confectionary store and the placid landscape of rural Ohio, Shriver said.
But a phone call from military officials early in November laid her hopes to rest.
“They told us they didn’t think it was him,” she said, without giving more details.
That leaves only Gamber and Mustonen, the youngest son of Finnish immigrants who settled in Brainerd, Minn.
Anna Mustonen never overcame her son’s disappearance, said Marjorie Freeman, who went to school with Leo and his brother, Arvo Mustonen.
Freeman lived with her mother-in-law during the war and Anna Mustonen would visit their house for coffee each day. The two older women chatted in Finnish at the kitchen table. Sometimes Mustonen broke down and cried over her missing son, said Freeman.
Leo Mustonen had pushed himself through junior college and the University of Minnesota. He enlisted to pursue a goal of designing aircraft, Freeman said.
Anna Mustonen died in 1968, without conclusive word of her son. But if this airman turns out to be him, Freeman said, she believes he should be buried not in a military cemetery, but in Brainerd’s Evergreen Cemetery.
“She would have wanted him nearby,” she said. “What mother wouldn’t?”
Ewing, 92, and in a retirement home near Fayette in northwest Ohio, is also eager to bring her brother home.
She had followed him to California when he enlisted. The two were close, and it was up to her to pick up Gamber’s clothes and car from the base after he disappeared.
But she waited a year, hoping for some sign of the handsome former college basketball player. When she finally returned to Fayette, their hometown, she was alone.
For decades, she’s ached to give the body of her 23-year-old brother a proper burial in their family plot.
Being able to do it now, she said, would be “truly amazing.”