Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command service members carried the remains of a World War II airman discovered frozen in the Sierra Nevada into the forensics lab at Hickam Air Force Base yesterday, where scientists will try to positively identify the body.
WWII body arrives at Hickam lab
Forensics officials are confident the airman can be identified
The well-preserved remains of a World War II airman found frozen in the Sierra Nevada mountains arrived yesterday at Hickam Air Force Base for identification.
"The body is in very good condition after 63 years. The skin is mummified, and the bones are very well preserved," said Paul Emanovsky, an anthropologist with the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command. "Whether an identification can be made quickly or if it takes a while depends on the availability of medical records."
A pen, small notebook, comb and coins were recovered inside the airman's Army uniform, officials said.
His dog tags were not immediately found, but a badly corroded name badge on the uniform will be examined, Emanovsky said.
Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green said officials at JPAC's Central Identification Laboratory have narrowed the list of possible missing servicemen to fewer than 10, but the list could change.
The airman, apparently a Caucasian with fair hair, was flown to Hawaii in a blue body bag inside a flag-draped metal casket. It was transported to the lab in a military van and unloaded by four soldiers.
Inside the lab, two forensic anthropologists and a dentist will examine the body, teeth and clothing during the identification process, which could take anywhere from a few weeks to months or years.
"It's a mystery that's been buried, and only now that the ice and snow has melted away has this mystery surfaced," said Dr. Robert Mann, the lab's deputy scientific director. "Now what we have to do is unravel that mystery, and we just started to do that."
But officials were optimistic.
"I feel pretty confident it's all going to come together for a successful identification," Mann said.
Climbers found the airman's head and arm jutting out of solid ice in Kings Canyon National Park on Oct. 16, but conditions kept a search team from reaching the site for two days.
The ice preserved the body's skin and muscle.
The body had been thawing since it arrived at the coroner's office in Fresno County, where relatives of missing soldiers have been calling from around the country, hoping the man could be a father or brother who disappeared decades ago.
"There is trauma on the body. It is consistent with an aircraft crash," Emanovsky said.
An identification could solve part of a decades-old mystery: the disappearance of a navigational training plane that left a Sacramento airfield in November 1942 carrying a crew of four on a routine flight.
The pilot was 2nd Lt. William A. Gamber, 23, of Fayette, Ohio. The three aviation cadets aboard were Ernest Munn, 23, of St. Clairsville, Ohio; John Mortenson, 25, of Moscow, Idaho; and Leo M. Mustonen, 22, of Brainerd, Minn.
JPAC, which operates the largest anthropological laboratory in the world, has identified more than 1,200 servicemen dating to World War I. It usually works with skeletal remains but has received frozen bodies in the past, such as airmen found preserved in a Tibetan glacier in 1993.
"We don't have to go to a glacier in Tibet to find a missing airman," Mann said. "We've got some of them in our own back yard."