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The remains found atop the Sierra Nevadas last month were frozen and mummified.
Isle team leads effort to identify WWII vet
Forensic investigators in Hawaii are hoping DNA will provide the final clues to solve the 63-year-old mystery of a World War II airman found frozen and mummified in the Sierra Nevadas last month.
This after dental records for three of the four crew members on a AT-7 training plane that crashed on Nov. 18, 1942, were not enough to make an identification, according to a spokeswoman at the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base.
Anthropologists at the Hickam laboratory have asked the Army Casualty Office to find DNA samples from maternal family members of the airmen -- three cadets and a pilot -- who were on the plane that hit an icy mountain on a routine training flight from Sacramento, Calif.
The DNA samples, dental comparisons and other evidence will be evaluated to see if the body can be positively identified.
"There has to be a convergence of lots of evidence," said Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green, of JPAC. "We can't work off any one piece of evidence; it has to be lots of evidence."
Last week, an anthropologist working on the items found on and near the body was able to make out a name off a faded metal tag attached to the airman's uniform.
The name was of one of the four young men who were on the training flight -- a strong piece of evidence. But it is still circumstantial, Nielson-Green said, noting that the man could have borrowed someone else's shirt.
JPAC has not released the name, nor is it being shared with the two other scientists who are trying to identify the soldier, Nielson-Green added. Each anthropologist normally works separately and does not share findings so as to not influence the work of the others.
The family of one of the men on the plane -- Cadet Ernest Munn, 23, of St. Clairesville, Ohio -- said an Army official told them the name on the tag was not Munn, but did not say whose name it was.
Another name tag -- that of Cadet John Mortenson, 25, of Moscow, Idaho -- was found in a search of the crash wreckage in the 1940s, according to the Fresno Bee.
The other two men on the flight were pilot 2nd Lt. William Gamber, 23, of Fayette, Ohio; and Cadet Leo Mustonen, 22, of Brainerd, Minn.
Among the evidence -- a pocket comb; a few coins, none of which are older than 1942; three 1942 pocket calendars; and in a calendar was a 2-inch square fragment of paper with the handwritten notation: "The girls would know."
The cadets on the plane were trainees; perhaps the note could have been a memory tool for navigation, Nielson-Green said. It could have been written by one of the people on the plane or by someone else.
"With the words out of context, we're not able to know what it means," she said.
The dates on the coins and the calendar are further evidence that the body is from the 1942 crash. The anthropologist was also able to determine that the unopened parachute recovered with the body was made in 1941, Nielson-Green said.
The calendars and the note, which were waterlogged after being encased in ice, were recovered with the help of a conservationist from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
The conservationist's experience with a freeze-drying technique to preserve water-soaked documents was gained from saving papers damaged in Hamilton Library after last year's Oct. 30 Manoa flood, Nielson-Green said.
Another JPAC scientist is working just with the teeth of the airman.
The odontology specialist has charted the teeth and determined that the man had had "a lot of dental work done," Nielson-Green said. He also had a nice smile and a gap between his teeth.
But the dental records are not sufficient to draw a conclusion on who the man was, Nielson-Green said.
Old photos of the airmen smiling might help with the identification, Nielson-Green said. Those photos can be compared with the teeth on the body to help identify the man or to eliminate one or more of the other people on the plane.
Another anthropologist working on the man's body has determined the airman was a Caucasian man in his 20s with fair hair and from 5 feet 9 inches to 6 feet 2 inches tall.
But the description fits everyone on the flight, Nielson-Green said.
So the next step is to take a DNA sample from the body and compare it with relatives of the mothers of the four airmen on the plane.
Relatives of the airmen confirm that they have been asked to provide a DNA sample.
That will require some traveling in the case of Mustonen, the son of Finnish immigrants, said his niece Leane Ross, of Jacksonville, Fla.
Ross is the daughter of Mustonen's brother, so her DNA will not match because it has to come from a female bloodline.
The Army told the family they might have located a relative of her grandmother in Finland to get a sample, Ross said.
In a CNN interview, Ross's mother, Louella Mustonen, remembered Mustonen as a handsome man with a wide gap-tooth smile, who was meticulous about combing his hair.
Family members of the airmen say the discovery of the body has brought up old memories and unhealed wounds. But at the same time, there is a new appreciation for the men who gave their lives in service to their country.
When Jeanne Pyle heard the name on the tag was not that of her brother Ernest Munn, she was depressed at first. Then she talked with her daughter.
"She said, 'Mother, don't feel that way. Just think of all the good you've done. You had his picture all over the place and let them know what a nice-looking brother you had,'" Pyle said.
If there is a unique mitochondrial DNA signature, the identification could be completed fairly quickly, Nielson-Green said. But the reports of the anthropologists will also be reviewed internally and by outside experts, and an announcement of the identity might not occur until the end of the year or in January.
Pyle said she and another sister in Ohio are supposed to give a DNA sample.
Knowing who the airman is will bring closure, Pyle said. "But I said whoever it is, I'm happy for that family. I know how much it means to them to find their son," Pyle added.
Ross, whose grandmother grieved for her son all her life, said she feels the same way.
"It is a happy situation to know that your relative has been located and will be properly buried and there is closure," Ross said. "I would like for everyone to know."