Isle lab ID's iced remains as Minnesota airman
The Army aviator went missing during World War II
Remains found in a California mountain range last fall are those of Leo Mustonen, a Minnesota airman whose plane went missing during World War II, a family member said.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base has been working to identify the remains, but still said on its Web site yesterday that its investigation had not been completed.
Mustonen was 22 when the plane he was in crashed 64 years ago in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
But Mustonen's oldest niece, Ona Lea Mustonen, found out Wednesday that the remains were her uncle, she told the Star-Bulletin yesterday from her Florida home.
Mustonen described her feelings as "joy and release, because a missing chapter of our family's life has been closed."
Mustonen, who was 11 months old when her uncle died, said the family has photographs of him holding her as an infant.
Last October, authorities recovered a well-preserved body encased in ice in Kings Canyon National Park. Military anthropologists narrowed its identity to one of four men who flew out of Sacramento's Mather Field the night the plane disappeared: Mustonen; pilot William Gamber, 23, of Ohio; and aviation Cadets Ernest Munn, 23, of Ohio, and John Mortenson, 25, of Idaho.
The deep cold preserved the airman's remains well over the intervening decades, providing researchers with a number of clues.
Standing between 5 feet 9 and 6 feet 2, the man was in his early 20s and had light brown or sandy blond hair. He wore a brown U.S. Army Air Forces uniform predating the founding of the Air Force as a separate service in 1947.
Investigators were able to read a name on a faded badge on the serviceman's clothing, but declined to reveal it until the identity was confirmed through DNA.
Since the body now identified as her uncle was found, Mustonen said she's been on a "journey of getting to know him."
"It's been a slow process," she said. "And he's become very real. All we knew before was that his plane went down in World War II in the mountains. And our grandmother and grandfather (Leo Mustonen's parents) died while we were still young."
Leo Mustonen, a 1938 Brainerd High School graduate, left the central Minnesota city to join the war effort in 1942. The youngest son of Finnish immigrants, he had attended junior college and the University of Minnesota and wanted to design aircraft, Marjorie Freeman, a family friend in Baxter, Minn., told the Associated Press.
He was on an AT-7 navigational training plane when it vanished after leaving on a routine flight Nov. 18, 1942. Five years later, after an engine, scattered remains and clothing were found far from the plane's intended course, the cadets and the pilot were given a ceremonial burial.
Mustonen said she is "very grateful" to the military for taking such care to identify her uncle and to honor him.
"I've been impressed with how the military is handling this," she said, noting that her uncle's remains will have a military escort to be buried with his parents in Brainerd, Minn., probably in March.
Mustonen said Freeman had told her that Freeman's mother-in-law and Leo Mustonen's mother, Anna, "used to sit and have coffee, and for a good five years (after her son's disappearance), almost every day, she would just sit there crying." Anna Mustonen died in 1968, without conclusive word of her son.
Ona Lea Mustonen said she's been told a military representative will privately return to the family the personal items found with her uncle: a comb; three small leather-bound address books; a Sheaffer pen; 51 cents, with no coin dated later than 1942; and his badge and wings.
Mustonen said the experience has helped her relate to the feelings of families who have lost loved ones in the current wars.
"I think it's absolutely terrific that we can honor the people who have served their country," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.