The U.S. military has identified the body of a World War II airman that climbers found in October at the bottom of a glacier in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Family members said they learned this week that the man was 22-year-old Army Air Corps cadet Leo Mustonen, who died in a 1942 plane crash.
Mustonen joined the Army during his senior year in high school in Brainerd, Minnesota, and was in training to become a navigator when he was reported missing on November 18, 1942.
Mustonen was son of Finnish immigrants. He was one of four cadets aboard a training flight that crashed in the Sierra Nevada mountains east of Fresno.
The National Park Service has said it is considering whether to launch a new search in the spring for the remains of the other three men, pilot Lt. Bill Gamber, and navigator trainees Glenn Munn and Melvin Mortensen.
A Defense Department official called the Mustonen family on Wednesday and confirmed that the identity of the body found in October, relatives said…
“I felt in my heart all along that it was him,” said Mustonen’s niece Leane Mustonen Ross. “I’ve even made funeral arrangements and everything.”
The family plans to have Mustonen’s remains interred along with his parents in Brainerd, about 130 miles north of Minneapolis, she said.
“It’s filling a pain and bringing it all together,” another of Mustonen’s nieces, Ona Lea Mustonen. “To know how someone died and what happened to them stops the question mark.”
Some wreckage from the aircraft was found in 1947, but no bodies were discovered until October, when climbers spotted Mustonen’s frozen remains in a mountainous area of Kings Canyon National Park.
Mustonen was wearing a WWII-era Army Air Corps uniform when forensic scientists removed his body from its icy tomb and took it to the largest forensic lab in the world, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Investigators said then that they had narrowed the search for the body’s identity to 10 World War II soldiers among thousands who are missing or unidentified.
Using hair and teeth, scientists determined that the man was at least 21 years old, and the bones indicated that he died when his plane crashed into the mountains six decades ago, forensic experts said.
“The injuries are so substantial, he didn’t feel anything. He died immediately,” said Dr. Robert Mann, a forensic anthropologist.
Scientists also found a corroded nameplate, clothing remnants, a broken plastic comb, dimes dating between 1936 and 1942, an Army Air Corps insignia on his uniform and three small leather-bound address books.
The pages of the address books were too decomposed to glean any useful information.
More than two dozen planes crashed in the Sierras during World War II.
Scientists said in November they were hopeful that DNA testing would help identify the airman. Forensic scientists collected DNA samples from family members of the men who were on the plane and, through the process of elimination, identified the remains as those of Mustonen.
Marjorie Freeman, a family friend, said Mustonen dreamed of becoming an engineer when he enlisted.
“Oh, Mr. and Mrs. Mustonen were so proud of that, and they were so happy he was really going to make something of himself,” Freeman said.
She said Mustonen’s mother, Anna, died in 1969 without ever coming to terms with her son’s disappearance.
“I can see her so plainly, sitting across my mother-in-law’s kitchen table — my mother-in-law on one end and Mrs. Mustonen on the other — having coffee, and tears running down her face.”
Ross said the family — which has traced relatives back to 1632 — now feels “absolute elation and joy” about being able to write the last chapter in their uncle’s life story.
“We are so delighted that we can take him and put him to rest with his mother and father. That’s what we would like to do,” she said.