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WWII mystery stirs hope for family
Sacramento Bee


October 31, 2005

Sadie Munn boarded a train and headed to Sacramento in 1942 for a memorial service for her firstborn child, a military airman who had crashed high in the Sierra Nevada.

She was hoping for answers: Why did he die? When will they find his body?

Every year after, she said her son's name aloud on his birthday, Jan. 18, and again, on Nov. 18, the day he went missing. She died in 2000, at 102 years old. She never found her answers.

Her daughters now believe the body of their rangy, blond-haired brother, 23-year-old Army Cadet Ernest Munn, is the one found by hikers on Oct. 16 embedded in ice in Kings Canyon National Park.

Ernest Munn had been stationed at what was then Mather Field for a year before he went on a training exercise in an Army AT-7 with three others aboard, according to a military historian. The plane was supposed to head north to Corning and then return, but it never showed up. Searchers combed the mountains for a month before giving up.

"I'm just holding on that it will be him," said Ernest Munn's sister, Sarah Zeyer of Saint Clairsville, Ohio. "I'm just overjoyed."

No one official has contacted the family, but Zeyer, 83, and her two sisters, Jeanne Pyle, 85, and Lois Shriver, 81, have pieced together what they know and what they've heard about the hikers' discovery.

"When they said he had blond hair and he was rather tall. ... I'm holding on to that," she said.

"He would have been 87 right now," said Zeyer, talking from her home by telephone.

The hikers found the body embedded in ice on Mount Mendel, garbed in a wool sweater and a cotton canvas flight suit.

The body arrived last Monday at the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, home of the world's largest forensic anthropology laboratory. The Accounting Command is responsible for recovering or identifying any prisoners of war or people missing in action from all military branches.

Forensic anthropologists there said they have a lot to work with: skin and muscle, hair and uniform. They also will examine a pen, small notebook, comb and coins from inside the airman's Army uniform and a badly corroded name badge, all recovered by a search team.

They cautioned that the airman might not be blond at all and that his hair could have been discolored by the sun.

Though the body was partially preserved, identification could take weeks, even months, said Army Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green, a spokeswoman for JPAC.

The military is working from a short list of names and is ordering dental records, she said.

Others on the flight were John Mortenson, 25, from Moscow, Idaho; Leo Mustonen, 22, from Brainerd, Minn.; and pilot William Gamber, 23, of Fayette, Ohio.

A 1948 Fresno Bee story that a group of searchers recovered their bodies proved to be mistaken.

Relatives of other missing soldiers have also contacted the military about the body, Nielson-Green said.

The teeth, which would not have been X-rayed in that era, were probably charted, she said, and do show identifying characteristics. If dental records don't suffice, DNA analysis will be used, the military spokeswoman said.

She could not say whether the command would pursue a wider search for other bodies if this one is connected to the 1942 crash.

Ernest Munn grew up in Saint Clairsville and did well in school, his sister said. He crossed the river to nearby Wheeling, W.Va., to take a job in finance, which is where his family thought he would stay. But he met up with other young men itching to go to war. He told his family he was enlisting, too.

"We hated to see him go, but he had made up his mind," Zeyer said.

He had a girlfriend he intended to marry, but not just yet. He wouldn't marry her and leave her behind.

So for one last big dinner, the family gathered to say goodbye.

He wrote home from Mather, talking about California. "It was all new to him," said Zeyer.

After the crash, his mother traveled to California with a relative because his father was ill. An engraved stone was dedicated to the missing men.

Zeyer's father traveled to California in 1947 when the plane's wreckage was found by hikers and another search ensued. But no bodies were recovered.

Ernest Munn's parents could never understand why no one could find their son, Zeyer said.

They are buried in the tiny town where they raised their son. There's a place next to them waiting for the son they wanted so much to put to rest.

"We're going to finally have a ceremony," said Zeyer. "We want to bring him home."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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