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Families hope 63-year mystery finally solved
San Francisco Chronicle


November 14, 2005

As World War II loomed, William Gamber was growing up in Fayette, Ohio, the tall, dark, athletic son of the town barber. On the other end of the state, blond, blue-eyed Ernest Munn was living on a small farm with hay fields, pigs and a horse, the big brother of three sisters.

Meanwhile, slender, fastidious Leo Mustonen was being raised by Finnish immigrant parents in Brainerd, Minn., and John Mortenson was a young man in Moscow, Idaho.

The fate of the four men merged on Nov. 18, 1942. At 8:30 a.m., Gamber, a pilot, and the three others, aspiring Army Air Corps fliers, boarded an AT-7 plane at Mather Field in Sacramento and headed north to Corning on a routine training mission. They were never heard from again.



Guardian Flight Medevac


University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan

Several years later, it was determined that their plane had crashed hundreds of miles off course into 13,841-foot-high Mount Darwin in California's Kings Canyon National Park, about 300 feet below the summit, scattering wreckage and bodies over a wide swath of a remote glacial area.

The discovery last month of one of the four airmen entombed in ice at the base of nearby Mount Mendel has linked the families of the airmen as relatives from California to Pennsylvania hold out hope that, after 63 years, they will be able to put their loved ones to rest.

"We were able to get several letters off the name badge. We're confident it's one of those guys," said Army Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green, spokeswoman for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base on Oahu, Hawaii, home to the world's largest forensic anthropological laboratory. "We have not excluded any of the individuals."

The airman's body, discovered Oct. 16 by ice climbers, was chipped out along with 400 pounds of ice and granite, thawed at the Fresno County Coroner's Office and flown to Hickam Air Force Base. Investigators say it could take weeks or even months to positively identify the remains using dental records and DNA tests.

William Gamber

Forensic investigators told CNN that the airman, who was wearing a green sweater, thermal underwear and an unused parachute, carried in his pockets a black plastic comb, a Schaeffer fountain pen, three small, decomposed, leather address books, four dimes and five pennies, none dated later than 1942.

Barbara Adams of San Carlos has high hopes that the remains are those of Gamber, her first cousin. She was heartened by reports that the serviceman who was recovered had had extensive dental work done, which would be consistent with her cousin.

On Veterans Day, Friday, she visited a memorial gravestone for the crew that was placed in Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno after a hiker initially discovered the wreckage in 1947. At that time, rescuers recovered shoes, some frozen flesh and Mortenson's military dog tags. The human remains were buried in the cemetery.

Adams recalled her cousin fondly:

"He played trombone. He was what we called a three-letter man - he played three sports in high school," said Adams, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, but spent many summers with Gamber and his two sisters in Fayette.

Ernest Munn

Ernest Munn's sisters also will submit DNA samples to the Army. They were heartened by news that the airman's hair was blond - but Nielson-Green cautioned that the sun could have bleached the dead man's hair over six decades.

"I was the youngest, and he was the oldest, and my two sisters were sort of near in age, and they had their own thing," Lois Shriver, 80, said Friday in a phone interview from Pittsburgh. "He kind of took me under his wing. Whatever he was doing, I was there. He was kind of taking care of me. He was a mighty nice brother."

She described him as "tall, blond and very good-looking."

In fact, she didn't know how handsome her brother was until one night during Christmas vacation when he came to pick her up at the Sears & Roebuck where she worked, and all the girls gathered at the window to get a good look.

"It's the blond bomber!" she recalled them saying.

Sara Zeyer, 83, another of Munn's sisters who still lives in St. Clairsville, Ohio, remembers her brother as a bookworm, scholar and "quite a gentleman" who worked in finance for about three years across the state border in West Virginia before enlisting in the service.

Leo Mustonen

Mustonen's parents and only brother are deceased. But Louella Mustonen of Jacksonville, Fla. - who once was married to Mustonen's brother - recalled in an interview with CNN that she had never known Mustonen to be without a comb or money in his pocket. A reporter informed Mustonen's mother that the wreckage of his plane had been found, according to an article in the St. Paul (Minn.) Dispatch on Oct. 2, 1947.

"Her eyes half shut, Mrs. Arvid Mustonen sat in a rocking chair today and murmured, 'God bless you for telling me,' " according to the story, which described the Finnish immigrant as holding a "thumb-worn sheaf of telegrams" from the Army, received in the weeks after her son's disappearance.

John Mortenson

No living relatives of Mortenson - at 25, the oldest of the crew - could be found.

According to the official accident report filed with the U.S. War Department, a search for the missing plane began at 1:30 p.m. the day it disappeared because it was known to have enough fuel to fly five hours. The search was abandoned a month later, at 4:30 p.m. Dec. 14.

A subsequent report filed after the wreckage was spotted in 1947 said the cause of the crash was undetermined.

"The aircraft apparently did not burn on impact and appears to be a twin-engine Beechcraft," the report reads. "The remains of deceased were not recoverable since the wreckage is several years old, is widely scattered and is almost entirely covered by a great amount of snow and ice."


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