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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 5, 2006

Remains of frozen airman identified

By GREGG AAMOT
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS Remains found in a California mountain range last fall are believed to be those of an airman from Minnesota whose plane crashed during World War II, a friend of the man's family said yesterday.

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam, which has been examining the remains, posted a statement on its Web site calling the findings "preliminary" and "currently under review."

"The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command has not concluded the identification of the remains found last October in the Kings Canyon National Park, California," the statement on the site read yesterday.

Marjorie Freeman of Baxter, Minn., a friend of the family of a missing airman from Minnesota, told The Associated Press that the remains are those of Leo Mustonen, who was 22 when the plane he was in crashed 64 years ago in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Freeman said a niece of Mustonen's called her after being notified by defense officials.

CNN also reported the identification, citing nieces of Mustonen.

Calls to officials with the Hickam lab were not immediately returned.

Last October, authorities recovered a well-preserved body encased in ice in Kings Canyon National Park. Military anthropologists narrowed their options to 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.

Experts working at Hickam Air Force Base 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.

"I had a gut feeling it was him. I just knew it," said Freeman, who grew up near Mustonen's family and was three years behind him in school.

She has been in contact with Mustonen's nieces, Leane Mustonen Ross and Ona Lea Mustonen, who live in Florida.

Leane Mustonen Ross didn't return calls left on her cell phone yesterday.

Leo Mustonen, a 1938 Brainerd High School graduate, left the central Minnesota city to join the war effort in 1942.

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 scattered remains and clothing were found far from the plane's intended course, the cadets and the pilot were given a ceremonial burial.

Freeman, who went to school with Leo and his brother, Arvo Mustonen, recalled yesterday that while she was living with her mother-in-law during the war, the Mustonens' mother, Anna, often came to visit.

"Mrs. Mustonen was often at my mother-in-law's house, and she always had tears streaming down her face about the loss of her son in that mountain range," she said. "I think (Mustonen's mother) would be just ecstatic and thankful that he has been found."

Anna and Leo's father, Arvid Mustonen, were Finnish immigrants who are buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Brainerd. Freeman said Mustonen's nieces told her they plan to return Mustonen's cremated remains to Brainerd to be buried near his parents.