March 27, 2006 12:00 PM

Four young American men climbed into their AT-7 airplane and, in November 1942, took off from Sacramento on a military training mission. Then—tragedy. Their plane crashed in the Sierra Nevada—unforgiving mountains that swallowed any trace of the men for six decades.

But even the wild can hold its secrets for only so long. Last Oct. 16, two men hiking near the top of 13,710-ft. Mount Mendel saw something sticking out of the massive Mount Mendel Glacier. There, fluttering in the wind, was a vintage U.S. Army parachute. What the hikers found next unravelled a mystery that had baffled the U.S. Army and the families of four young soldiers for 63 years. Inside the solid ice was the body of a man, well preserved except for the protruding head and right arm. A high-tech forensic investigation showed the hikers had stumbled onto something rare indeed—a long-missing U.S. soldier found on U.S. soil. “This is the first time that we’ve ever found remains [of a serviceperson] in a glacier in the U.S.,” says Dr. Bob Mann of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.

News of the find also shocked the surviving relatives of the four World War II airmen: 2nd Lt. William Gamber, 23, and aviation cadets Ernest Munn, 23, John Mortenson, 25, and Leo Mustonen, 22. In 1947 the men were given a ceremonial burial, with one simple headstone bearing all four names. Small sections of the fuselage and some unidentified scattered body parts turned up that year, but still no trace of the plane and its men. Now their families were forced to wonder—could the man in the glacier be their lost loved one? “I almost fainted when I found out,” says Lois Shriver, 81, who was 17 when her brother Ernest Munn went missing. “We put it on the back burner all these years, and now this brought it all back.”

Five months would pass before the families had their answers. After the hikers reported their find, six park rangers began chipping the frozen airman out of a 400-lb. block of ice and granite. In the meantime Army officials asked the relatives of all four soldiers for DNA samples. “You think about it and you don’t, and then you think about it again,” William Gamber’s sister Millicent Ewing, 92, said in January, before results were known. “Every other hour you’re thinking about it. You try not to hope.”

Fortunately, the body was remarkably well-preserved. Entombed in the glacier until some of the ice thawed, “he wasn’t exposed to the wind and sun for very long,” says the joint command’s Dr. Thomas Holland, who oversaw DNA tests. The ice also preserved a partial name tag and a broken comb in his pocket. Analysts exposed the corroded name tag to intense ultraviolet light, yielding a name that erased any doubt. On March 9 officials announced that the man in the glacier was Leo Mustonen.

Months earlier, Leane Ross, 61, had searched the Internet in her Jacksonville, Fla., home and found photos of the airman encased in ice. She was sure it was uncle Leo. “I just knew it was him,” says Ross. “I started making funeral arrangements right then.”

Raised in Brainerd, Minn., by Finnish immigrants, Mustonen joined the Army as a high school senior and was training to be a navigator. Army officials told Leane Ross her uncle likely bailed out of the AT-7 and, when his parachute failed to open, plummeted to earth and died instantly. “I think about his fear,” says Leo’s niece Sister Mary Ruth Mustonen, 64. “Free-falling, knowing his chute didn’t open. I can almost hear him screaming.”

Experts say there’s a good chance the other airmen are somewhere in the glacier, though finding them could take years. The Army has no immediate plans to search for them, but “we make a promise to all families and to all soldiers,” says U.S. Army Deputy Public Affairs Officer Shari Lawrence. “We tell them, ‘We will bring you home as soon as we can.'”

The Army presented Mustonen’s relatives with the belongings they found: his metal wing pin, the address book and the broken plastic comb. On March 25, the family will have his cremated remains buried next to his mother’s grave at the Evergreen Cemetery in Brainerd. Mustonen will receive full military honors. “This is still surreal, but it’s a joy,” says Sister Mary Ruth. “We’re bringing Leo home. He’s not alone anymore.”

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