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Hope Survives 63 Years

Families and friends of four missing airmen believed killed in 1942 anxiously await ID of a body found last month in a California glacier.

November 02, 2005|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

In Pittsburgh, 80-year-old Lois Shriver wakes up in the middle of the night asking herself questions that she hasn't dared to broach in decades: "Oh my goodness! What if it's him? What if it's my brother? Could this really be happening?"

In Brainerd, Minn., 82-year-old Marjorie Freeman's night is gripped by much the same thought: What if the frozen remains found on a California mountainside are those of the neighbor boy I knew so long ago; the boy whose mother would come over for coffee and even years later cry over her lost son?

In tiny Fayette, Ohio, folks are planning a funeral for the missing son of one of the town's first families -- a ceremony that they know might never be held. "It would be quite a nice service of some kind," said lifelong resident Pauline Jones. "It would be a really big thing for our town."

It's impossible to tell how many people around the country are moved by news that a body discovered Oct. 16 in a Sierra Nevada mountain glacier near the site of a 63-year-old plane wreck might be that of someone close to them.

For many, the discovery has clearly touched a nerve. At the Fresno County coroner's office, caller after caller share their theories: The body, still strapped in an unopened Army parachute, has to be their cousin, or their friend, or the buddy they enlisted with who was lost while on a training mission.

But nobody involved feels the anguish of not knowing as intensely as the friends and relatives of the four young airmen whose training flight from Sacramento disappeared Nov. 18, 1942.

Five years later, a hiker on 13,710-foot Mt. Mendel in Kings Canyon National Park found scattered wreckage from that plane. A military retrieval team later recovered a few items of clothing, a blank navigation log, a dog tag and what their report described as "insufficient remains ... for identification of bodies or to indicate the number of people aboard."

What remains were found were buried in a common grave at a Veterans Affairs cemetery in San Bruno, Calif. -- an end that never satisfied Lois Shriver, the sister of air cadet Ernest Glen Munn, who was 23 when he took off on the training flight.

"We didn't really know who was buried out there," she said. "It certainly left a bitter taste."

Many families of other troops who have been declared missing in action -- 78,000 from World War II alone -- know that uncertainty all too well.

"Unresolved grief is very hard on people," said Minnesota psychologist Pauline Boss, who has researched stress among the wives of Vietnam MIAs. Survivors often suffer depression and anxiety, withdrawing because nobody seems to understand what they are going through, she said.

"But an ambiguous loss is a real loss," said Boss, who has also treated relatives of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "These people need our support and our patience."

In San Bruno, the grave marker seems unambiguous enough. It bears the names of Munn, who hailed from St. Clairsville, Ohio; cadet Leo A. Mustonen, 22, of Brainerd, Minn.; cadet John M. Mortenson, 25, of Moscow, Idaho; and 2nd Lt. William R. Gamber, 23, of Fayette, Ohio.

While the names are clear, Shriver has never made her peace with the uncertainty of what lies beneath them. And now, with reporters calling and TV cameras hovering, she can only wait as scientists at a government lab in Hawaii try to provide answers through their painstaking examination of the 61 pounds of remains taken from the Kings Canyon glacier.

At the Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base, experts are subjecting the remains to the same rigorous tests used for any troops missing in action. They scour dental and medical records, pore over every shred of clothing, examine bone fragments for clues about age, height and gender. Dog tags and ID cards help build a case but are never considered sufficient for making a positive identification. The entire process could take months.

In this case, the dental records are incomplete, so a tissue sample may be sent to a lab in Maryland for at least six weeks of DNA testing, officials said. Even then, tentative identification must be reviewed by outside experts.

"It's nerve-wracking," Shriver said. "It's bringing up lots of old memories."

Her brother was a bookworm, a snappy dresser, a kid who loved baseball, a classically handsome young man who drew the eye of many girls in high school. A rare bird in rural Ohio, he wanted to go into finance and even worked as a fledgling stock broker in Wheeling, W. Va.

"We lived on a farm, but he was no farmer," his sister joked. "He was my idol."

Years after his plane disappeared, the family figured he might someday show up.

"We never gave up," Shriver said. "But nothing happened."

Now the hope is stronger. Shriver knows that years of exposure to the elements can change things such as hair color, but she was heartened by mention in a news account that the body found in California appeared to have blond hair -- the same as her brother.

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