Joppatowne family linked to frozen man

Woman's great-uncle was one of four World War II airmen killed in '42 crash in Calif., where body was found in glacier last month


When Joppatowne resident Debbie Beall got word that her great-uncle could be the World War II airman whose body was found intact and frozen in a California glacier recently, her son had a question about his relative.

"Was he a caveman?" Beall recalls her son, 8-year-old Joey Kozlowski, saying.

Relatives and descendants of four World War II soldiers have been holding their breath since October, when hikers found a body encased in a glacier in the Sierra Nevada. It was flown to Honolulu, where military forensic scientists have determined the body came from a plane carrying four soldiers that crashed in 1942.

Beall's family was particularly captivated - not only was her great-uncle, Cadet Ernest Glenn Munn, aboard the plane, but from the information relayed from the scientists in Hawaii, the man fit Munn's description - tall, blond, with large feet.

Last week, those hopes were dashed when the family received word that scientists using ultraviolet lights were able to decipher the name on a badge found on the uniform, and that it was not Munn's. The Army says it is not ruling out any of the four men until DNA tests are conducted, but Beall said most family members have given up hope.

"I think they were disappointed, a little depressed when they heard the news that they don't think it's him," said Beall's mother, Patricia Weddle of Bel Air, who is the daughter of Munn's sister, Jean.

Weddle said family members were recently contacted about submitting DNA.

"I'm afraid this may be raising some false hopes again," she said. "However, I think they're prepared either way. The years bring closure."

The mystery has grabbed the attention of media outlets across the country, including CNN, which interviewed Munn's younger sisters, now in their 80s, who live in Pleasant Grove, Ohio. The notion of a body frozen in the 1940s conjures up all sorts of scenarios from popular culture, including the mistaken impression that the soldier's body is as intact as the moment it was frozen.

"This is not a matter of, `Just thaw the guy out,'" said Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green, a spokeswoman for the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command in Honolulu. "He would be unrecognizable to a loved one."

Nielson-Green said the body was "80 to 85 percent" mummified and his clothes were tattered. But scientists were able to determine he was wearing a World War II Army Air Forces uniform with an Army Air Corps insignia, and found a black plastic comb and dimes from 1936 to 1942 on the body. They have also determined the man was in his early 20s, with fair-colored hair and was between 5-feet-9 and 6-feet-2.

Munn, 23, was one of four airmen on a flight that took off Nov. 18, 1942. It also carried pilot 2nd Lt. William A. Gamber, 23, of Fayette, Ohio, and two other aviation cadets, Leo M. Mustonen, 22, of Brainerd, Minn., and John M. Mortenson, 25, of Moscow, Idaho. They were never seen again.

Five years after the crash, a pair of climbers found the plane's wreckage, a dog tag, pieces of clothing and shoes, and bits of decomposed flesh. No bodies were found, and a single casket was buried under a large headstone a year later at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, Calif., for all four.

Six decades later, there is renewed hope that at least one of the men can have a proper burial, and families are eagerly awaiting word of the lost soldier's identity.

Nielson-Green said she has been surprised by the attention the body from the frozen tomb has received. She said the Army identifies two bodies of soldiers from wars, including the Civil War and Vietnam War, per week and has solved 1,200 cases to date. Some 88,000 remain unaccounted for.

"This is what we do every week," she said.

The most common way of identifying bodies is through dental records, Nielson-Green said, but scientists have been unable to locate such records for three of the four men. Samples of mitochondrial DNA were removed from the remains and sent to the military's Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville last week, and scientists will try to compile DNA from the soldiers' next of kin. The process could take until the end of the year.

Weddle was just 1 1/2 years old when Munn's plane went missing; Beall wouldn't be born for another 20 years. But both have felt the impact he had on the family.

"I remember being told how handsome he was and how devoted to his family he was," Weddle said. "My mother, my aunts, my grandmother and grandfather - it was a terrible time for them. I think they would have liked [the body found recently] to have been my uncle's so they could bury him."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.