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  • Eric Fisher

WW II Airman Found Frozen in Glacier

The AT-7 went down in 1942. The wreckage wasn't discovered until 1947. One of the crew members aboard that military navigational trainer were found -- frozen in ice on California's Mount Mendel Glacier. The question is, who was this airman?


More than 60 years later, hikers found the frozen body of another airman while scaling Mount Mendel Glacier in the Sequoia National Park. The body was chipped from the 13,710-foot Mount Mendel and flown to the Fresno County coroner's office, still encased in hundreds of pounds of ice. The military worked to uncover the airman's identity and whether he was ever reported missing. It's believed the airman was frozen in the glacier for decades until a pair of climbers got much more than ever imagined on a hike.


"They were hiking, ice climbing. It's a popular ice climbing route in King Canyon. and what they noticed was the head and shoulder and a part of an arm of a person at the base of the glacier that had melted out over the course of this summer," explained Alexandra Picavet, from the National Park Service.


At the time, National Park Service representatives believe the serviceman was likely part of a crew aboard an AT-7 navigational training plane that crashed on November 18, 1942.


"When we got this report, we got the report of a person wearing a parachute with a patch that said U.S. Army Corp. There was no Air Force in 1942. That didn't come until 1947, or after World War II," said Picavet.


In 1947, five years after the crash, hikers discovered a portion of the plane, along with four bodies. Recovery crews didn't know there was at least one airman left behind.


The climbers who initially found the man said they could not find anything around his neck, but later they did cut out a piece of the parachute that was still strapped to his back. The crash is believed to be one of many that happened in the Sierras during the 1940's and 1950's.


No dog tags or other form of identification immediately found, but most of the body remained frozen for an extended period before experts found a name badge on his shirt. This became the first step in identifying the Ice Man using modern medical forensics.


Loralee Cervantes, Fresno County Coroner, later began the process of defrosting the Ice Man’s body. Investigators wanted to keep as much of him intact as possible to aid in the identification. The process began with bringing him to room temperature to separate any clothing or other material found around the body. X-rays were taken in the hopes of finding dog tags but there were none. Cervantes said, “The body had massive injures,” and, “He didn’t survive the crash.” The body, before it was excavated, appeared to be face down with a frozen head, shoulder and arm protruding from the glacier.” Cervantes said, “His arms were outstretched like a bird, hands bent back in natural wrist potion. He was almost as if in a frog position. He was very dehydrated and weighed about 61 pounds.”


The identities of the crash victims were later identified and confirmed.


Based on interviews and research, Peter Stekel was able to reconstruct the last day in the lives of Lt. Gamber and Cadets Mustonen, Munn and Mortenson. Mysteries intrigue us because the “facts” of the story are often incomplete, vague and conflicting. In this story, Lt. William Gamber leaves Mather Field in AT-7 Navigator #41-21079, with three cadets on November 18, 1942, at 8:30 AM. Lt. Gamber is instrument-rated, an experienced pilot and flight instructor, with 709 hours [505 hours in the AT-7] in seven months. The cadets are on a “navigational training flight.” Lt. Gamber flies with no co-pilot, suggesting the three cadets were in pilot training though the official record is silent on this subject. The plane and its crew are never heard from again. The mystery deepens in 1947 when the plane is found 150 miles east of its turnaround point. Compounding the mystery for 20 journalists is a report stating that wreckage was discovered on the Darwin Glacier when the Ice Man is discovered October 2005 on the Mendel Glacier. Bad weather certainly caused the crash. Lost, and maybe in the clouds of an approaching front, Lt. Gamber found himself crossing the Sierra Nevada. Attempting to turn around within narrow Darwin Canyon, his AT-7 was unable to rise above encircling ridges and peaks and crashed. Confusion about the crash site was created by an inaccurate 1947 report.


A more detailed review of the story can be found at Peter Stekel's website featuring his book "Final Flight".

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