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  • Eric Fisher

WW II Airman Found Frozen in Glacier

The Clarksvillian


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


Over 60 years later, hikers found the frozen body of another airman while scaling Mount Mendel Glacier in 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 they ever reported him 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. "What they noticed was the head and shoulder and a part of the arm of a person at the base of the glacier that had melted out over this summer," explained Alexandra Picavet, from the National Park Service.


At the time of recovery, the National Park Service representatives believed 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 a report of a person wearing a parachute with a patch that said "U.S. Army Corps." 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 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 forms of identification were 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, began 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 by bringing him to room temperature to separate any clothing or other material found around his body. X-rays were taken hoping to find dog tags, but there were none. Cervantes said, "The body had massive injuries" 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, his hands bent back in natural wrist potion. He was almost as if he was 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 the 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 an AT-7 Navigator, #41-21079, with three cadets on 11/18/1942, 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 were 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 was discovered in October 2005 on the Mendel Glacier. Dangerous 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 the narrow Darwin Canyon, his AT-7 was unable to rise above the 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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