NBC News and news services
updated 2/6/2006 12:46:26 PM ET 2006-02-06T17:46:26

Remains found in the California mountains last fall are those of an airman from Minnesota whose plane went missing during World War II, relatives say.

The U.S. Department of Defense determined the remains are those of Leo Mustonen, who was 22 when the plane he was in crashed 64 years ago in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the airman’s nieces Leane Mustonen Ross and Ona Lea Mustonen told CNN.

Marjorie Freeman, a family friend, told The Associated Press that she spoke with the airman’s relatives after they were notified by defense officials last week.

Freeman was living with her mother-in-law in Brainerd, Minn., when Mustonen disappeared, she told NBC News. She said her mother-in-law and Mustonen's mother, Anna, were close friends who had coffee together nearly every morning. Freeman said she remembers Anna sobbing about not knowing her son's fate.

Leane Mustonen Ross, who lives in Florida, did not return phone calls left Saturday. A phone number could not be found for Ona Lea Mustonen.

Last October, authorities recovered a well-preserved body encased in ice in Kings Canyon National Park. Military anthropologists narrowed their options to four men who flew out of Sacramento’s Mather Field the night the plane disappeared: Mustonen, of Minn.; pilot William Gamber, 23, of Ohio; and aviation Cadets Ernest Munn, 23, of Ohio; and John Mortenson, 25, of Idaho.

Leo Mustonen joined the war effort in 1942. He was on an AT-7 navigational training plane when it vanished after leaving on a routine flight Nov. 18 that year.

Five years later, after an engine, scattered remains and clothing were found far from the plane’s intended course, the cadets and the pilot were given a ceremonial burial.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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