WWII airman laid to rest 60 years later

MUSTONEN
This family photo shows Leo Mustonen in front of his home in Brainerd, Minn., before he joined the Air Force.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A World War II airman whose frozen body was chipped out of a California glacier last fall was laid to rest in his hometown Friday, more than six decades after the young man disappeared during a training flight.

Leo Mustonen’s two nieces were among about 100 people who gathered at First Lutheran Church to say goodbye. A full military funeral followed at a cemetery overlooking the Mississippi River.

“This is one of the most unique and special days that any of us will ever be a part of,” Pastor Andy Smith said. “Today we are burying a small-town boy from Brainerd, Minnesota, who dreamed of flying.”

Mustonen was 22 when his AT-7 navigational plane disappeared after takeoff from a Sacramento, Calif., airfield on Nov. 18, 1942. An engine, scattered remains, and clothing were found over the following years, far from the plane’s intended course. All four men aboard were killed in the crash.

But Mustonen’s remains were not found until last year, when two mountain climbers in California spotted an arm jutting out of the ice. Forensic scientists at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii analyzed bones, DNA samples and the airman’s teeth before declaring in February that the body was Mustonen’s.

At the cemetery, Mustonen was honored with a three-volley salute and a bugler playing taps.

The military paid for the funeral, as it would for any soldier who died on active duty.

His nieces, Mary Ruth Mustonen and Leane Ross, did not speak at the funeral, but at an earlier news conference, they said they have been overwhelmed by stories told about their uncle over the past few weeks.

*** FILE *** Articles of clothing, coins and paper, found among the remains of a serviceman from World War II are shown on the examination table of the autopsy room at Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) at Hickam Airforce Base in Honolulu, Hawaii, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2005. The World War II airman, now identified as Leo Mustonen, whose body was found on the California mountainside more than 60 years after his plane crashed will be buried in his central Minnesota hometown on Friday March 24, 2006. (AP Photo/Lucy Pemoni)Lucy Pemoni / AP

Mary Ruth was 11 months old when her uncle died; Ross had not even been born.

“He really feels like he is ours now, and we’ve grown to love him,” Ross said.

He was buried alongside his mother, Anna, who grieved for years over the loss of her son.

“He’s no longer out there on a mountain alone,” Ross said.