By Peter Stekel
John Daniels, a retired high school teacher, has found a way to bring World War II history alive and into the lives of students. He plans on taking four juniors and seniors from Golden Sierra High School in Garden Valley into the high Sierra of Kings Canyon National Park this fall so they can observe, and report on, the search for two army aviators who lost their lives on a training mission in 1942.
Daniels will be joined by Mark Hendrix, current faculty member of GSHS and his wife, retired teacher Patricia Graybill, for this school-sanctioned trip. The students will be in contact with their school by satellite phone and will prepare a video program for broadcast as well as a radio broadcast for 95.1 KFOK Community Radio in Georgetown.
The story began Nov. 18, 1942, when a U.S. Army Air Forces AT-7 Navigator left Mather Field east of Sacramento. On board for the navigation training exercise was pilot, 2nd Lt. William Gamber and three aviation cadets — John Mortenson, Ernest Glenn Munn, and Leo Mustonen. Leaving at 7:11 a.m. for a five-hour mission, the crew was never seen alive again.
Local newspapers carried the story over the next several months as the ever-widening search drew in hunters, forest rangers, county sheriffs, game wardens, and others to assist the army. Residents near Omo Ranch reported seeing and hearing a plane answering the description of the AT-7 at 1 p.m. on the day it disappeared. After a month with no results, the Dec. 10, 1942, issue of the Mountain Democrat summed up the matter in a simple headline: “Plane Search Fruitless.”
Five years later the AT-7 was found. In 1947, four University of California students discovered aircraft wreckage at more than 12,000 feet, strewn across Mendel Glacier in northern Kings Canyon National Park. The wreckage was embedded in ice and included both engines, a wheel, and a large portion of a wing. The students found personal effects, including logbooks, a shoe, and the back of an Elgin A-11 watch.
After returning home from their trip, the students reported their find to the Army. Three separate missions were sent into the Sierra to identify and, if possible, recover the crew’s remains.
The first expedition was in the fall of 1947. Capt. Robert Lewis, Capt. Robert Goulding, U.S. Forest Ranger Neil L. Perkins, and wrangler Harvey Sauter were guided by one of the airplane’s discoverers, William Bond, to the crash site. Months had passed since the student’s discovery and several feet of snow had fallen on the site. Still, the AT-7′s two engines were located and identification tags confirmed that this was the plane missing since 1942. No remains were found.
In 1948 the army sent Capt. Roy Sulzbacher, from graves registration service, to the glacier. Twice he was unsuccessful in finding the crew’s remains. A week after returning from his second trip to Mendel Glacier in early October, Sulzbacher died suddenly from bulbar poliomyelitis.
Army paperwork continued working its way through the system. With Capt. Sulzbacher dead, and with no further intention of searching for the missing crew, the Gamber, Mortenson, Munn, and Mustonen families received letters telling them that their sons had been found. Because the remains were commingled, due to the airplane crash, the families were told a group burial would occur at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno.
For the next 57 years the wreck was forgotten. Then, in October 2005, two climbers stumbled upon human remains from the AT-7 melting out of the Mendel Glacier. The remains were clothed in the uniform of an Army Air Force cadet and attached to an undeployed parachute. It was a piece of the parachute, fluttering in the wind like a Tibetan prayer flag, that caught the climbers’ attention.
According to Daniels, after this, the story gets muddy. Official records stated that the crew departed Mather Field on the morning of Nov. 18, 1942 with the intention of flying north to Corning — about 150 miles from Mather Field. How is it that crew remains were found 150 miles southeast of Mather? Since the record shows that four men were buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery, many people began to speculate that this frozen airman was a fifth, undocumented — or stowaway — soldier.
This speculation made no sense. An accident report filed in 1942 (when the plane disappeared and was assumed lost) and another in 1947 (after the wreck’s discovery and first expedition to recover remains) specifically said there were only four men on board the AT-7. The 1947 report said no remains were recovered. How could this be when the army told the crew’s families that their sons had been buried together in 1948?
It turns out this was not an uncommon action in the years following World War II. Especially with service personnel involved in airplane crashes, there frequently was not much to bury. This was a direct result of aircraft crashing with highly flammable fuel along with unexploded ordnance, or of being shot down at higher than 30,000 feet. Knowing that closure was preferred to more open-ended explanations of how children or spouses were killed, the military often withheld such evidence. In the case of the AT-7 from Mather Field, it was probably decided that, since three expeditions had failed to find any remains, and the region was high, wild, and remote, that remains would never be found.
Nearly half a year after the frozen airman was found, his remains were identified as Cadet Leo A. Mustonen — a student on the AT-7 missing since 1942.
Daniels is an experienced Sierra Nevada hiker having been at it since the early 1960s. As a teenager he worked for many years at a Boy Scout camp in Sequoia National Park where he led backpacking trips in the high mountains. From 1970-2005, Daniels taught junior high and high school science at Georgetown Elementary and Golden Sierra High School. He followed the story of the frozen airman in 2005 and became even more interested when a second airman was found on Mendel Glacier in August 2007. Five months later this second frozen airman was identified as Ernest Glenn Munn. The story of Mustonen and Munn is told in the book, “Final Flight — the Mystery of a WWII Plane Crash and the Frozen Airmen in the High Sierra.”
There are still two members of the crew missing. A non-profit group called History Flight is interested in finding them. History Flight is comprised of a group of highly trained volunteers who have been successful in locating the remains of World War II servicemen killed in action in Europe and the South Pacific. They were interested in an expedition to Mendel Glacier to locate the remaining two crewmembers from the crashed AT-7. At this moment they are in discussions with the National Park Service to get final permission to fly by helicopter to Mendel Glacier with their crew of volunteers and specialized equipment.
Hearing of this expedition, and excited by the learning opportunities it entailed, Daniels has been organizing an educational expedition to Mendel Glacier. Under the auspices of Golden Sierra High School faculty members this fall, they plan on joining the History Flight volunteers to observe and report on the group’s attempts to locate the final two missing crewmembers from the AT-7 that crashed in 1942.