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Frozen WWII pilot being thawed for identification

Published October 23, 2005 1:48 am
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FRESNO, Calif. - As the frozen body believed to be a World War II airman slowly thaws after decades encased in a glacier, forensic experts say a picture is emerging of a fair-haired man in an Army uniform who suffered broken bones when his aircraft crashed in the wilderness.

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. A team of forensic pathologists began melting the ice with cold water Thursday to bring out the body without damage.

Little is known for now about the man, who was still wearing his Army-issued parachute and sweater when climbers found him last weekend in the Sierra Nevada wilderness, with head and arm jutting out of solid ice.

But forensic experts said soft tissues such as skin and muscle have been well-preserved, as well as the man's sun-bleached hair and his uniform, which identifies him as a World-War II-era serviceman.

''There's a very good possibility for identification,'' said Paul Emanovsky, a forensic anthropologist with the Joint Prisoner of War Accounting Command, which recovers and identifies military personnel.

The agency still does not have any lists of personnel who went missing it that area. Officials also do not know how long it will take to find dental charts and other records that might help the identification.

No dog tags or other form of identification have been found yet, but most of the body is still frozen, and experts have not been able to search for things like laundry tags or parachute issue numbers.

The entire identification process could take weeks or months, Emanovsky said. Once the initial work is done - X-rays must be taken, and a death certificate issued by the coroner - the body will be transported to JPAC's laboratory for in-depth analysis.

Climbers reported the find to park rangers on Sunday, but blustery conditions kept even trained high-altitude rescuers from reaching the frozen remains for two days.

Experts say the body probably went unseen for decades because the isolated mountainside in Kings Canyon National Park does not attract many casual visitors, though it is popular with ice climbers.

The area can be reached by hiking two or three days, or by helicopter when the weather allows.

Michael Nozel, one of the climbers who spotted the body Sunday, said a fluttering parachute was the first thing that caught his eye.

''As I got closer, I started to think, gosh, that doesn't look like a rock sticking out of the glacier,'' Nozel told KFSN-TV. ''And then of course, as I got closer, I thought, my goodness I think that is a body.''

Six park rangers and a military forensics expert started chipping away at the ice Wednesday, freeing the body after about six hours, said ranger Alexandra Picavet.

''The ice initially wasn't bad to dig through, but then as they got deeper it became more difficult,'' said Picavet, who was not among the rangers who excavated the remains.

The crew had to be careful not to damage the remains and worked slowly because they did not know how the body was positioned, Picavet said. The remains were then flown to Fresno County.

Park officials summoned JPAC because the man was wearing a parachute stenciled with ''Army.'' They believe he may be a crewman of an AT-7 navigational training plane that crashed Nov. 18, 1942. Several military planes crashed among the craggy peaks in the 1930s and 1940s.

The plane wreckage and four bodies were found by a climber in 1947. It's impossible to tell if this body is connected to that expedition pending the identification process, which will include DNA testing.

Relatives of missing soldiers have already started calling from all around the country, wanting to see if this could be a long-lost father or brother, said Loralee Cervantes, Fresno County's coroner.

Military officials said there are 88,000 Americans still missing from past wars, most of them, 78,000, from World War II. Only about 35,000 are deemed recoverable.

Hawaii-based JPAC has located and identified other remains from glaciers, where the ice keeps human tissue well-preserved.






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