After years in frozen isolation and a moment in the media spotlight, the remains of Leo Mustonen are going home to rest in peace.
The 22-year-old crewman on an ill-fated training flight from Mather Field in 1942 has been identified as the frozen body found in a glacier in the California Sierra Nevada mountains last year, military representatives said Thursday.
"It's incredible to have the whole family back together again," said Ona Lea, Mustonen's niece, who was born the year he died.
Lea, who is also known as Sister Mary Ruth, was given her uncle's effects Thursday: 51 cents, a Schaeffer pen, collar insignia, and the corroded name badge that had provided a partial clue.
"It is rather moving," said Lea, 64.
She has pictures of her uncle cradling her in his arms, she said, and memories of his mother's grief that stretched for years.
Mustonen was aboard an AT-7 Navigator training plane that took off on a November night nearly 64 years ago and was believed to have crashed, killing him and three others on board. Searchers found nothing. Five years later, hikers stumbled on the wreckage and some unidentified remains, which were buried in San Bruno.
It wasn't until last October that hikers in rugged, remote stretches of Kings Canyon National Park in Fresno County found Mustonen's body.
They found what appeared to be a man in a wool sweater and a canvas flight suit hunched over a rock. He was encased in ice.
The mummified body, its face and a shock of blond hair intact, became an anachronistic find that captured worldwide attention before its icy prison could be melted.
The public's curiosity probably soared because images of the discovery flashed almost instantly on televisions, said Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Pentagon's POW/MIA Office.
"Everything was visible, and that's not usually the way they occur," said Greer of the discovery of those who have long been missing in action.
Mustonen was just one of at least 78,000 U.S. service members still missing from World War II. Of those, 43,000 were lost at sea or in sunken vessels. Another 8,100 still are missing from the Korean War; 1,800 from the Vietnam War and one from the Gulf War.
Mustonen, who grew up in a tight-knit Finnish community in Brainerd, Minn., is survived by Lea and her sister, who both live in Jacksonville, Fla. His parents are buried in his hometown, about a 2 1/2-hour drive north of Minneapolis.
A military funeral will be held there March 25 for Mustonen.
Others on the flight were John Mortenson, 25, of Idaho; Ernest "Glenn" Munn, 23, of Ohio; and the pilot, William Gamber, 23, of Ohio.
One of Munn's sisters, who had hoped the remains in the glacier belonged to her brother, said she and her family were overwhelmed by the attention generated by the find.
"We've just really been busy with phone calls," said Jeanne Pyle, the 85-year-old sister of Munn.
Pyle, who lives in St. Clairsville, Ohio, said a man from Michigan called asking to attend her brother's funeral - if it turned out to be him. A Korean War veteran, he had never met the family, but felt some kind of bond, she said.
Her parents are buried in the cemetery across the street from her home. Her brother should be, too, Pyle said: "We would like to have brought him back to our family plot."
The last time an unidentified soldier garnered similar intense interest, said Greer, was in 1998 when DNA testing was done on remains of the Vietnam War soldier who was buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.
Placed there in 1984, the remains from a downed A-37 in South Vietnam were identified as those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, 24, who died in 1972. The decorated pilot was reburied in his St. Louis hometown.
Attention focused on the effort to identify Mustonen has baffled those who spend every day matching names to unidentified remains recovered from former military battlegrounds or crash sites.
"I scratch my head," said Army Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green, a spokeswoman for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. "The public interest has been unprecedented. I guess a lot of elements that interest people came together at one time."
At times, Nielson-Green has begged media to pay attention to equally compelling cases at the world's largest forensic anthropology laboratory charged with recovering and identifying the remains of soldiers from all military services.
Like the homebound World War II hero who crashed in the Cascade Mountains on his way to visit his newborn child. The search for his remains last summer generated no media interest, Nielson-Green said.
So far, 1,200 people - some civilians engaged in the war effort - have been recovered and identified by the military laboratory.
Teams investigate locations and recover remains from all over the world in cooperation with other governments. Recovery teams led by an anthropologist delicately excavate in rice paddies, in frozen terrain, on mountainsides and underwater, searching for any bit of human existence or personal effects, such as a wedding band or a wallet.
At the laboratory in Hawaii, identification of the remains involves scientific analysis to determine gender, race, age and height and other biological clues. Further analysis can involve dental records, and in half the cases, DNA analysis. An average of two missing-in-action soldiers are identified a week.
Mustonen, who had no survivors from his mother's side to provide the right kind of DNA, was identified primarily through elimination, said Nielson-Green. The other three men had siblings who provided DNA, which didn't match. Infrared analysis of a corroded name tag found on outer garments also gleaned a few letters that matched Mustonen's name.
Although the joint-power command is primarily responsible for those missing from World War II and later, teams have helped in earlier wars, such as in the ongoing search connected to a sunken Civil War battleship.
In 2002, two bodies were found on the ironclad USS Monitor, which sank off the coast of North Carolina during a storm in 1862. Scientists have been recovering bits and pieces of the shipwreck since it was discovered in 1973. The two well-preserved skeletons were found encrusted in layers of cementlike sediment. One still had its shoes on.
Although records are scarce, there are 16 crew members reported missing on the ship, Nielson-Green said. Scientists are searching for possible descendants for DNA matches.
The wait for Mustonen's family is over.
He will make his last journey bundled in a traditional Army green blanket inside a casket. A military representative will cover him in a uniform of his contemporaries.
Then he'll go home.