Frozen WWII remains recovered Body of what is believed to be an Army airman was removed from a Kings Canyon glacier. By Mark Grossi / The Fresno Bee
(Updated Thursday, October 20, 2005, 5:29 AM)
Authorities Wednesday gingerly removed an ice-entombed body believed to be a World War II airman who was frozen 63 years in a Kings Canyon National Park glacier, and flew it to a Fresno airport for coroner's officials.
Only a frozen head, shoulder and arm were visible when it was spotted on Mount Mendel by two climbers last weekend. About 80% of the body was believed to be hidden within the Mount Mendel Glacier.
Officials said the man wore an unopened parachute with the word "Army" stenciled on it, and he was dressed in military clothing. A military plane crashed during a training flight in the general area several days before Thanksgiving 1942.
Poor weather around the 13,710-foot peak Sunday and Monday prevented authorities from starting the retrieval process until Tuesday.
Officials removed the body via helicopter Wednesday from the park's primitive northern edge, which is at least a two-day hike from any direction.
Park ranger Ned Kelleher led a team of seven to the site of the body, which was at 12,300-foot elevation. They first had a tough climb to the body, Kelleher said, and then cleared snow away before they started digging. It took the crew, armed with ice axes, shovels and hammers, five to six hours to cut the body from the ice and surrounding rock, Kelleher said. "If we found anything associated with this person, then we backed up and dug deeper," Kelleher said of the excavation.
Rangers did not find any identification on the body, and Kelleher said it was not well-preserved, but declined to elaborate.
The man was put in a red body bag and flown to Chandler Executive Airport near downtown Fresno. The helicopter, with Kelleher inside, touched down at 6:45 p.m. Deputy coroner Joseph Tiger was waiting at the airport with a white van to take the body to the Fresno County Coroner's Office. "As far as I know, it's in ice right now," Tiger said before the helicopter landed.
National Park Service rangers and staff of the Fresno County Coroner's Office transfer the remains Wednesday of what is believed to be an Army airman whose plane crashed in a remote part of Kings Canyon National Park in 1942. Hikers on Sunday came across the frozen body, which was removed from Mount Mendel Glacier on Wednesday.
National Park Service rangers and staff of the Fresno County Coroner's Office transfer the remains Wednesday of what is believed to be an Army airman whose plane crashed in a remote part of Kings Canyon National Park in 1942. Hikers on Sunday came across the frozen body, which was removed from Mount Mendel Glacier on Wednesday. Tiger said he did not yet know how the body would be identified. "I have to see what shape it's in," he said. "We may start with X-rays tonight." Tiger also said bodies that have been frozen for long periods can remain in good condition, but decompose quickly once their temperature warms.
The discovery of the body opens questions about the man's identity and how he remained hidden after four bodies of others on the training flight were found in 1947 by a Sierra Club hiker.
Authorities waited until 1948 to remove the four bodies, making a three-day trek from Florence Lake in eastern Fresno County to the crash site. But this body apparently was not visible.
The ill-fated AT-7 navigational training flight on Nov. 19, 1942, struck within 300 feet of the crest above Evolution Valley and broke apart. One of the plane's engines rolled to the bottom of the glacier, according to a 1948 news account.
The flight was one of several dozen-air crashes during World War II training missions. Many of those aircraft still are missing in the 400-mile-long Sierra.
"A lot of the pilots were not trained to fly around a mountain range like the Sierra," said historian Gene Rose, who has written several books about the mountains.
The Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, the military unit in charge of recovering and identifying the remains of lost soldiers, sent a forensic anthropologist to Kings Canyon to help recover the body. If the man is a U.S. serviceman, military officials said it would be flown to the family and buried at government expense.
Glaciers have been known to preserve human bodies for many years. In the 1990s, tourists stumbled upon what experts believe is a 5,300-year-old cadaver in the Italian Alps.
There aren't many casual tourists around Mount Mendel, however. It is a remote area, but well known among ice climbers. One of the first modern ice-climbing adventures took place at Mendel in the 1970s.
The body at Mendel may not have been seen until now because it shifted over time, said Annie Esperanza, a park service scientist. The ice and snow creep slowly, she said.
The glacier also has advanced and receded with weather changes over the past six decades, she said. "There wasn't much of his body showing," she said. "This mountain is just east of the Pacific Crest Trail. People walk that trail, and you can get up to these peaks. I think it was just pure coincidence that those climbers happened to see it."
The Associated Press and Bee reporter Tim Eberly contributed to this story. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (559) 441-6316.