Former ORISE Participant a Key Member of Forensic Team Tasked with Identifying Frozen WWII Airman
Nestled in the frozen glacier of Mount Mendel in California’s Sierra Nevada, the airman’s remains sat undiscovered for more than six decades. One of four victims of a military plane that crashed in 1942, his whereabouts were a mystery until a pair of hikers discovered a portion of his arm and a shock of blond hair protruding from the ice at an altitude of nearly 12,500 feet.
His United States Army-issued parachute was weathered, but unopened. And though 80 percent of his body was preserved after being frozen for years beneath the ice, his facial features had long ago faded with any hope that he would one day be properly laid to rest.
What began as a four-hour navigational training exercise presumably ended with very few clues as to what happened to the crew members aboard the fateful flight. But 63 years later, the luck of a few hikers and the expertise of a former ORISE participant helped bring closure to one of the thousands of families still waiting for their missing service member to be found.
Dispatched to the glacier to assist in removing the airman’s remains for transport to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command/Central Identification Laboratory (JPAC-CIL) in Hickam, Hawaii, Paul Emanovsky is no stranger to forensic recovery efforts. A former participant in the Research Participation Program at JPAC-CIL, Emanovsky uses his background in human biology to perform hands-on work in recovery and skeletal analysis of unaccounted-for service members from past conflicts.
His ORISE experience served as a springboard to his current full-time position as a forensic anthropologist with JPAC-CIL.
It was no surprise when Emanovsky received word that hikers had discovered the frozen remains of what appeared to be a U.S. serviceman high atop a Sierra Nevada glacier. Emanovsky’s primary job at JPAC-CIL requires working closely with dozens of forensic anthropologists to positively identify the remains of missing soldiers throughout the world.
Scientists identify the remains of about two people each week, but there are approximately 1,100 sets of remains on site at the Hawaii lab that have yet to be identified. More than 88,000 service members (78,000 from World War II alone) are still missing, many presumably lost at sea.
The discovery of the missing airman required Emanovsky’s experience in carefully examining the body and removing any personal effects that might aid in the identification process. At the coroner’s office, Emanovsky helped remove ice and debris from the body and worked with a forensic pathologist to conduct an external exam before escorting the remains back to Hawaii via military aircraft.
At the lab, Emanovsky was assigned to write a material evidence report that documented the clothing, personal effects and military equipment associated with the remains.
The process requires looking for information (i.e., laundry marks or identification cards) that can be used to make a better attempt at positive identification. During examination of the airman’s remains, a corroded name badge provided a link that helped Emanovsky advance one step closer to identifying the fallen soldier.
"Because the airman had no formal identification, the name badge was a crucial piece of information," explained Emanovsky. "After careful cleaning and through the use of special light sources, we were able to see portions of the individual’s name on the badge. The letters that were visible could only be correlated to one of the four airmen on board."
Emanovsky and fellow anthropologists were able to make out the letters “EO A. M.” The accident report listed Leo M. Mustonen, age 22, as one of the deceased airmen. However, the middle initial on the name badge did not match. The only other way to make positive identification was to attempt to match mitochondrial DNA from a piece of bone to a sample taken from a maternal relative.
After an extensive search, the only relatives found were from Mustonen’s paternal ancestry. But maternal relatives of the three other men were tested and none matched the DNA taken from Mustonen.
Emanovsky and his fellow anthropologists concluded that Mustonen’s name badge had been misspelled all along, and after exhausting all reasonable possibilities it was determined that missing airman was Leo Mustonen, the son of Finnish immigrants. After 63 years, Mustonen was given a proper funeral and was finally laid to rest in his hometown of Brainerd, Minn.
Despite the increased media coverage related to the event, Emanovsky said the case was for the most part similar to most that the lab analyzes on a daily basis.
"The experience was slightly unusual in terms of preservation and locale, but learning how to speak to the media was invaluable," he said.
The experience has also been beneficial to Emanovsky’s current work towards his Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Florida. But overall, what Emanovsky enjoys best about working as a forensic anthropologist is the absence of a typical day on the job.
"Some days I might wake up in the middle of the jungle in the South Pacific or near a volcano in Alaska to direct military personnel and local workers on an archaeological recovery of missing service members," he said. "Other days I am in a laboratory conducting analyses on forensic cases or writing or peer-reviewing technical reports."
Emanovsky explained that his work may have never been possible if not for the opportunity to work with ORISE.
"The presence of so many anthropologists from a variety of academic backgrounds assures research collaborations that you cannot find in a traditional academic environment," he said. "The applied nature of the work and the importance of the mission make the job so multi-faceted and incredible!"