Thursday, October 20, 2005

Frozen Body May Be WWII Airman

A very interesting story.

FRESNO, Calif., Oct. 20, 2005

The mostly ice-encased body found by climbers. (AP)

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"We're not going to go fast. We want to preserve him as much as possible. He's pretty intact."

Kings Canyon National Park spokesperson Alexandra Picavet on the excavation process

(CBS/AP) Rangers in Kings Canyon National Park and a military recovery expert started excavating a glacier-entombed corpse on Wednesday. The body is believed to be a World War II airman who died in a 1942 plane crash.

Two ice climbers reported seeing a frozen head, shoulder and arm while climbing the glacier on the side of 13,710-foot Mount Mendel in the Sierra Nevada on Sunday, park spokesperson Alexandra Picavet said. The body was 80 percent encased in ice, and still wearing an Army-issued parachute.

Officials say the man's torn sweater reveals skin, and parts of his sandy-blonde hair are still intact, reports (video) CBS News correspondent Teri Okita. Several numbers discovered on the icy body could help the Fresno, Calif. coroner's office and the military identify the body.

"I think it's more the mystery that everyone is intrigued by … the fact that here's this plane that crashed more than 63 years ago, and there's still somebody up there," Picavet said.

A crew of rangers and specialists are camped on the mountainside, in subfreezing temperatures, ready to stay there during the entire excavation process, Picavet said. The ice is thick in the area but rangers, trained in high altitude rescue operations, expect to be able to free it by Thursday, Picavet said.

"We're not going to go fast," Picavet said. "We want to preserve him as much as possible. He's pretty intact."

The crew includes an expert from the Joint Prisoner of War Accounting Command, which recovers and identifies missing military personnel.

Park officials believe the serviceman may be a member of the crew of an AT-7 navigational training plane that crashed on the mountain on Nov. 18, 1942 — one of several military planes that have crashed among the craggy peaks.

The wreckage and four bodies were found by a climber in 1947.

This body may be connected to that expedition, although it's hard to tell until the recovery is complete, Picavet said.

The remains were found at the base of the glacier, in remote and stark wilderness that takes days to reach by foot. Park officials don't know exactly where the plane landed. A decades-old file on the crash marked the spot on a map with an "X" but noted that the engine broke off and rolled to the bottom of the glacier, Picavet said.

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