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,
"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.
Military officials said they've handled cases like this before, recovering bodies of U.S. airmen from extremely remote locations such as a Tibetan glacier.
There are 88,000 Americans missing in action from past wars, military officers said. About 78,000 of them are from World War II, but many were lost in crashes over the ocean. Only about 35,000 are deemed recoverable.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command has an operating budget of $46 million to locate and identify as many of those as possible. They work on hundreds of cases a year, averaging two identifications a week, said spokeswoman Rumi Nielson-Green.
"We have a very daunting mission," Nielson-Green said.
Finding bodies preserved in a glacier is unusual, but not unheard of, command officials said. Two years ago, the unit recovered the body a Cold War-era officer who died in Greenland.
"Glaciers are slow-moving, melting and receding," said Bob Mann, the deputy scientific director with the command's Central Identification Laboratory. "As they move ... remains often times will melt out and become exposed."
Often, bodies found encased in ice will be well-preserved, facilitating identification, said Mann, explaining that soft tissue like muscles and skin can be preserved as well as hair, clothing and even documents.
But each case is different, and the speed of identification will depend on the state of the body, Mann said.
"We're hoping that he's well preserved, and that the ID will be rather easy," Mann said.
"In the ice and snow, biological processes move really slowly, and it's not unlike putting something in your refrigerator freezer to preserve something," Picavet said.
Park officials said that once the body is removed from the ice, it'll be flown to the Fresno County Coroner's office.
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