BRAINERD, Minn. – Leo Mustonen's closest surviving relatives grew up knowing little about their uncle, other than that he died in a military plane crash. That changed only with improbable discovery of the World War II airman's body, frozen in a California glacier for more than six decades.
People in this town who remember the handsome blond man shared their memories with Mary Ruth Mustonen and Leane Ross before his funeral Friday. They learned he was an ace student who excelled in science, who played in the school band and in sports, and who dreamed of working in aviation even as a boy.
"It's been pretty incredible," Ross said. "He's become really a person. He really feels like he is ours now, and we've grown to love him."
Mustonen's nieces were among about 100 people who gathered in their uncle's hometown to bury him. A full military funeral followed at a cemetery overlooking the Mississippi River.
Mustonen was 22 when hisAT-7 navigational plane disappeared after takeoff from a Sacramento, Calif., airfield on Nov. 18, 1942. An engine, scattered remains and clothing were found over the following years, far from the plane's intended course. All four men aboard were killed in the crash.
But Mustonen's remains were not found until last year, when two mountain climbers in California spotted an arm jutting out of the ice. Forensic scientists at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii analyzed bones, DNA samples and the airman's teeth before declaring in February that the body was Mustonen's.
At the cemetery, Mustonen was honored with a three-volley salute and a bugler playing taps. The military paid for the funeral, as it would for any soldier who died on active duty.
"This is one of the most unique and special days that any of us will ever be a part of," Pastor Andy Smith said. "Today we are burying a small-town boy from Brainerd, Minnesota, who dreamed of flying."
Mustonen was buried alongside his mother, Anna, who grieved for years over the loss of her son.
"He's no longer out there on a mountain alone," Ross said.
Ross' family seldom discussed her uncle, who died before she was born.
"Our father was a Finnish man, very reserved," she said. "He didn't really talk about feelings."
Mary Ruth was 11 months old when her uncle died. A picture displayed at the service showed him holding her on his lap.
The sisters, who both live in Jacksonville, Fla., said they had not been close in the past, but that changed last fall after the Army contacted them.
"I think this has been one of the gifts Uncle Leo's discovery has given his family," Ross said. "A chance to come together again — to be a family."