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Presentation details quest to find lost airmen

Seattle author Peter Stekel will host lecture at The Museum of Flight

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Having spent a lot of time hiking and climbing in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California, Seattle author Peter Stekel developed a great love for the area.

In 2005 when two mountaineers were climbing in the area and discovered the mummified remains of a man in a World War II uniform entombed in the ice, the story immediately struck a chord with Stekel. The airman was a member of a U.S. Army Air Forces four-man crew, which crashed in the area on November 18, 1942 during a navigation training mission. The crew was 150 miles off course from its reported destination. The story of the "Frozen Airman" created a swirl of media attention and Stekel wanted to investigate further.

"The thought of something like that happening in a place I considered my backyard was intriguing to me," Stekel said.

So Stekel set out on a fact-finding mission of the story of the four pilots William Gamber, John Melvin Mortenson, Ernest Glenn Munn and Leo Mustonen, and what exactly happened that fateful day. Through meticulous research, interviews, and even mountaineering trips to the site, Stekel uncovered the story of the four young men. The quest is detailed in his new book "Final Flight: The Mystery of a WWII Plane Crash and the Frozen Airmen in the High Sierra."

Stekel will host a lecture and book signing from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday (Jan. 15) at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. The program is free with museum admission or membership.

"It started as a book about the wilderness and a plane crash, but the more I researched the topic it became about an airplane crash in the wilderness," said Stekel, 58.

The story could also be considered a tribute to how many airmen were lost on U.S. soil during training missions while the war was going on, he said.

"I was incredibly affected by the fact so many of our soldiers never made it over there because of training accidents," Stekel said.

During World War II, nearly 28 percent, about 114,000, of all the war's causalities were non-combat deaths, according to Stekel.

"I looked at the training records and there were nearly 7,100 aircraft lost to training accidents," he said. "When I heard that, ‘Final Flight' became a much bigger story."

Even after finishing the book, Stekel is still very involved with the story. He still meets with and talks to all the relatives of the airmen, and every year goes back to the site of the crash and looks around.

He's even still investigating the crash's ties to the South Sound. During one of the recovery efforts, several soldiers from Fort Lewis made the trip to California with the team to search for remains and wreckage.

"I've never been able to track those soldiers down," Stekel said.

This weekend's presentation will feature a slide program, a couple of readings from the book and Stekel detailing how he got involved in the story. He will also try to explain how the crash happened.

For more on the book, visit www.finalflightthebook.com.

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