LETTERS TO HOME
Writings from Scranton service member killed in action, including some from the last days of his life, will be returned to his family.
Army Air Forces 1st Lt. Robert Moessner missed playing Santa Claus on Christmas Eve in 1943.
Much too tired, the South Scranton man would explain in a letter back home.
It had been a grueling day for Moessner, then 24 and stationed in China as the bombardier with a B-24 crew.
“On Dec. 24th we bombed a (Japanese) airfield and were intercepted by (Japanese) Zeros (about 50 of them),” he wrote in the letter he penned a few days later to family on East Mountain. “We had a running battle for 25 minutes during which time my gunners shot down four Zeros. That was our Christmas gift to the (Japanese).”
When Joshua Drasher pulled that letter and others written by Moessner out of a nondescript box of militaria earlier this year, the rich content piqued his interest.
Who was this World War II airman writing so freely about mission details that, in Drasher’s experience, rarely made it past military censors?
“I thought these are pretty good, so let’s see what I can
find out about this guy’s career,” said Drasher, a certified appraiser who works with Girman Auctions and specializes in military items and firearms. “I started doing a little bit of research and I was like, ‘Whoa! Wait a minute. I shouldn’t have these.’”
What Drasher learned is Moessner and most of his fellow crew members died in the spring of 1944, when their B-24 — nicknamed “Sweepy-time” Gal — was shot down in the Pacific. Although Moessner’s remains were recovered after the war, they would not be positively identified until 2016, almost 73 years after his death.
Now, 19 months after the long-mia serviceman’s remains were returned to the United States for a hero’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery, the roughly two dozen letters Drasher found — including some Moessner wrote in the last weeks and days of his life — will be returned to his family.
“Oh, my. Oh, my,” the Rev. Earl Trygar, a relative who lives in Moscow, said when told of the letters’ existence. “This is just wonderful.”
It came about only by chance.
Drasher, 37, of White Haven, said after a collector interested in Korean War memorabilia contacted him last summer, he recalled he had a box with some letters and other items from that era that he stashed away in a storage unit.
“It came out of an estate in Scranton, and I’m not 100 percent sure even where I picked it up at this point,” he said of the box. “But, it sat in that storage unit for years until I started going through it.”
To Drasher’s surprise, the first handful of letters he grabbed from the box weren’t from Korea at all but from World War II. The return address on the envelopes identified the sender as Lt. R.E. Moessner.
“I thought, well, this doesn’t match,” he said.
Then he started reading them.
“The first couple I pulled out had great content,” Drasher said, with Moessner disclosing information about bombing missions over Japan and other combat details. “You usually don’t see letters with content like that.”
In a letter dated Feb. 19, 1944, Moessner wrote he had completed 41 combat missions, and Drasher said that specific revelation made him curious to learn more about the serviceman.
“It instantly made me think this guy ran a lot of bombing runs. I wondered what medals he was awarded. I wanted to see what his background was,” he said.
He immediately came across a story published in The Times-tribune on March 31, 2017, about the identification of Moessner’s remains by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA.
“And, that’s how I stumbled onto the fact that he was missing in action for 70-plus years,” Drasher said.
On April 18, 1944, the B-24 with Moessner and the rest of its 12-member crew took off from Kwelin, China, and was conducting an anti-shipping sea sweep near Hong Kong when the bomber encountered a Japanese merchant ship with a destroyer escort. After making two passes over the target, the bomber was intercepted by Japanese fighters and damaged.
The aircraft crashed in Hong Kong harbor, breaking apart and killing eight of the 12 crew members. Fighters strafed and killed two others as they tried to swim ashore. Two men survived and were taken prisoner.
Four bodies were recovered, and the Army Graves Registration Service took custody of the remains at the conclusion of the war, eventually identifying three of the crewmen.
The fourth set of remains was buried as “unknown” at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii until 2005, when it was exhumed and sent to the DPAA for DNA analysis.
In March 2017, the agency announced the remains had been identified as Moessner’s the previous November based on circumstantial evidence and a DNA match with a maternal family member.
Once he learned Moessner’s story, Drasher said he wanted to reunite the letters with the serviceman’s family if possible.
Moessner never married or had children, but Drasher knew he probably had at least distant relatives.
As he dug deeper into the box with Moessner’s letters, he discovered other letters written during World War II by the airman’s brother, Warren, who served in Europe, as well as correspondence written during the Korean War by their first cousin, Roger W. Stachel. Drasher plans to return them all.
The letters were mailed to 801 Moltke Ave., the Moessner family homestead on East Mountain. In 1944, that’s where Moessner’s grandfather, David Moessner, lived with his daughter and son-inlaw, Helen and William Stachel, and their son, Roger. Moessner’s parents, Arthur and Cordella Moessner, lived on South Webster Avenue at the time.
Unsure how even to begin to locate Moessner’s family, Drasher reached out to The Sunday Times. The newspaper located Trygar, whose 93-year-old mother, Beverly, is Robert Moessner’s first cousin.
Trygar in turn put the newspaper in touch with Wendy Allen, of Media, who is the daughter of Roger Stachel and grew up in the Moltke Avenue home.
“I can guarantee I know where they came from because my dad saved everything,” Allen said of the letters.
After her parents moved from Scranton to Media a few years ago, Allen said, it was decided to sell the Moltke Avenue house. Members of her family removed what they could from the home, but the volume of items, particularly things her father had stored in the attic, was “just so overwhelming.”
“There was so much stuff up there we got to the point where we couldn’t take any more,” she said.
Before the property sold in June 2016, she hired a Luzerne County auction house, Traver’s Auctions of Dallas, to finish cleaning out the home, and the letters apparently were among the items it removed. Drasher, who frequently works with Traver’s, said that is probably how he came across them.
Allen said she can remember her father, who died in July 2017, discussing Moessner.
“He talked about the plane he was on and how they never found him and how the family realized that was a time when those things just happened,” she said, adding her father thought it was amazing that Moessner’s remains could be identified so many years after he was lost.
Allen said she and her family, including her mother, Thelma, are looking forward to seeing and reading not only the letters written by her father but also the Moessner cousins who served in World War II.
“I have teenagers that are all studying history and different things, and it’s kind of cool to let them know they had a relative that was involved in that,” she said. “They knew their grandfather was in Korea; he showed them pictures and things like that. But to know that — it’s kind of where do you come from.”
Drasher, who plans to pack up the letters and ship them off in the coming days, said he is pleased that they’ll be back “with somebody who should actually have them.” Robert Moessner’s letters, in particular, belong with his family, he said.
“For me, if it was my family, I would want the letters, especially being that he was MIA,” he said. “It’s something that could humanize a person that they might not have ever met in person.”
Soldiers with the 3rd Infantry Regiment escort the remains of Army Air Forces 1st Lt. Robert Moessner during his funeral on April 5, 2017, at Arlington National Cemetery. The Scranton airman’s remains went unidentified for more than seven decades after his death during World War II.