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.

The Times-Tribune - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID SIN­GLE­TON STAFF WRITER VIEW A GALLERY of pho­tos from the burial at thetimestri­bune.com

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.”

DE­FENSE VIS­UAL IN­FOR­MA­TION DIS­TRI­BU­TION SER­VICE

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.

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