I’d like to tell you about a friend of mine, a World War II veteran I never met, never spoke with, never wrote about – until now.
Basil Moslin first got in touch with me in August 2001. He was writing from his home in Manchester, England. During the war, he served with the Royal Air Force Bomber Command.
I had placed a query in the Intercom, the magazine of the Aircrew Association of British war veterans, seeking information about an Allentown flier in the Royal Canadian Air Force who was killed in a training accident in England in 1942.
Basil had been based near where the accident happened, and suggested I try an RAF station that he knew had computerized records.
“I am a life member of Bomber Command, so if I can help in any other direction, let me know,” Basil wrote. “This is my first letter on the computer, and I have enjoyed having a go.”
He got pretty good on the computer.
That first snail-mailed letter opened a rich correspondence between us that lasted almost a decade. In dozens of chatty letters, he told me about his family and his cat, about playing badminton to keep fit and teaching piano and playing it in clubs and hotels.
He wrote about the RAF and sent copies of the Bomber Command Association newsletter. He harped about political foibles in his homeland, supported the U.S. war on terror and answered my questions about his life – he made his living in the insurance business. He asked about my wife and stepdaughters and signed his letters, “Cheers for now — Bas.”
In return, I sent him copies of articles in my series War Stories: In Their Own Words that runs in The Morning Call. I call them clips; he called them “cuttings.” He’d comment on the stories in his next letter — always marveling at “the Yanks” I interviewed and once calling me a “clever bugger” — and then pass the cuttings on to his friends.
“I love to hear things concerning the war,” he wrote to me. “I was stationed with your boys for some time…. I really enjoyed being with the Yanks in those days. We used to have doughnuts and coffee in Antwerp for nine francs. Never tasted anything as good since.”
Basil worked in the building trade before he was called to duty at age 19 and joined the RAF. But a physical impairment kept him from flying. The circumstance led him to meet the girl he would marry, Esme, who was in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
“I joined the RAF in 1942. When Singapore fell, and losing so many men, they just rushed recruits in. I was called and told to report as wireless operator, without a proper medical. However, when things settled down, we had first-class medical, and they found a perforated eardrum and that was curtains. I was remustered as clerk, but it paid off in meeting my good lady. She was a wireless operator at the camp of the Enigma secret establishment, Bletchley Park. It was so hush-hush, I was stationed next door and didn’t know it was there.”
When I asked Basil if I could write about him, he declined. He didn’t want to talk at length about his war memories.
“I would love to tell you about my service life, but I find it too upsetting. Such lovely young men. One handsome pal of mine starved to death in Japan. Another was blown to bits on the battleship Hood…. One excellent navigator went down in the North Sea in a Lancaster – no known grave…. I lost a fine friend called up at the same time as myself, out to Singapore, died on the railway. … Please excuse me, I’m filling up. I can’t help being a softy.”
He always gave credit to the Americans for their role in the Allied effort.
“I tell everyone: Without the Yanks, we had no chance. We would have lost the war.”
And he told me this little story about the Battle of the Bulge that showed British confidence in the American fighting man:
“When I was in Belgium in ’44, the phone rang to say: ‘Get everyone out. The Germans have broken through in the Ardennes.’ Well, after changing my underpants, another phone call said, ‘Get back, the army are on the job,’ meaning you guys again!”
Last summer I got a letter from Basil’s daughter, Susan, who lives in Italy but was writing from Manchester. Her father suffered a stroke in July, and he was in the hospital and about to start physiotherapy. I wrote him a long letter but never heard back.
Susan e-mailed me last week to say her dad died Dec. 24, three days after doctors discovered a large tumor in his lung. He was 88.
Like many World War II veterans, Basil had mourned the friends he lost but always felt a great sense of accomplishment about the defeat of Germany and Japan.
“Although I lost most of my pals,” he wrote to me once, “I was proud to have been part of the conflict. Didn’t we do well!”