Rod Whitemore was taking walks in his neighborhood in Sherborne, Dorset, in southwest England back in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was raging. Little did he know that would lead him on a trail across the Atlantic Ocean to Mohnton.
He frequently passed what was left of the 228th Station Hospital, a World War II U.S. Army installation in an area of his hometown that he romped in as kid, and his interest was rekindled.
“I went home and jumped on Google to do a little bit of research,” Whitemore, 46, said during a recent video interview. “On this particular day I saw a photo of this letter and it was from a guy who was stationed there and I noticed it was for sale, so I decided I was going to buy it from the guy who was selling it, who is in the states, actually.”
Maybe he was one of those stationed at the hospital who wandered into the nearby pub called the Swan that his grandmother, Eileen “Joyce” Smith used to run.
That curiosity started him on a trip down a rabbit hole that led him to Mohnton.
The first letter he purchased on eBay was written by a soldier who was serving as an orderly in the Army hospital in Sherborne to a Dr. William R. Moyer, whom Whitemore would later learn was the town doctor in Mohnton for many years.
The seller of the letter, Rich Nallenweg of Asheville, N.C., revealed he had some more letters sent to Moyer, and Whitemore eagerly purchased them.
Nallenweg, 61, operates the Nalwife Naval Covers store on eBay and the Postal History Store on Hipstamp.com and has been selling as a dealer since 1999.
“One of the versions of this hobby is that you can send envelopes to Navy ships and they’ll cancel them from the ship,” Nallenweg said.
That is how he started as a collector when he was kid and his father was in the Navy.
“It’s actually really fascinating when you think about World War II,” Nallenweg said during a recent phone interview. “Obviously, they didn’t have email or anything and those guys couldn’t call home. When you think of millions of soldiers overseas and all of them writing home probably every chance they got, every day if they could, literally millions of letters a day were coming home.”
“In any given war year there were billions of letters written,” said state Rep. Mark Gillen, founder and president of the Berks Military History Museum in Mohnton, noting it gave the servicemen a morale boost. “The government was advocating for it to happen and facilitating it to happen through V-mail.”
V-mail is short for Victory Mail, a system that operated from June 1945 to November 1945 to expedite postal delivery to the troops, according to The National WWII Museum.
“In 1945, 2.5 billion pieces went through the Army Postal Service and 8 million pieces through Navy post offices,” the National WWII Museum website states.
“So they aren’t rare, but they are really sought after because people really love them,” Nallenweg said.
How Whitemore was able to find the letter written by someone stationed in his hometown involved a bit of luck.
Nallenweg explained that during World War II the locations of troops were secret.
“So they had these things called APO numbers, it stands for Army Post Office, and they wouldn’t write the location on the envelope, but they’d put the APO number on it,” he said.
Nallenweg said a book published by the Military History Postal Society lists where those APOs were during the war, so he always puts the location in his letter auction descriptions.
Whitemore, who works as a picture framer, made finding relatives of the letter writers his pandemic pursuit.
“As soon as I got that first letter and I saw that it had an address on it, I Googled the address,” he said. “That made me wonder if the family was still around and that’s why I started getting into it. I kind of got the bug of it and couldn’t really let it go after that.”
He turned into a postal and online sleuth.
“The only way I sort of discovered there were others writing to the doc, I got to the end of the letters I had received and on the back of a couple of the envelopes there were names written and other APO addresses,” Whitemore said. “That kind of made me think, security would have been tight. It can’t have been written there by the guy writing the letters and sending them back to the states. I’m sure the military wouldn’t have allowed that.”
He surmised Doc Moyer had written the names and addresses and asked Nallenweg if he had any letters from those servicemen. As it happened, he did. Quite a few actually.
Whitemore has ended up purchasing letters from 13 men who had written to Moyer. He has been successful in connecting to several of their family members, with the most luck coming from Facebook.com.
He was allowed to join the Growing up in Mohnton Facebook group and was put in touch with Dianne Bucolo, who is Doc Moyer’s granddaughter.
Bucolo grew up in Shillington and graduated from Gov. Mifflin High School and now lives in Montgomery County, Md.
“My grandfather died when I was really young,” she said. “I was 3 years old. So I didn’t really even know him except through family stories. And I knew he was like the town doctor there in Mohnton. And I knew he was the school physician for like Mohnton High School.”
Bucolo and Whitemore started investigating the first letter writer, whose family did not want him to be identified publicly. She found out where the man had lived after he returned to Mohnton and married.
On a trip back to Berks, Bucolo and her husband went to a cemetery in Mohnton to find the veteran’s grave marker. They drove around the large grounds and Bucolo suggested to her husband that they go to the newer part of the cemetery.
“We got out and wasn’t it like one of the first grave markers I saw,” she said. “I felt really emotional. I went over and I looked down and there’s this oval disc lying on the ground face down. And I picked it up and, my gosh, there was a photograph of he and his wife, probably in their 60s or 70s. It looked like a photo from a church directory or something.”
There was a place in the headstone etched out for the color photograph she said. Bucolo had recorded her findings for Whitemore.
“To see the faces of these people, that was wonderful,” he said, noting it gave him chills just talking about it.
Whitemore has explored more of the letters and shared them with Bucolo.
She would love to know how the letters survived and got to Asheville, N.C., but she only has theories. Nallenweg does not recall how he came into possession of the letters written to Doc Moyer.
“I had this feeling that maybe he kept the letters in a file in his medical practice and when his medical practice was sold and the patients’ medical records were moved, those were transferred,” Bucolo said. “It’s what I’m supposing.”
Her grandfather died in 1965 and no family members ever mentioned his prolific correspondence during the war. She could tell he wrote often by the responses written by the servicemen.
“They say things like ‘My mail came and I had four letters from you’ or ‘The mail just arrived and there were three letters, so I figured I better respond to you,’ ” she said.
“The weather has finally made a change for the better and the old sun is really shining. Guess this place will get hotter than hell too. Had some more good news ….. the place is a well established Malaria Center…. I’m running around nude every night ….. they might send me home after the fourth attack,” 1st Sgt. Kenneth Matz wrote in a typewritten letter dated April 17, 1944. “We are busy as hell at present ….. seems as though every vehicle in the neighborhood needs repair, but that’s the job I guess.”
Another letter, handwritten and only dated May 1944 by Pfc. Bernard Blankenbiller, wishes Moyer well since he had heard from his sister that the doctor had to have an operation.
“Ich winche dich viele gesundheit,” Blankenbiller wrote in German.
He goes on to describe some heated volleyball games he has been participating in and then lists other pastimes.
“We also have a number of the latest movies, but I still haven’t seen the one I am longing to see and that is ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’,” Blankenbiller wrote. “I would like to see ‘The March on the Rhine’ & ‘Old Acquaintances.’ ”
“There’s nothing Earth-shattering in any of the letters, there’s just this little time capsule of what was going on in small town America during World War II,” Bucolo said.
Whitemore said the letter often asked the doctor’s opinion about illnesses and they would talk about sports, particularly horse racing.
“For me it’s been particularly nice since my grandfather did die fairly young and well before I have any memories of him,” Bucolo said. “And so there are always family stories that he was a little eccentric. My grandfather loved horse racing and there’s all the references to who do you think is going to win the Kentucky Derby this year? Just those kinds of things, so it’s interesting to see all the little tidbits I learned about him growing up on paper that other people knew as well.”
Rod Whitemore is still seeking to connect with family members of the World War II servicemen from Mohnton who wrote the letters to Dr. William Moyer that he has purchased. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Pvt. Bernard Blankenbiller
• Pvt. Melvin Hornberger
• Kenneth Matz
• Lt. Paul Moyer
• Edward Nagle
• Sgt. John Sweigert
• Sgt. Allen Warner
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