Light-Hearted Meeting 57 Years Later

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faceless flirting may not seem so strange in an age of Internet dating, but 57 years ago, strangers weren't sending amorous words out over the Web. They sent them by Morse code over the ocean.

That's what American sailor Jack Campbell and British signaler Stephanie Batstone did anyway, while serving in World War II. But as with today's e-mail affairs, Morse code romance was based on the allure of mystery and a degree of miscommunication. Crossed signals, you might say.

In May 1944, Campbell, a signalman on merchant ship Matt W. Ransom, was stationed in the waters off Scotland. Batstone, part of the Women's Royal Naval Service, known as the Wrens, was a signaler on Scotland's west coast. For a month, the two corresponded, dotting and dashing messages across four miles of the Atlantic.

"It wasn't anything real special, it was just off-the-head-type stuff--where do you go on vacation, where's your hometown, what school did you go to, incidental things," recalled Campbell this week at London's Imperial War Museum.

But Batstone remembers their communication a bit differently. In her book, "Wren's Eye View: Adventures of a Visual Signaller," Batstone describes the romantic correspondence she shared with the American sailor: "At the end of the day, 'Kiss me good night,' then 'Mmmmmm, that was lovely--another. Gee, you're terrific.' "

The loneliness and danger of wartime meant friendships were formed quickly and romance was on the fly. "You didn't know from day to day who was going to be killed," Batstone said.

She asked permission to visit Campbell on the Ransom. Her request was met with a firm negative. "The sergeant was . . . appalled that Jack and I had become people, not lamps, to each other," Batstone writes in her book.

The two did not meet. At the end of May 1944, the Ransom sailed to Normandy, where it was intentionally sunk to form an artificial harbor on the second day of the D-day invasion that killed thousands. A month later, Batstone received a letter Campbell had sent before his ship's departure. He asked her to send a picture of herself so he could make her the Ransom's "pinup girl." She replied, enclosing a small photo, but didn't hear back from Campbell. "I never knew if he made it," she said.

Fearing him dead, she wrote a poem in his memory. "Bitter it is that he must die, Before our love was young and glad," reads one line. Batstone looked up every Jack Campbell in his home state of Ohio. But she had no luck.

Her luck changed this week on the lawn of the Imperial War Museum, where the people behind the lamps finally met. Their encounter was sweet, but not exactly romantic.

Batstone, a mild-mannered woman of 79 wearing an aqua-green dress and a salmon-colored jacket, was there to promote the newest edition of her book, which includes recent correspondence with the long-lost American signalman. Campbell, 77, in his first trip back to Europe since the end of the war, arrived from Ohio with his three grown children and wife--to whom he was already married when he was a sailor on the Ransom.

After the Normandy invasion, Campbell went on to serve on 10 more ships in waters off the Philippines and Japan. Upon returning home, Campbell went to work in the auto parts business, eventually becoming executive director of the Ohio Automotive Wholesalers Assn. He and his wife, Lenna, also have four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Batstone pursued a career in medical social services after the war. She traveled throughout Europe but never returned to Scotland. Batstone wrote the first edition of "Wren's Eye View" in 1994, taking it to more than 40 publishers before she found a house interested in her wartime memoir. She never married.

The two appeared happy to meet each other, if a bit overwhelmed by the public interest in their story. On the part of the Campbell family, there was no jealousy on display--though Campbell, dressed in shades of brown and beige with an American flag pinned to his lapel, seemed a bit defensive about his youthful flirtations.

"I was anchored in that harbor for 30 days, couldn't go to shore. We were restricted to the ship. I had nothing else to do," he said.

Their meeting was the result of chance. A few years ago, a friend of Campbell, an American signalman married to a British Wren, sent him an article from a British paper. On the 50th anniversary of D-day, the story told of Batstone's long-distance friendship with the mysterious Jack Campbell.

Last year when Campbell's daughter, Nicki, was about to make a trip to England, Campbell gave her the article and said, "If you have a chance to, call Stephanie. See if she's still around."

"She just couldn't believe it," Nicki said of her initial phone conversation with Batstone. "She had called all the Jack Campbells in Ohio. She had contacted the State Department and everything."

As for the intentions behind the flashing lights, Nicki said: "I don't want to play up the romance part of this story. My dad was happily married. He was probably flirting a bit, but they were just two kids having fun."

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