If you didn't have GND common between the ESP8266 and RAK then that'd 100% cause the issues you were seeing.
So with it connected it'd be worth re-trying some stuff you did previously in order to see if you have any success.
When booting the ESP8266 will print garbage since the bootloader works at 78400(iirc?) baud - but once booted it should print ready and work just fine at 155200.
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