Monumental story unfolds: A short life, a brave death
A few years ago, Bethany Groff Dorau met a boy. Now she’s devoted to his memory. For her, every day is Memorial Day.
Eben Bradbury Jr. died in 1918. Yet their connection surely seems like it was meant to be.
Dorau is a historian; it’s her job to remember those who came before. Two years ago, she was finishing a textbook entry on the Battle of Belleau Wood, the brutal World War I engagement for which the Marines earned the nickname of Devil Dogs.
On an errand in Newburyport, she happened to notice for the first time the memorial plaque embedded in a large stone on the grounds of the Bartlet Mall. The plaque denotes the Eben Bradbury Jr. Triangle, named in honor of the first local resident to die in the Great War, in the Battle of Belleau Wood.
“I’d passed that rock a hundred times,” says Dorau, who works as the regional site manager for Historic New England at Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm.
The eerie coincidence sent her on a fact-finding mission. She wanted to learn more about the short life and battlefield death of Bradbury, a diminutive pitcher on the Newburyport High School baseball team who was known to friends as Bunnie.
The memorial stone was just the first in a series of fortuitous developments in Dorau’s pursuit of facts about the young man she’s taken to calling “our boy.” That’s the expected title of her forthcoming book on Bradbury and her efforts to preserve his memory, which she hopes to publish by next year, the centennial of the June 1918 battle in which Bradbury was killed.
After three weeks of combat, the Marines defeated the Germans, keeping them from taking Paris about 30 miles southeast.
While scouring city records and newspaper clippings for any information she could find, Dorau was introduced to Steve Bradbury, a retired firefighter and distant relative of the fallen Marine. Bradbury, who has been maintaining the military memorial on the mall for years, told her that he had a medal that was intended for Eben’s return from the war.
Dorau and her husband, James, were planning a honeymoon to Europe. Could she deliver the medal to Eben’s gravesite in France?
“That’s not a request you take lightly,” says Dorau, whose ancestors were among the first settlers in Newburyport in the 1630s.
During their trip in 2015, the couple scheduled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery at the foot of Belleau Wood, where more than 2,000 war dead are buried. There, they deposited the medal and scattered the contents of a small bag of dirt from the front yard of the Bromfield Street home in Newburyport where Bradbury grew up.
She wrote about the emotional trip for the local paper, and that led to her next breakthrough. A collector in California contacted Dorau after an Internet search for Eben Bradbury turned up her article. The man said he’d recently purchased some items at an estate sale, and they’d once belonged to the elder Eben Bradbury, a Newburyport druggist who’d moved west with his wife after his son’s death.
The collection included bundles of letters, many of them sent to Eben Jr. while he was stationed overseas. Several had been returned unopened after his death on the battlefield.
Other letters were sent from the young man to his parents, reassuring them that he was OK.
The day Dorau received the package from the collector, she opened one letter and read the first two words: “Dear folks.”
“I started crying and put it away,” she told an audience at a presentation she gave at City Hall in April, part of the Newburyport Literary Festival.
When she was ready to delve into Eben’s story, she invited several friends over for an all-day “laptop party.” Sitting around a big table, each volunteer transcribed a stack of letters.
“By the end of the day, we understood what an incredible treasure we had,” Dorau recalled to the audience at City Hall.
Though the work was done mostly in silence, “occasionally someone would burst out laughing or wiping away a tear,” she said.
She plans to send the transcriptions to the cemetery in France, which keeps records on each of the men interred there. Bit by bit, she’s been able to create a biography for a young man who had only begun to tell his story.
“He was an ordinary kid who never came back,” said Dorau. “He died before he had a chance to live his life.”
Two days before she made her presentation at City Hall, Dorau received still more unexpected news: She heard from a man in possession of the elder Eben’s diary.
She’s frankly overwhelmed by all this serendipity. “It’s mind-blowing,” Dorau said.
As a historian, she is still amazed she’d never noticed the memorial to Eben Bradbury in Newburyport.
“It was an incredible lesson to just look around,” she said. “The ghosts of our city are all around you, all the time.”