Historian Bethany Groff Dorau a few years ago met Eben Bradbury Jr., 20, who died June 12, 1918 at the Battle of Belleau Wood in France.
Now she’s devoted to his memory and, for her, every day is Memorial Day.
The Boston Globe tells the story: “Dorau is a historian who two years ago was finishing a textbook entry on the Battle of Belleau Wood, the brutal World War I engagement for which the Marines earned the nickname Devil Dogs.
In Newburyport, Mass., she noticed a memorial plaque embedded in a large stone at Bartlet Mall park that honors Bradbury, the first local resident to die in the Great War.
“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 Dorau on a mission 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.
Now Dorau is writing a book about him that she hopes to publish before next year, the centennial of the battle and Bradbury’s death.
During her research, 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.
Would she and her husband, James, deliver the medal to Eben’s gravesite in France on their honeymoon to Europe?
During their 2015 trip, the couple visited Aisne-Marne American Cemetery at the foot of Belleau Wood, the final resting place for more than 2,000 war dead. They deposited the medal and scattered handfuls of lawn dirt from the Newburyport home where Eben Bradbury grew up.
Her article about the emotional trip was published in the Newburyport Daily News. A California man read the Daily News article and contacted Dorau about recently purchased items that once belonged to the elder Eben Bradbury, a Newburyport druggist who moved west after his son’s death.
The items included bundles of letters, many of them sent to Eben Jr. while he was stationed overseas. Several had been returned unopened after his battlefield death. Sadly, several letters from the young soldier assured his parents he was okay.
Dorau said the first two words of the first letter she read were “Dear folks.” She started crying and put the letter away, she said.
When she was ready to examine Eben’s story, she invited several friends over for an all-day “laptop party” where volunteers transcribed a stack of letters as they laughed and cried through the stack of documents. By the end of the day, Dorau said “we understood what an incredible treasure we had.”
Dorau said she plans to send the transcriptions of all the documents to the cemetery in France, which keeps records on each of the men interred there. Meanwhile, letter by letter, she has been able to create a biography for the 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 April presentation, Dorau received more unexpected news from a man in possession of the elder Eben’s diary.
The serendipity of the California collection and the diary “is mind-blowing,” Dorau said.
The historian said 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 us all the time.”