(Originally posted April 26, 2018) On June 6, I will be flying to France to spend the week with Eben Bradbury, one hundred years after the worst week imaginable. It’s honestly not a happy trip. Eben was a marine private, a handsome and thoughtful young man with a full life and a warm and loving family. He left a close group of friends from Newburyport’s south end neighborhood when he joined up, just days after the United States joined the First World War, in April, 1917. By June 6, when my plane will touch down in Paris, he had been in France for almost a year, had nearly died of rheumatic fever and pneumonia, had seen service in trenches in Verdun, and had written to his father that he thought he would be home for his sister’s Colby College graduation in May. This, of course, was not to be. He would never see her again. Eben was killed by a machine gun on June 12, 1918.
On June 6, the Battle of Belleau Wood began – a bloody, frantic, confusing mess of a battle. The Germans, desperate to get to Paris before the Americans could gather strength, were entrenched in excellent positions in a tangled forest, a beautiful, ancient, haunted place. The marines were thrown at them, across open wheat fields, straight into machine gun fire. They were gassed, shelled, bombed, over and over again. It is, perhaps, amazing that Eben survived for six days of this hell. His journey during those six days, carefully researched for my upcoming book, “A Newburyport Marine”, took him through forests, fields, gaping shell holes and muddy ravines. He was hungry, thirsty, shaking, exhausted, half-blind and gagging. He was also extremely brave, determined, and surrounded by men he considered his friends.
Belleau Wood and the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, where Eben Bradbury is buried, is beautiful. Nearby Chateau Thierry is charming. It will be hard not to have a good time, and my travelling companion, the extraordinary photographer Cynthia August, who has been my partner on many adventures, will make it even more difficult. And maybe that it alright too. I want to fully embrace Eben’s experience, honor his suffering, walk the same paths he stumbled down all those years ago. But he was young, he was funny, and smart, and I can honor him by remembering that as well. Off to France.