In June 2018, I traveled to Northern France with author Bethany Groff Dorau to document her visit to the Belleau Wood Battlefield and Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Her trip was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood and the death of US Marine Eben Bradbury, the subject of Dorau’s most recent book. While there, I met and photographed the French and American staff that cares for the graves and the site. This is part one of a four part series.
I step to the edge of the woods, my heart thumping, and look cautiously out onto the field of ripening wheat. The breeze rustles everything green, and the resulting sound is almost deafening compared to the heavy silence of noontime sun in the summer. The events of this day, in this place, one hundred years ago, still reside in the soil and in the air; if you pause, you can feel it. At least, I can as I stand here, knees a bit wobbly, my soul vibrating and aching all at once, camera useless by my side, staring. Ghosts of young men are whispering to me, asking me to listen.
Nearly one year before this moment in the woods Bethany had floated the idea to me over a sneaky workday lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant. “Come with me to France”, she said, “and take pictures when I visit Eben again.” It struck me like most fanciful and far off ideas do, interesting in its spontaneous shape, but unlikely to ever become anything more than a thought. Then suddenly, something in the moment whispered, like it did in the field, telling me to simply say yes and sort the details out later. So I did.
A few more weeks and working lunches later, we had flights and rooms and a car in Aisne and seven unscheduled June days, with the exception of one – June 12th. On that day, the 100th anniversary of his death, Bethany would be visiting with Eben Bradbury, a WWI Newburyport Massachusetts Marine buried at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Belleau Wood. She would sit at his grave and read him letters from his father, the ones Eben never got to read himself, as they were sent back from France unopened with ‘Killed in Action’ scrawled in red above his name.
Bethany, a historian and author, and also a Newburyport native, knows a lot about Eben. A lot. Enough to fill the terrific book she’s written about him. She knows the house where he grew up, and the schools he attended. She knows his favorite sport (baseball) and what he liked to do in his spare time (walks with Dad). She knows his nickname, and a bit about his temperament, and much about his relationship with his parents and older sister. She can tell you details about his family’s business and the interesting people he was related to. She also knows about his eventual choice to be a Marine, his training and service in Europe during WWI, how he ended up at Belleau, and how he died there.
The whisper that I heard has been in Bethany’s ear all along, bringing with it an astounding series of fortuitous events, well-timed connections and providences that have helped her understand this nearly-forgotten young man with astounding depth. (You should read the book!) Bethany wrote in 2015: “I had recently completed some research on the Battle of Belleau Wood in France, a 1918 battle famous in the Marine Corps for its terrible death toll and the bravery of its soldiers. Later that day I drove by a memorial stone on Pond Street and really looked at it for the first time. It honors Eben Bradbury, who died on June 12, 1918, at the Battle of Belleau Wood. It was an eerie coincidence, but one that convinced me to find out more about how the war touched Newburyport, and about this young man in particular.”
That was three years ago. Here we were now, in 2018, days before the 100th anniversary, in Northern France on the edge of the Marne River, walking through villages and the driving down the dirt roads where that dreadful battle was fought. We drank every detail in great gulps, minds full of the past and the present all at once separate and then intertwined. The roll of the hills the soldiers marched, the length of the fields they waded through. Bright June days, where a late sunset meant less time under cover of darkness for rest and recon. The feel of the soil underfoot, the height of the wheat, the blood red brightness of poppies and the green of trees. Church bells tolling in the present, reminding us of their use in the past as alarms or calls to action. The farmers using harmless air cannons to drive off crows – and how they sounded like rifles as we stood in the battlefield listening. Thunderstorms that seemed, for all the world, like artillery as they shook the ground. Doves calling incessantly to their mates, as if they feared losing each other in the thick of the wood. Rain. Mud. And bones in the ground…