Remembering Port's first fallen WWI soldier 

BRYAN EATON/Staff PhotoPhoto of Pvt. Eben Bradbury Jr. hangs in Newburyport City Hall.

The First World War was a long time ago — a century, in fact. With no living veterans, and battles fought in faraway places, it has faded from memory for many of us. I was lucky enough to have my memory jogged several months ago. 

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.

Newburyport has a wealth of information for those who wish to know about their past. The records of The Daily News at the library furnished the first sobering fact — Eben Bradbury had been killed in June, but his death was not reported until October. General Pershing, the leader of the American Expeditionary Force, had kept casualties from the battle a secret for months, fearing that the Germans would take advantage of the decimated Marines. 

Newburyport mourned its “first” World War I casualty, Pvt. John Henry, who died on July 19. Eben Bradbury had been dead for over a month. Between his death and its report, Eben’s sister got married, his grandfather died, Richardson’s Candy Store on Pleasant Street posted a reminder in The Daily News that sugar was for soldiers and recommended peanut clusters instead, two boys sold stolen grain bags, and life went on.

As I dug a little deeper, more sources turned up. Census records revealed his address on Bromfield Street. A city directory pointed to his father’s pharmacy on Pleasant Street, and historian friends turned up valuable bits and pieces. The American Battle Monuments Commission verified that he is buried in France at the Aisne Marne American Cemetery, in Plot A, Row 07, Grave B4. He was born on Nov. 12, 1897, and was 20 years old when he died — just a few years older than my son is today. 

A message sent through a friend recommended a call to Steve Bradbury, a distant relative who has lovingly maintained the Pond Street memorial and the World War I artillery gun that stands near it. Steve was kind enough to share all of the information he had. 

Eben’s nickname was “Bunny.” He had studied at a private school in New Hampshire, but returned to Newburyport High School, and volunteered for the war from there. His parents and sister had moved to California shortly after he died. A medal had been made for him by the city of Newburyport, but never picked up by his family. He had no other known relatives. The medal should be with him in France, Steve said, his voice cracking. Would I take it with me when I go visit France?

So, his medal, his photo, his service records, and some Newburyport soil will join Eben Bradbury in France, nearly a century after he died. It is a small gesture for a young man who lived his life in our neighborhood, and made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. It was also an important reminder to look at the memorials we pass by every day with fresh eyes and think about the men and women whom they honor. The superintendent of the Aisne Marne American Cemetery has asked for any information that can be kept in his file in France. 

“We want to know all we can about our boys,” he said. 

Anyone with additional information, please contact bdorau@historicnewengland.org.

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