Standing in the kitchen of her southeast Bulloch County home, Eleanor Stark holds a photo of the last time she saw her husband alive.
At age 90, Stark still drives, still speaks her mind, and still remembers with emotion her first husband, killed in action during World War II.
The couple’s life together was short, as Luther “Buck” Bagley was drafted soon after their wedding. After shipping off to serve in the United States Army, he and Stark only enjoyed brief periods of married bliss before she got the news he was killed in battle.
As tears welled in her eyes, Stark described the family photo taken in January 1944 of her husband holding their 6-month-old son “Woody” in his lap as she sat next to them.
“We were visiting him at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri,” Stark said, haltingly. “I knew he was about to go overseas. I didn’t know, of course, it would be the last time I would see him, or he would see his son.”
The memories often bring tears even today, 70 years later, as she recalls the few years after the Bagley’s marriage on March 28, 1942.
She was 17, he was 20. Stark had just graduated from high school in Fitzgerald, Ga., and their honeymoon was brief, because Bagley was drafted soon afterward.
“(President Franklin) Roosevelt was drafting every young man he could find after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,” she said.
Summer was sweet, but Bagley left that September to report to Camp Swift, Texas, as a newly drafted soldier in the United States Army.
“I stayed in Fitzgerald,” Stark said, recalling the pain of parting.
She was excited to visit him later in Little Rock, Ark., and after returning home, learned she was expecting a child. A son, Nathan Elwood “Woody” Bagley, was born in 1943.
Being a military wife wasn’t easy, but Stark managed, going to work in Savannah at a shipyard, where she ordered materials for shipbuilding. She had help from an aunt, who made raising a child alone a bit easier, she said.
“My aunt was my second mother,” she said.
She helped care for Woody while Stark worked and Bagley was in basic training. Bagley was able to come home for a few days after his son was born, but was then sent to Ft. Leonard Wood, MO, and then to Ft. Moody, MD, “to leave for God knows where. He didn’t even know – everything was so secretive,” she said. “My son and me left on a troop train back to Georgia. The soldiers played with Woody, who was only 6 months old.”
Fighting in Burma
She returned home with questions haunting her about her husband’s secret destination. She found out later Bagley was on his way to Burma, in Southeast Asia.
The couple communicated by mail, and Stark still has the dozens letters her husband wrote in 1944, telling her “everything was done by mule. It was all jungle there.” He also wrote that the jungle was “hell.”
She said the letters gave her comfort and “I wrote him a letter every day.”
Bagley fought in all five battles in Burma, and was killed in the last one, the Siege of Myitkyina, fighting in the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), which later became known as Merrill’s Marauders.
The unit was named for Gen. Frank D. Merrill. At its inception, the unit consisted of 2,997 enlisted and drafted men and officers. They volunteered for what was termed a “dangerous and hazardous mission” and became the first American ground troops to engage the Japanese in ground combat.
“There was dysentery, malaria, and 800 miles of jungle,” she said. “My husband survived all that to die in the last battle.”
Stark’s uncle came to the shipyard to tell her Bagley was dead.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Eleanor, I’m not going to beat around the bush. Lou’s been killed.’”
But he didn’t know where or how he was killed, she said. Military officials didn’t know the details of his death, either.
Date of Luther Bagley’s death
Questions about her husband’s death spanned more than 50 years before Stark learned of Col. Oliver North’s efforts to collect and write war stories about the battles fought in Burma. With hope of finding answers, Stark contacted North about Bagley. North responded, sending her a list of soldiers killed and dates they were killed.
“I never knew the date my husband was killed until Oliver North told me,” she said.
Bagley was killed, most likely in a massive explosion because his body was never found, on July 25, 1944 in the Siege of Myitkyina. A marker with Bagley’s name sits in a military cemetery in the Philippines in Manila, Stark said.
For Stark, the knowledge of the day her husband died was “priceless.”
Their son Woody keeps possession of Bagley’s Purple Heart Medal, awarded posthumously for the injuries that led to his death. Stark keeps a paper copy of the Purple Heart with her memorabilia of her husband.
In spite of years passing, with two more marriages and the birth of three daughters, Stark remembers her first husband with strong emotion and pride.
She was single for three years after his death, then married Charles Davis Hadley in 1947, with whom she had three daughters. He died in 1960.
Stark later married Irvin Stark, who died 13 years ago, she said.
Stark is an active 90-year-old, living alone in her home in southeast Bulloch County with her daughter staying just next door, driving herself wherever she needs to go.
She is still active in a military support group, the Merrill’s Marauders, of which “There are only 35 men left” of the original 3,000 who volunteered, and only “300 returned,” she said.
Stark strongly supports the military, donating to the Wounded Warrior Project, Disabled American Veteran, and Paraplegic Veterans. She also purchased memorial stones for Bagley, located on River Street in Savannah, as well as at Ft. Benning in Columbus, Ga.
Stark is passionately verbal about the military and its duties, as well as the sacrifices made by soldiers and their families.
“I feel like my husband died in vain, the way this country is today,” she said. “Everything is so liberal now. I don’t care who I offend - my husband died for this country. It just breaks my heart. I never did think I’d see this country in the mess it is in.”
At age 90, Stark has experienced decades of changes in America and remembers a time when things may have been more difficult, but were, perhaps, more simple.
“I have been through five wars. I speak my mind. I think I have the right,” she said.
Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.
Jim Healy contributed to this story.