Forest of war, forest of peace
Last updated 3/7/2023 at Noon
The young man had roots in the sunny forests of the Metolius Basin, but he met his fate in a dark forest far away, almost 80 years ago. The story behind the short, charmed life, tragic death, and surprising afterlife of Elliot R. Corbett is part of the history of one of Oregon’s most remote state parks.
Elliot Ruggles Corbett II was a member of the influential Corbett family, who were a key part of the development of Portland, Oregon. It started in 1851, when Henry Winslow Corbett came around the Horn with a ship of goods to sell in the new city and later became one of the state’s first U.S. senators. His descendants formed a line of leaders in commerce, ship building, trains, banking, education, real estate, art, conservation, civic engagement, ranching, and politics.
Elliot was born to Gretchen Hoyt and Henry Ladd Corbett (a state senator and grandson of Henry W. Corbett) in 1922. The youngest son of 5 children, Elliot and his siblings, Helen, Henry Ladd Jr., Alfred, and Rosina grew up roaming the family ranch on the Metolius River, purchased by their father in the 1920s. Family photos show active summers with the Corbetts climbing, fishing, and exploring the Cascades and beyond.
Elliot had an easy smile, and was reportedly a charmer. His family’s nickname for him was “Yot” or “Yottie.” He attended Thacher Preparatory school in the hills of Ojai, California, where he was known as “Corb.”
He was graceful in the sports of gymkana on horseback, track, soccer, and baseball; good at his studies, likeable, and public minded, as well as a skilled camp cook. His brother Alfred, who also became a state senator, recorded interviews with the Oregon Historical Society, and described Elliot as a “delightful person to be with” who also played the piano very well.
Elliot spent two years at Harvard studying English, hoping to become a journalist. There he found love with a Vassar girl named Ellen “Sudie” Zinsser. As World War II descended, he joined up and found himself in the 109th Regiment, 28th Infantry Division. He wrote Sudie every day.
The night he left for the front he wrote, “I’d like to take the train to Poughkeepsie tonight, darling, but something intervenes.”
One day the letters stopped coming. Elliot disappeared and was reported missing in action.
But he wasn’t missing. He had been sent into a horrific battle in the Hürtgen Forest of Germany, where the army was hampered by thick woods, gorges, heavy rain and snow, and lack of roads. Hundreds died, and a rapid retreat left many wounded soldiers in the dense woodland. Elliot was wounded and reported captured as a POW on November 19, 1944. A German Army division took him to Marinwald Monastery, where the Red Cross had a field hospital. Records showed he died three days later. It was 1945 before his family and Sudie knew with certainty that Elliot was gone and had been buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery in the town of Margraten.
In 1947 his grieving parents traveled to Europe to see how it was recovering and to visit their son’s grave. The people of the Netherlands had a custom of adopting soldier graves, and his father said, “We came away, completely satisfied with the loving care given the graves by the Dutch people and convinced that it is the proper place for any American boy buried there to remain.”
In 1952 they donated a 63-acre parcel of land west of Blue Lake to the State as a park to honor their son and his love of nature, with a condition it remain wild. Elliott R. Corbett II Memorial State Park is found off Highway 20 east of Hoodoo. It was historically a stopping place on a pioneer wagon road, with a small meadow and a view of Blue Lake from the steep caldera walls.
Reassuringly, the Dutch people still tend the graves of the lost boys so far from home.
There’s even a waiting list for the program.
Chris Leenaars, a Dutch graphics designer, adopted Elliot’s grave in 2010, and has gone beyond to create a comprehensive website of Elliot’s life, service, and death against the backdrop of world war (https://www.elliott-r-corbett-ii.com/).
Elliot’s girlfriend Sudie, a 91-year-old retired doctor, never forgot him, and donated the love letters she saved.
Elliot’s niece reported that strangely one day, 65 years after his death, the Army sent her Elliot’s dog tags with no explanation of where they had been.
Elliot R. Corbett lived only 22 years but his death illuminates one human story in the dark landscape of war. It allows a glimpse into a life of influence and wealth melded with civic leadership, a life that could not keep him safe in the end. The state park in his honor has no development except a stone with his name and service. Since the 2002 B&B Fire, the route has become an even more challenging two-mile bushwhack, with downed trees and brush obscuring old roads and trails.
It’s quiet in the meadow, a young forest growing again on the edge of the deep blue lake. It’s a place that calls to the most adventurous willing to search for wild beauty and remember the life and loss of a young man with a sweet smile who in his last letter described himself as “being naturally a peaceful character.” Rest in peace, Elliot.