‘The girl I love with a passion unparalleled’
Portland scion fought in WWII; his letters capture a life that never was
“Sudie, I might say with little or no compulsion that I miss you hellishly and I’ve had enough of tramping around Europe.”
This was how Elliott R. Corbett II began the last letter he wrote to his girlfriend, Ellen “Sudie” Zinsser. Sudie never heard from him again. Elliott, a 22-year-old U.S Army “bazooka man” and scion of Portland’s most-prominent political and commercial dynasty, disappeared in November 1944 during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. It would be months before his family -- and Sudie -- knew whether he was dead or alive.
Elliott and Sudie met at Harvard University one day when she was visiting her brother, who, like Elliott, was a student at the school. That fall, she enrolled at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and during the next year she and Elliott frequently met in Manhattan for weekends -- Elliott sometimes hitchhiking from Boston. “We saw each other and enjoyed each other,” says Sudie, now 96 and living in Minneapolis. “I was just crazy about him. I think he was in love with me too.” Ellen "Sudie" Zinsser and Elliott R. Corbett II. "I was just crazy about him," she says.
During Elliott’s time in the army, their commitment to one another only deepened. He wrote to her almost every day: moving, funny, engrossing letters, always making clear how much he missed her -- “the girl I love with a passion unparalleled.” Elliott, known to family and friends as “Yot,” joked in his letters about how enjoyable Army life was (“Then we ran the obstacle course and had such a nifty time we like to split our slats!!”) and how he sure wouldn’t mind some time to himself now and again (“I have joined the paratroopers figuring I can be alone a little while at least, while gliding gently earthwards”). On Oct. 5, 1944, writing from England, he related that a fellow Harvard man in his unit was worried they’d be in Europe for years, “and all the lonely girls all over the world will marry Yale j.g.’s [Lieutenant, junior grade] who will also probably be republicans.” He added: “Sudie don’t marry a Republican Yale j.g. Please. Or anyone else for that matter.”
Elliott even wrote to Ellen while listening to the World Series on the radio, cutting into a description of how much he missed her with the parenthetical exclamation, “A Homeric clout, a homer! -- Browns 2-0. I miss you, unattractive one. Love, Van J.” Before leaving Great Britain for the front lines, he dashed off a quick note: “I’d like to take the train to Poughkeepsie tonight, darling, but something intervenes.” A few weeks later, Elliott was wounded in Germany. He may have been a prisoner of war for a few hours -- the official accounts are confused and contradictory. What’s known for sure is that, in dire condition, he ended up at the Mariawald Abbey, which was being used as a field hospital.
The Dutch have never forgotten the young American men who gave their lives during World War II to liberate the Netherlands -- and the rest of Europe -- from the Nazis. At the Netherlands American Cemetery in the town of Margraten, the fallen soldiers’ graves are kept well-tended by volunteers. On Memorial Day, every Memorial Day, thousands of people turn out at the cemetery, filling the grounds with bouquets. Every one of the more than 8,200 graves in the cemetery have been “adopted” by locals. There’s a waiting list for the program. Chris Leenaars, a 60-year-old Dutch graphic designer, adopted Elliott’s grave in 2010. He visits it regularly, attends to it with care. But that wasn’t enough for him. He adopted Elliott as well. Leenaars has dedicated himself to learning everything he can about Elliott Ruggles Corbett II -- and to spreading that knowledge to the world beyond Netherlands American Cemetery. He has created a website that rolls through Elliott’s busy, charmed life in Portland and at school -- charmed, that is, until Elliott found himself in the middle of the longest battle, and one of the most brutal, the U.S. Army has ever fought.
Leenaars can go into great detail about the Battle of Hurtgen Forest and what likely happened to Elliott there, but he prefers to focus on Elliott Corbett II the man, the young wannabe pacifist who “hellishly” missed his girl back home and envisioned becoming a journalist and author after finishing college. Elliott “had many gifts,” Leenaars says. He loved to cook and to laugh, and he loved even more being out in “the rugged nature.” Leenaars talks about “Yot” with such affection that he sounds like he’s talking about a family member. And, indeed, more than 10 years into their relationship, he says he thinks of Elliott kind of as a cousin. “Now I can no longer imagine life without the presence of Elliott,” he says. “My special cousin!” And so he celebrates Elliott’s short life -- and mourns the longer one the young Portlander didn’t get to live. “The letters Elliott wrote while serving in the war tell me that he was deeply in love with Ellen,” he says of the correspondence between Elliott and Sudie. “He missed her enormously, that much is clear. Unfortunately, he was never allowed to see Ellen again. That is so sad.”
Those surviving letters showcase Elliott’s endearing personality -- and his love for Sudie -- but Leenaars’ efforts to get to know Elliott also have been frustrated. The Corbett family has been well chronicled in Oregon: Elliott’s great-grandfather was one of the state’s first U.S. senators, Elliott’s father a powerful state senator, Elliott’s uncle -- after whom he was named -- an influential banker, builder and philanthropist. But Elliott II died so young, and so long ago. Few people who knew him are still around to tell us about him. Elliott Corbett and Ellen Zinsser corresponded almost every day throughout their relationship. (Photo courtesy of Sarah C. Morgan) One of the few, along with Sudie, is Yot’s British cousin William Macadam. When Great Britain took up the fight against Nazi Germany in 1939, Macadam’s parents sent him and his sister to stay in Oregon with the kids’ grandparents -- Elliott’s aunt and uncle -- at the Corbett estate in Dunthorpe. William was “only a little tyke,” Macadam, now 83, says of his time in Oregon, so he remembers Elliott “but slightly when he was home from Harvard.” He calls him a “kind older cousin.” “I am the only person in the extended Corbett family still alive who remembers ‘Yot’ (or ERC II) at all,” he writes in an email. The rest of the family must make do with anecdotes passed down through the years.
Elliott’s niece Sarah Corbett Morgan, daughter of Elliott’s sister Rosina, says she never knew “my uncle Yottie, as my mother always referred to him, but I gather he was a charmer.” Elliott certainly charmed Sudie Zinsser. “He was a wonderful young man -- very, very nice, very thoughtful,” Sudie says. “He wanted to be a writer. He was a very good writer.” She adds: “We had a really nice relationship. I was waiting for him to come back.” But then, in November 1944, the letters from Elliott stopped. Finally, after a month of silence, Sudie received a telegram, but it wasn’t from her “Yot.” It was from his mother. “Just received telegram giving news Elliott missing in action as of November nineteenth. No further details. Best love = Gretchen H Corbett.” Elliott's mother notified Ellen Zinsser that Elliott was missing in action. (Courtesy of Chris Leenaars) That was all she or anyone in the Corbett family knew for weeks. Then, suddenly -- miraculously -- good news arrived. “Elliott Corbett, 22, son of Mr. and Mrs. Henry L. Corbett, 300 SW Tryon Hill Road, reported missing in action in Germany November 17, is alive and well, his parents learned Monday,” stated The Oregonian on Jan. 16, 1945. The Corbetts learned this from a letter Elliott’s mother received from an Army chaplain. The chaplain said Yot had taken communion with him on Christmas Day and “was well and in good spirits, although his mail had been held up when he was lost from his unit.” In Portland and Poughkeepsie, there was shuddering relief, jubilation. “Yottie” was OK. No follow-up came, however. The missives to Sudie did not resume. Elliott’s parents also did not receive any letters from their youngest son. As the days dragged on with no word from Elliott, and then the days turned into weeks, his parents’ worst fears returned. They decided they had to do something. “I think they finally went to some general, some bigwig, and said, ‘Find out what happened,’” Morgan says. Three months later, they found out. Henry Ladd Corbett and Gretchen Corbett were told their son had died Nov. 19, “of wounds suffered while fighting in Germany.” The chaplain’s letter, The Oregonian reported, “evidently was a mistake.” The family never discovered exactly what happened to Elliott -- only that he was gone.
All these years later, Chris Leenaars, guided by the work of two German academic researchers, believes he now knows where Elliott R. Corbett II fell that terrible November day in 1944. He’s raising funds so he can place a memorial stone there on Yot’s 100th birthday next year. “I have full confidence in this thorough research,” he says, “that this place is actually where Elliott was seriously injured.”
After World War II came to a close, life went on for the remaining Corbett family.
Elliott’s older brothers Henry Jr. and Alfred both survived their own wartime service. Henry became a Portland real-estate developer, Alfred a lawyer who would serve in the Oregon Legislature. Their sister Rosina and her husband Howard Morgan ran a sheep farm, and then a cattle ranch, in central Oregon. Elliott’s sister Helen worked as a psychiatric social worker in New York City. As for Ellen “Sudie” Zinsser: She graduated from Vassar in 1945, still mourning Elliott, and visited his parents in Oregon. In the years ahead, Sudie went to medical school, married a fellow doctor and raised a family while forging a distinguished career. She would save Elliott’s letters for more than 70 years.
In his last letter, Elliott, apparently somewhere in Belgium, wrote to Sudie that “being naturally a peaceful character I look forward to a long life of security and freedom from the elements, which are beginning to pall.”Ellen put the letter on top of the stack and hid the cache away. Elliott’s death “changed a lot of things in my life,” she says. “It was a hard experience. I didn’t plan to ever marry anybody after that.” “They meant a lot to each other,” says Sarah Morgan, who learned about Sudie only in recent years and connected with her. “I got the sense she never really got over it.” Elliott’s family never got over his death either, of course. Henry and Gretchen Corbett donated wilderness property near Bend in honor of their son. It’s now the Elliott R. Corbett II Memorial State Park. In 1947, Elliott’s parents spent two months in Europe, traveling around the continent to see how it was recovering from the war’s devastation. Arriving back in Portland, Henry waved off reporters’ questions about conditions there. “I detest people who spend a few weeks in Europe and then come home with all the answers,” he said. But he did have something to say about the daytrip he and his wife took to the American Cemetery in Margraten. “We came away,” he said, “completely satisfied with the loving care given the graves by the Dutch people and convinced that is the proper place for any American boy buried there to remain.”
Douglas Perry | The Oregonian.
Portland's Elliott R. Corbett II was an avid outdoorsman and dreamed of becoming a writer