Write About What You Know (or, not)

 Write about what you know. That’s the advice we’ve all been given. On the surface this seems obvious, even trite, but I now know writing about what I don’t know can be vastly more intriguing and rewarding.

About a year ago, I posted a blog entry about my Uncle Elliott, who was killed in the last days of WWII. I wrote it for several reasons.  Yottie, as my mother has always called him, had a huge influence on my life even though I never knew him; he died in 1944, five years before I was born. My little brother, Thomas, shared his name (as his middle) died in a shooting accident in 1967 when he was only fourteen. Coincidentally, my mother was the second to the last in her family and I ranked the same in mine; two women who lost younger brothers with the name Elliott. When my son was born people suggested I honor Yottie by naming my son after him. Call me superstitious, but there was no way I was going to do that. As it turned out, my own son nearly died during his youth, so put it down to Kismet or providence, that he lived when two other generations of men did not.  There is a new Elliott in the family, although not a direct descendant of mine and a different spelling, so I believe the chain is broken. Little Eliot lives in Spain, not too far from Margraten, Netherlands, where his namesake is buried.

Yot has always been in my memory, a spirit who cannot or will not allow people to forget him,  so it should not have surprised me when the U.S. Army contacted my mother 65 years after his death to say they had some papers of his they wanted to return to the family. That was the subject of my blog entry.

About three months after that an online literary magazine editor contacted me wanting to publish the blog entry as an essay. We  corresponded, and with some minor edits the piece appeared on January 5, 2011, with a new title, “Dog Tags.” Then things got interesting.

The same day the essay was published I got an email from a complete stranger, copied here as it appeared in my inbox:


Hi! I’m registered on a forum for a military style video game group. Recently, someone from the Netherlands posted on the History section of our forum asking for information regarding Elliott Corbett, II. He said that he adopted a gravesite in Margraten, Netherlands. We’re in no way affiliated with his unit or the Army, but out of boredum and curiosity I hopped on Ancestry.com and did some research, then googled the stuff i found, which eventually led me to your blog post. It’s quite amazing that your blog post about recovering his Dog Tags. It’s quite amazing that that post was published on the very day i decided to do this research.

Here is a link to the post he made: http://www.28th-infantry-division.us/forum/index.php?/topic/7625-elliott-corbett-rii/

I hope that by getting in touch with him, you can perhaps gain more information about where your ancestor is buried, and he get the information he’s requested about the gravesite which I presume he paid a bit to help maintain.

Let me know if anything comes of this, I find it pretty interesting.

More than interesting. Of course my family knew where Yottie was buried and who had taken care of his grave in years past. A tradition since WWII, caring people of the Netherlands adopt a grave, tend it, and coordinate with the family of the fallen. My grandmother, devastated by Yot’s death, visited the grave and the caretakers back in the 1960s, but after her death our family lost contact with the caretakers who retired or died. Over the years my mother assumed the tradition had waned and the graves were maintained by the government. This appeared to be incorrect, according to the letter I received.

I went to the military forum and found the original post:

I’m Chris and I’ve recently adopted an american grave in the City of Margraten, The Netherlands. The soldier’s name is Elliott Corbett RII and his registration number: 11099747. His unit: 109 INF 28 DIV. He has died on 19th november 1944. I think that must be happened in the neighbourhood of Wiltz, because at that time this Division was stationed in Wiltz, Luxembourg. This is the only information which was given to me from this cemetry.

I’m looking for more information about Elliott Corbett RII. Like pictures and other documents.

If anyone can help me to complete his story, please contact me.

I contacted Chris and my family corresponded with him for weeks, sharing photos of Yot, our family, and what my 92-year-old mother, and last surviving relative, could remember about him. Chris says he wants to create a webpage honoring Yottie so people do not forget the faces of those who died in that war. I know Yot is for that. Through all this communication I learned that my uncle did not die in the Battle of the Bulge, as I’d always been told, and that his death was a source of confusion for some time. My mother says that originally the U.S. Military notified his parents of his death, crushing his mother, my grandmother. Then came a message saying someone had seen him in a hospital recovering from wounds. There was hope, confusion, and a frantic search from a distance, all this done by mail or phone, and in wartime the lines of communication had to have been tenuous at best. Ultimately, my grandfather tracked down some high-ranking officer in the European theater who revealed the truth. Yot was dead.

But that is not the end of the story.

Last week I got a message from Camroc Press Review‘s editor informing me that he has nominated my essay, “Dog Tags,” for a Best of the Net award for nonfiction. I am humbled and honored by the nomination and believe my uncle has a great deal to do with this.

Yot refuses to be forgotten.


Elliott Ruggles Corbett II, age 17 or 18.
Right to left, back row, Alfred and Henry; front row, Rosina and Elliott