Published: 27 October 2022
By Eric Mueller
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
In early November of 1918, the America Expeditionary Force was pushing the Germans back all along the lines in the Meuse Argonne region. Still, there were formidable obstacles to be overcome, one of them being Hill 378. This bald hilltop on the east side of the Meuse River is named La Borne de Cornouiller, but the Doughboys referred to it as “Corn Willy Hill”. Looming over the village of Sivry-sur-Meuse, this vantage point allowed German observers and artillery to rain shells over a large portion of the Meuse Argonne battlefield. This objective had to be captured, and that task fell to the men of the 316th Infantry Regiment, 79th Division.
After moving into position on November 3, the Americans attacked at 6:00 a.m. November 4 with two battalions. They were met with furious resistance from German machine guns and trench mortars. Much of the forest on the lower parts of the hill had been previously destroyed by artillery fire, so there was little cover as our boys clawed their way up against a well-entrenched and concealed enemy. Throughout the day the fighting raged, at times hand-to-hand. In the afternoon, the Americans captured a trench line near the summit, only to be pushed back by a German counterattack. By nightfall, the men of the 316th held a line approximately 200 meters below the top.
The attack was ordered to resume on November 5. Starting at dawn, the Americans attacked and were counterattacked. By the end of the day, some ground had been gained, but the summit remained in enemy hands. On the morning of November 6 the attack resumed, and this time, the Americans would not be denied. By the afternoon, they had driven the Germans from their positions, secured the crest of the hill, and neutralized this stronghold that had caused so many AEF casualties from the very beginning of the Meuse Argonne Offensive. In three days of bitter fighting, Hill 378 had been taken, but it came at a terrible cost. The slopes of “Corn Willy Hill” were strewn with the dead and wounded men of the 316th Regiment.
After the war, a wealthy veteran of the 316th decided to commission a monument to be built atop Hill 378. This was quite controversial, for General John Pershing, now the head of the newly formed American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), had decreed that there would be no monuments for any unit smaller than a division. To circumvent this, the wealthy veteran and the Mayor of Sivry-sur-Meuse arranged to have the monument erected on private land. Pershing was livid and tried repeatedly to stop the construction, including appealing directly to the President of France. Despite Pershing’s objections, the monument went up. There was also a trust fund established that would pay for the maintenance of the monument and its surrounding grounds.
For years, this hilltop has offered panoramic views of the battlefield, while also being an iconic monument to the men of the 316th who sacrificed so much in Sector 304, at Montfaucon, in the Troyon sector, and in the hills and ravines on the east side of the Meuse River. Unfortunately, things have taken a bad turn on “Corn Willy Hill”.
A recent photo shows the devastating inexorable progress of the spruce beetles through the trees lining the private road leading to the 316th Monument. All the dead or infested trees must be removed.
In the last few years, the forests of the Meuse Argonne region have been overwhelmed by a bark beetle that attacks the region’s spruce trees. There is no cure. If you have been in the Meuse Argonne recently, the devastation is shocking. Sadly, it is spruce trees that line the small road to the 316th Monument. There were over 100 flanking the road, and not only did they offer an easy landmark when looking for the monument, but they created a beautiful lane that led to an open area, the monument itself, and the view. The bark beetle has infested the trees along this lane, killing more than half of them. The rest will soon follow. Last March, the lane was blocked by half of a dead spruce, which I was barely able to drag aside. It is heartbreaking to see. As one dedicated to remembering and honoring our fallen from World War 1, I felt something needed to be done.
I spoke with people at ABMC, who are currently contracted to handle the maintenance at the site, and discovered that there is not enough money left in the account to have these trees removed. With the passing of all of our WWI veterans, there have been no deposits to the trust fund since the 1990s. If you have ever had tree work done at your home, you know how expensive it is. The estimate to have the trees removed is between $20,000-$25,000. To that end, I have started this GoFundMe page to try to raise the necessary funds. This is being done with the enthusiastic blessing of the ABMC. It will allow for the removal of the trees, and if there are enough donations, to replant new trees that are resistant to the bark beetle.
My goal is to raise at least $20,000, which will be added to the balance of the trust fund. You can be assured that 100% of your donation will be put toward this project. ABMC has asked me to hold these donations in an account so that the transfer can be done at one time versus dribs and drabs. I have opened a savings account at my local bank to hold the donations, and am more than happy to provide statements so that you can see that your donation is safe and in good hands.
I’m asking for your help with this worthy cause. Together, we can restore this site to its former beauty and continue to remember and honor our boys who went to France so long ago. Thank you.
About the Author: Eric Mueller is a retired writer/producer who has been a life-long student of military history. He travels regularly to battlefields here and abroad to walk the terrain in order to gain a better understanding of what transpired. He traces his family’s military service from a great-great-grandfather who commanded the 7th Michigan Infantry at Gettysburg, two grandfathers who were combat veterans of WW1 (one who survived Gallipoli and the Somme), and his father who was a combat veteran of the European theater in WW2. He lives in Michigan with his wife, and enjoys flying his vintage airplane, traveling, food & wine, and rooting for his beloved Detroit Tigers.