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The November babies

Did you ever notice, in your genealogy software, how some months are — um — how shall The Legal Genealogist put this…? — er… more active, in family history terms?

monte2There’s certainly a tradition for June brides, driven no doubt by weather considerations: if the skies are clear and the cricks don’t rise, people can come out to a wedding celebration.

And that explains, perhaps, the abundance of March births that we record in our genealogy databases, June brides producing March offspring. (We won’t go into the fact that there is a very large cadre in my family of eight-pound six-month preemies among first-born babies. We all know that a first baby takes anywhere from zero to nine months, while all others take nine months, right?)

And we won’t go into the fact that my immediate family is the exception to the rule, of course: my mother, for example, was born on March 21, but she was the fifth-born child of parents who’d married in October some nine years earlier; my sister Diana was born on March 13, but our parents married in January of the year before; I was born on March 19 two years later.

But hey…. it’s family Saturday here at The Legal Genealogist, so we’re not going to let the facts get in the way of a good story, are we?

And so it is that I posit a possible explanation for a phenomenon I always notice, with a smile, in my own genealogy records.

It has to be February cuddles that result in the baby boom in November each year:

• My cousin Sheila, younger daughter of my Aunt Marianne, was born on November 1st.

• My fifth great grandmother, Dorothy (Davenport) Baker, was born on November 2nd.

• My great uncle Fred Robertson, brother of my grandmother Opal (Robertson) Cottrell, was born on November 3rd.

• A cousin Leona Baker on November 5th.

• A great aunt Effalie Cottrell on November 6th.

• My second great grandfather Gustavus B. Robertson on November 7th.

• My mother’s oldest brother, my Uncle Bill, on November 8th.

The roll call continues through November right up to today, November 19th, when I pause with a smile.

• My mother’s older brother, my Uncle Monte, on November 19th.

Monte Boyd Cottrell, born in 1923.1 He of the infectious smile and the gentle hands.

Monte of the big laugh and quiet voice.

Monte who introduced me to hot peppers (hot! burn-your-lips-what-was-he-thinking-how-does-anybody-eat-these hot!) and roller-skating penguins (an exhibit at the San Diego Zoo in the late 1960s).

Monte… who would never ever tell you himself how he had just turned 18 when Pearl Harbor was bombed and he joined his older brother, my uncle Billy, in the United States Navy.

Monte’s military records show that he was a Gunner’s Mate 2/c in the U.S. Navy Armed Guard. Until I did some reading up, I had no clue what the Armed Guard was. It turns out that its role was to man the guns on the thousands of Merchant Marine ships bringing men and materiel to the various war zones — troop ships, cargo ships, tankers and more. When the convoys came under fire, as they so often did, the difference between life and death was often the Armed Guard.

According to the Armed Guard website:

By war’s end, 144,970 men had served with the Armed Guard. A document in the archives of the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C. calls the story of the Armed Guard “as thrilling a story of triumph over difficulties, of heroism, devotion to duty, sacrifice, and courage as exists in the annals of the nation.”2

Family stories told of at least two ships that Monte served on that were sunk. One was the MS Sheherazade, a tanker under Panamanian registry that went down in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 1942. The Armed Guard website reports that the Sheherazade

was torpedoed by the German U-158 (Erich Rostin) on June 11, 1942 at 0455 EWT in position 28-41 N./91-20 W. (about 20 miles west of Ship Shoal Buoy) while en route from Newport News to Houston in ballast and unescorted. Total complement on board was 44 merchant crew and 15 U.S. Naval Armed Guard. One crew member, the 2nd Cook, was lost. He was a Canadian citizen. All others survived. At 0455 EWT, one torpedo struck on the starboard side amidship. Following that another torpedo struck in the starboard bunker tank destroying all power facilities and stopping the engines. As a result of these two torpedoes the ship took a 45° list to starboard. At 0505 EWT, a third torpedo hit the ship in the engine room on the starboard side. Immediately after this, the ship capsized with the bottom up. After the tanker had capsized, the U-158 fired 8 rounds from her deck gun into the hull of the ship. The ship was abandoned at 0503. The MIDSHIPMAN, a shrimp boat, picked up 26 survivors from the ship’s launch and 9 others who had jumped overboard. These 35 survivors were landed at Morgan City, Louisiana on June 11th at 2300 EWT. A lifeboat containing 23 survivors was picked up by the F/V 40 FATHOMS on June 11, 1942 at 0830 and landed at Morgan City at 1640 on the same day.3

Monte, it turns out, was one of those nine who had jumped into the sea. A news clipping a cousin sent me some years ago told the rest of the story: how the crew had abandoned the ship after the third torpedo but the Armed Guard commanding officer and his young crew stayed put at their guns until the tilt of the ship became so great that they had no choice but to leave, and

as they scrambled to get up the steep-tilted deck, seeking to get into the water where the whirl of water around the sinking vessel was less, they saw no signs of the sub. But as they started down the broadside of the overturning ship, the sub showed up again. Cottrell and his mates slid down the slimy sides of their ship, into the water, just in time … They heard the German giving his orders to fire…4

Monte was close enough when the U-boat’s guns opened up “that he received powder burns from a vicious 3-incher as it fired right over his head into the sides of his ship, trying to hurry the sinking.”

It’s hard to imagine how terrifying those moments must have been. My uncle, on that day in June 1942, was still just a teenager, with still more than five months to go before his 19th birthday. And worse was to come:

In the darkness, … the gunners were left afloat, each in his life preserver. … They became separated, each floating around by himself and finally lost entirely to one another.

 

… Only head above the water, drinking in that salten sea water, sand sharks nibbling at their feet, their legs, their hip pockets… 40 miles from shore, where he knows sharks lurk…

 

And, battered by those waves, face just above water, drenched every two or three seconds, he drinks a lot of sea water … and it all must come right back up. … Kicking at those small sharks, clutching at the life preserver … trying to brush the waves out of his face with one hand … and then vomiting up that last wave!5

The gunners weren’t picked up by the fishing vessel until they’d been in the water seven or eight hours. They were landed in Morgan City, Louisiana.

Monte got a few days leave, home with his parents, my grandparents, in Midland, Texas, and then went back to sea, to face more moments of terror manning the guns against German u-boats. He survived the war, married, had three children, and died in 1994. He is buried at Fort Rosencrans National Cemetery in California.6

He would have turned 93 today, this gentle funny man… and he wouldn’t have been part of our family story but for some February cuddles.

Keep that in mind when the weather turns and the snow falls and the wind howls.

February cuddles.

And November babies.


SOURCES

  1. Monte Cottrell, entry in “U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850-2010,” database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 9 Nov 2012).
  2. Francis B. Kent, “The U.S. Navy Armed Guard: The Sailors Nobody Knew,” U.S. Navy Armed Guard (http://www.armed-guard.com : accessed 18 Nov 2016.
  3. Ibid., “Foreign Flag Vessels Under Control of the War Shipping Administration Lost or Damaged During World War II: MS Sheherazade.”
  4. “Monte Cottrell, Midland Gunner, Has Close Call, Thrilling Experience,” undated newspaper clipping most likely from a Midland, Texas, newspaper, originally in the possession of Theo (Cottrell) Hodges and now held by her granddaughter; digital copy in the possession of JG Russell.
  5. Ibid.
  6. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Nationwide Gravesite Locator, entry for “Cottrell, Monte B.” (http://gravelocator.cem.va.gov/index.html : accessed 18 Nov 2016.
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