One terrifying night
Tomorrow, November 11th, is Veterans’ Day in the United States. And my family has a long history of service in the military forces of this country, from my 6th great grandfather Nicholas Gentry, who served as a militiaman at the Mattapony Garrison in colonial Virginia around 1680, to my siblings who served (three in the U.S. Air Force, one who is retired from the U.S. Army and one who is retired from the U.S. Marine Corps).
But there is one whose service became just a little more real to me last night, thanks to a cousin I’ve yet to meet in person. She sent me a digital image of a newspaper clipping about my uncle, Monte Boyd Cottrell.
Monte was my mother’s older brother, the one closest to her in age. Born in November 1923,1 he had just turned 18 when Pearl Harbor was bombed and he joined his older brother, my uncle Billy Rex Cottrell, in the United States Navy. My grandparents lived then in Midland, Texas, where Monte and my mother and most of their siblings were born.
The image my cousin sent me is of an undated clipping that she had inherited from her mother. It’s clear from reading it that it was on page 1 of a local newspaper, in or near Midland.
“Well, the war is not so far away,” the article begins. “Ask Monte B. Cottrell, youthful Naval gunner, here on a few days leave.”2
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.”3
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.4
Monte, it turns out, was one of those nine who had jumped into the sea. And this news article tells the rest of the story — a story my generation of Monte’s family never knew, until now — a story that needs to be told.
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…
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!
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.5
And a grateful nation tomorrow honors and thanks him, and his brothers, and all of our brothers and sisters who have served … so many of them with stories just like this one … buried in letters or faded news clippings or fading memories.
I am so very proud to be Monte’s niece, and to be able to tell his story.
- 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). ↩
- “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. ↩
- Francis B. Kent, “The U.S. Navy Armed Guard: The Sailors Nobody Knew,” U.S. Navy Armed Guard (http://www.armed-guard.com : accessed 9 Nov 2012). ↩
- Foreign Flag Vessels Under Control of the War Shipping Administration Lost or Damaged During World War II: MS Sheherazade, (http://www.armed-guard.com : accessed 9 Nov 2012). ↩
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Nationwide Gravesite Locator, entry for “Cottrell, Monte B.” (http://gravelocator.cem.va.gov/index.html : accessed 9 Nov 2012). ↩