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Thanks for your service, Uncle Bill

The story went out over the wires to the nation’s newspapers that first week in June, 1943.

Navy Coxswain Tom Cain had taken it on himself to go to Midland, Texas, to meet with the parents of his buddy Billy to tell them what he had seen when his buddy’s ship went down in the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands the previous fall.

BillyRHe thought they deserved to hear firsthand about the amazing battle in which the aircraft carrier on which their son was serving, the USS Hornet, had been sunk. Perhaps they would feel a little better.

He took the bus from his home in Aubrey, Texas, to Billy’s home in Midland. And when he got off the bus, he got the surprise of his life. Walking down the street — his buddy Billy.1

My uncle Billy.

My mother’s oldest brother.

He would have been 94 years old yesterday.

And with Veterans’ Day being Monday, there is no more fitting subject for today’s post than my Uncle Bill.

Born on 8 November 1919 in Hollister, Tillman County, Oklahoma, Billy Rex Cottrell was the second-born and first-surviving child of my grandparents Clay Rex and Opal (Robertson) Cottrell.2

And he was one incredible shock to my grandmother.

Her first-born, Ruth Marie, had been a tiny slip of a girl. Small at birth in August 19173 and not much larger when she passed from this life at the end of February 1918.4

Billy, on the other hand… one big loud boy, nine pounds or more at birth.5

He was joined quickly by sisters and brothers — he wasn’t yet two when he became a big brother for the first time6 and he was pushing 23 when the last of his siblings was born.7

Billy joined the United States Navy in April 1940 and was in the first ever class of aviation radiomen. His first assignment was with the USS Chicago, a heavy cruiser stationed at Pearl Harbor.8

From the Chicago he went on to serve on the aircraft carrier the USS Hornet in Divebombing Squadron 8. His plane went down in the Battle of Midway;9 he and the pilot were rescued then after hours in what he forever after described as an “itty bitty rubber raft” — and enough sun exposure that he suffered for years from skin cancer.

During the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands in October 1942, the pilot Billy flew with was sick and couldn’t fly, so he was on board when the ship came under Japanese attack. He and others not flying took .30-caliber guns from aircraft that could not fly, mounted them on the rails of the ship and did their best to defend the Hornet from attacking aircraft.

The efforts were in vain; all hands abandoned ship on the afternoon of 26 October 1942 and the Hornet went down in the early morning hours of 27 October.

But, as his friend discovered to his delight, Billy survived, and went on to a long and distinguished career in the Navy before retiring in 1970 with the rank of Chief Warrent Office (CWO-4).

All in all, his obituary reported,

He served his country in the United States Navy from before World War II through the Cold War. A veteran of the battle of Midway, the Solomon Islands campaign, the battle of Santa Cruz, and the blockade of Cuba, he served aboard numerous vessels, including the USS Chicago, USS Hornet, USS Coral Sea, USS Midway, and the USS Forrestal, and flew as crewman in several types of aircraft, including the SBC-4, SBD-3, and P2V. During the battle of Midway, he served as an Aviation Radioman in Bombing Squadron 8 (VB-8) aboard the USS Hornet (where his plane was forced to ditch in the ocean). In his 30-year career with the Navy, he also served with Patrol Squadron 18, Patrol Squadron 26, Fleet Aircraft Service Squadron 3, and at Naval Air Stations throughout the world. During the course of his service, he was awarded the Navy Good Conduct Medal (5 awards), the American Defense Medal (with 1 star), American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (with 3 stars), the World War II Victory Medal, and the National Defense Service Medal.10

As we approach this Veteran’s Day 2013, nearly 70 years after the buddies reunited on the streets of Midland, Texas, we thank you for your service, Billy Rex Cottrell.

But you were more than a serviceman, more than a veteran. You were my Uncle Bill.

There was no day more exciting than when my folks said you were coming to visit. You brought my sister Diana and me the first dolls we ever had with working elbows and knees. You treated us like princesses. Like small but interesting people.

You were tall and handsome and impeccably uniformed. You were softspoken with a wicked sense of humor. You had great taste in women — and lousy luck in keeping wives. You were a mainstay support of your family, the one who provided a home for your parents and younger siblings, the one who gave our entire family the joy of the farm where we gathered in the summer for all those years.

You were hard working, hard drinking, a loner in many ways — except for the dogs. Always the dogs. Irish setters and beagles and everything in between. You stood up, every dog on the place stood up. You sat down, every dog on the place sat back down. You were always the center of a crowd — canine, or kids, or both.

You never bragged, but we knew you had much to be proud of. You never spoke of what you’d seen, but we knew it included things you didn’t want us to know you’d seen.

You were my hero, Uncle Bill. I was never prouder than I was when I had the privilege of adding your name to the WWII Registry at the National World War II Memorial.

And I miss you.


  1. “Sailor Finds ‘Lost’ Buddy,” Abilene (Texas) Reporter-News, 8 June 1943, p. 15, col. 1; digital images, (http:/ : accessed 8 Nov 2013).
  2. Obituary, “Billy Rex Cottrell,” ( : accessed 8 Nov 2013).
  3. Interview with Opal Robertson Cottrell (Kents Store, VA), by Bobette Richardson, 1980s; copy of notes privately held by JG Russell. Opal Cottrell was the grandmother of Bobette Richardson and JG Russell.
  4. Ibid. See also receipt, Baby Cottrell Funeral, 22 February 1918, Dutton Funeral Home, Iowa Park, Texas; digital copy in possession of author.
  5. Ibid., interview, Opal Robertson Cottrell, 1980s.
  6. My aunt Cladyne was born 30 July 1921. Email, 5 Sep 2002, Cladyne Barrett to JG Russell.
  7. My youngest aunt was born 21 September 1942.
  8. Muster Roll of the Crew, USS Chicago Aviation Unit (VCS-4), 31 Dec 1940; ( : accessed 8 Nov 2013), citing U.S. World War II Navy Muster Rolls, 1938-1949, Record Group 24: Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1798 – 2007, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  9. See Jason Kelly, “Battle of Midway: Navy Aviator Remembers Midway,” Navy Live, posted 5 Jun 2013 ( : accessed 8 Nov 2013).
  10. Obituary, “Billy Rex Cottrell,” ( : accessed 8 Nov 2013).
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