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Research for another day

There is, I suspect, in every family, that one thing you just don’t want to research.

The one family story where, in reality, you just don’t want to know what the truth really is.

And so it is in my family, as well.

And it will, I am certain, influence my choices of where to spend my research time over the next few days in Virginia.

BillyR.age10Today, you see, would have been my Uncle Billy’s 95th birthday.

And there is one thing in his life history where, well, I just really don’t want to know what the truth really is.

Billy Rex Cottrell was the second-born child and first-born son of my grandparents, Clay Rex and Opal (Robertson) Cottrell, born 8 November 1919 in Hollister, Tillman County, Oklahoma.1

Their first child, my aunt Ruth, was a tiny slip of a girl — tiny when she was born in August 19172 and tiny still when she passed from this life at the end of February 1918.3

Billy, by contrast, was one big loud boy, nine pounds or more at birth,4 who quickly became the ringleader of an ever-growing tribe of younger siblings: he wasn’t yet two when he became a big brother for the first time5 and he was pushing 23 when the last of his siblings was born.6

Because of his career in the United States Navy, so much of my uncle’s life is an open book. We know that he 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.7

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;8 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.

Bill survived that sinking as well, 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.9

See what I mean?

An open book.

Except for one minor little matter.

The minor little matter of just how he managed to acquire the Farm.

I have to capitalize that word because of all those 110 Virginia acres came to mean to my family. In 1949 or 1950, Texas-born-and-bred Bill Cottrell became the owner of a farm in Fluvanna County, Virginia, and promptly installed his parents and youngest siblings on it — as caretakers, he said, but the reality was that he was taking care of them.

The Depression had been painfully hard for my grandparents, and the war years not much better. Work was hard to come by and work that would support all those kids even harder. So the Farm was a refuge, a place where the rent would never be due, where with effort and care there would always be enough to eat.

A place where magic began with a bonfire out under the trees. Where my aunts and uncles played guitars and fiddles and sang. Where all the stories were told. Where the family came together not just in the few years after Bill came to own the Farm but for all of his very long lifetime as generations of the family came to know it and know each other there.

A place with its own place in our family lore.

Because, the story goes, Billy won it in a poker game.

Although part of the family story is that he fell in love with Virginia and that it was love at first sight when he walked the hills and meadows of that land, it’s beyond question that it was as far from his experience as it was possible to be.

He was, after all, a career Navy man, a Texan stuck in an east coast assignment. He’d never owned land before. The farm house was old and drafty. The place didn’t even have electricity — he got a bunch of his Navy buddies to help him wire the entire place one weekend by supplying the beer. It lacked running water (think wells and outhouses) and central heat (think pot-bellied stoves).

What in the world was he thinking?

Unless… unless… unless it’s really true that he won it in a poker game. In which case, hey, who cares what he was thinking? You don’t argue with fate when a place like that lands in your lap. You just smile and think… well… it was all in the cards.

Now I know beyond any doubt, as a good genealogist, that there is a deed out there somewhere saying how the land came into Billy’s hands. It will recite the former owner, the consideration paid, and list Billy as the new owner.

Somewhere in an archive or the county courthouse (and likely both) is some evidence that might prove or disprove the whole won-in-a-poker-game story.

But you know what?

I think I’ll spend my research time looking at, oh, folks from the 18th or 19th century instead of a land transaction in the 20th century.

Because, in reality, I just don’t want to know what the truth really is.

Just for a little longer, I’m sticking with the poker game story.

Happy birthday, Uncle Bill.

Miss you.


  1. Obituary, “Billy Rex Cottrell,” ( : accessed 8 Nov 2013).
  2. 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.
  3. Ibid. See also receipt, Baby Cottrell Funeral, 22 February 1918, Dutton Funeral Home, Iowa Park, Texas; digital copy in possession of author.
  4. Ibid., interview, Opal Robertson Cottrell, 1980s.
  5. My aunt Cladyne was born 30 July 1921. Email, 5 Sep 2002, Cladyne Barrett to JG Russell.
  6. My youngest aunt was born 21 September 1942.
  7. 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.
  8. See Jason Kelly, “Battle of Midway: Navy Aviator Remembers Midway,” Navy Live, posted 5 Jun 2013 ( : accessed 8 Nov 2013).
  9. Obituary, “Billy Rex Cottrell,” ( : accessed 8 Nov 2013).
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