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Remembering the fallen and those who remembered them

It is Memorial Day here in the United States; today is the official holiday, the end of the three-day weekend, during which we honor those who gave all for the cause of American freedom.

It was added to the federal holiday calendar in 1888 as Decoration Day1 and moved to the Monday holiday calendar along with Labor Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day in 1968.2

It is a time for us to honor the men and women who died in the service of this country in order that we might live free.

And The Legal Genealogist will never again come to this holiday without thinking of one member of my mother’s family who gave his all… a cousin I never met… and without thinking as well, with the deepest of gratitude, of the friends without whom he might have been forgotten.

I have told his, and their, story before.3 But it is a story that deserves retelling, again, and again.

Philip Cottrell c1920

The story begins in rural South Dakota, where Philip Cottrell was born on 16 April 19204 to John W. Cottrell, my grandfather’s brother, and Abigail Claymore, John’s second wife.5 John had a daughter, Mattie, by his first marriage;6 Philip was Abigail’s only child.7

Abbie was Miniconjou — a Lakota Sioux — recorded in the 1910 census as 3/8ths Indian and 5/8ths white.8 Philip, then, was 3/16ths Indian, though the 1935 South Dakota census recorded him as half Indian, half white.9

Whatever the percentage was, he was clearly proud of it and of the name his mother gave him with her people. In her careful writing on the back of a photograph, Abbie told him: “Cheyesa is the Indian name I’ve given you. It means Victorious or `He who wins or else’ – Always a Winner. I hope you live up to your name.”10

Phil certainly tried to live up to that name.

He was a South Dakota Golden Gloves boxing champion and the first in his family to go to college, first attending the South Dakota State College in 1939-4011 and then receiving an appointment by Rep. Francis Case, in 1941, to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.12

Philip Cottrell 1943

By 1942, however, Philip — like many enrolled in the nation’s service academies — had opted out of the classroom and into active duty, resigning from the Naval Academy in May 1942 in favor of the Marine Corp air wing. He wanted to fly — and he earned both his wings and a second lieutenant’s commission at Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1943.13

Six muster rolls at record his presence in musters for additional training in California.14

He was assigned to a training squadron at the Mojave Marine Corps Air Station — a station which saw four pilots killed in training accidents between the 13th of August and the 7th of September in 1943.15

And the first to die in those terrible weeks… Philip Cottrell.

My mother’s cousin. Her uncle’s only son.

Philip’s roommate, Lieut. James Seay, told a local newspaper:

The squadron had gone up about 2:30 p.m. to get in a couple hours of target practice. Phil was piloting the tow plane. When he attempted to let out the long target sleeve, it became entangled and wouldn’t unfold. Having no target to shoot at, the squadron decided to go back to the base. Phil was to pull in the “sleeve” and follow them in. Apparently, the target was blown up against the side of the engine as Phil was hauling it toward the cockpit, and it became ignited. His plane afire, Lt. Cottrell had no choice but to jump. It is believed the fuselage of the plane struck him on the head as he leaped. He never pulled the ripcord.


After ten hours of searching, Lt. Cottrell’s body was found “on the side of a mountain, several miles from his shattered plane.” His remains were returned to South Dakota, accompanied by Lt. Seay, and he was buried with military honors at the Greenwood cemetery.16

Phil never married, his parents are both long gone, his half-sister Mattie died in 1980.17 My mother, Phil’s first cousin, never spoke of him. The only reference to him in our family records was in a note my grandmother wrote in 1951 when the family learned of John’s death: “We got word today that John had passed away Apr. 12 – John Cottrell, Mobridge S. Dak. His only son Ens Philip Cottrell was killed over the Mohave Desert in a Navy training plane in 1942.”18 That information didn’t even have the service info correct.

So who would remember Philip any more? And, when South Dakota put together its World War II Memorial19 and dedicated it in September 2001, who in South Dakota would care?

The answer — one I am so very grateful for — is the Coffin family of South Dakota. Roy H. Coffin (1920-2010) was Phil’s closest friend, who himself saw active duty in the U.S. Navy during World War II.20

When South Dakota began the process of putting together its World War II Memorial, it asked members of the public to particularly honor family members by sponsoring their names in a Registry of Remembrance. Roy’s youngest sister, Mary R. (Coffin) Giddings of Fort Pierre, S.D., responded by including remembrances for brothers Earl, Roger (killed in action in 1944), Roy, and Zane, and sister June, all of whom served in World War II. You can see their names here by choosing Registry of Remembrance in the left menu and then entering Coffin in the search box.

But that’s not all. Mary didn’t stop there: “I hadn’t heard of any Cottrells in this area and I wanted Phil to be remembered.”21 And, today, if you enter Cottrell in that search box, there he is. Philip Cottrell. Donor: Mary R. Coffin Giddings.

And that’s not all. At the dedication of the Memorial on 15 September 2001, dogtags with the names of all those who fell in World War II were placed on the markers. Family members were invited, at the end of the dedication ceremonies, to take the dogtags for those they lost. Again, no-one from the Cottrell family was there. But the Coffins — Roy and Mary — were there: “After all the ceremonies were over and no one claimed Phil’s dog tags (hung on the crosses commemorating those killed in W.W.II), Roy took them home with him.”22

And even that’s not all. We had no — repeat no — photos of Philip that we knew of then. Mary sent the one you see here of Philip in his uniform and a copy of the memorial text that’s now on the SD WWII Memorial site. Her sister, June (Coffin) Livesey of Georgia, who had boarded with John and Abigail as a schoolgirl, sent information we’d never have had otherwise. The whole family helped us locate Philip’s cousins on his mother’s side, from whom we received more photos, including the baby photo here.

Without Mary and her family, without their friendship for Phil, without their help, my family — all of us who are Phil’s cousins — would have missed out on so much.

So, on this Memorial Day 2017, we note how grateful we are for all those who have given their all in the cause of freedom and we pause to honor them and offer our thanks.

But we note as well how grateful we are and we pause once again, as well, to honor those who have remembered our fallen when we ourselves could not.


  1. “An act making May thirtieth a holiday in the District of Columbia,” 25 Stat. 353 (23 Feb 1888).
  2. “An Act To provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays, and for other purposes,” 82 Stat. 250 (28 June 1968). Veteran’s Day was moved back to the 11th of November in 1975. “An Act To redesignate November 11 of each year as Veterans Day and to make such day a legal public holiday,” 89 Stat. 479 (18 Sep 1975).
  3. Judy G. Russell, “Memorial Day thanks,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 28 May 2012 ( : accessed 28 May 2017).
  4. Crystal Bachman, “In Memory of Marine Lieutenant Philip Ellsworth Cottrell,” South Dakota WWII Memorial ( : accessed 28 May 2017). Also, “California Death Index, 1940-1997,” entry for Philip Patrick Cottrell, 4 Aug 1943; database, ( : accessed 28 May 2017); citing California Death Index, 1940-1997, California Department of Health Services, Center for Health Statistics, Sacramento.
  5. Walworth County, South Dakota, marriage certif. no. 4-44450, John Cottrell-Abigail Claymore, 9 Nov 1914; County Clerk’s Office, Mobridge.
  6. See “Mattie Cottrell Berens,” obituary, Mobridge (SD) Tribune, 7 Jan 1980.
  7. Sean Claymore, California, e-mail, to Judy G. Russell, New Jersey, 28 Jan 2005, “Abigail and Philip;” private held by Russell.
  8. 1910 U.S. census, Corson County, South Dakota, Standing Rock Reservation, Indian population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 10, p. 67(B) (stamped), sheet 10-B, dwelling 44, family 47, Abbie Claymore; digital image, ( : accessed 28 May 2017); citing National Archive microfilm publication T624, roll 1479.
  9. 1935 South Dakota State Census, Dewey County, Trail City, card no. 227, Phillip Cotterell; digital image, FamilySearch ( : accessed 16 Oct 2011); citing South Dakota Assessor, “State Census, 1935,” South Dakota Historical Society, Pierre, South Dakota.
  10. Philip Cottrell photograph, c.1930; privately held by Sean Claymore, California, who provided a copy to Judy G. Russell, New Jersey.
  11. See “Intra-Mural Boxing,” The 1939 Jack Rabbit, South Dakota State College, 2 vols. (Brookings, S.D. : Student Association, 1939), 1: 269; “U.S. School Yearbooks” database and digital images, ( : accessed 28 May 2017).
  12. Bachman, “In Memory of Marine Lieutenant Philip Ellsworth Cottrell.”
  13. Ibid.
  14. “U.S. World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946,” database and digital images, ( : accessed 28 May 2017); citing National Archive microfilm publication T977, 460 rolls, Records of the U.S. Marine Corps, Record Group 127; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  15. “Accidents Occuring 1940 – Prior,” Aircraft Wrecks in Southern California ( : accessed 28 May 2017).
  16. Bachman, “In Memory of Marine Lieutenant Philip Ellsworth Cottrell.”
  17. “Mattie Cottrell Berens,” obituary, Mobridge (SD) Tribune.
  18. Opal (Robertson) Cottrell, calendar note, 17 April 1951; digital copy in possession of Judy G. Russell, New Jersey.
  19. There’s an absolutely gorgeous set of photographs of this memorial by Keith H. Hemmelman, a Pierre SD photographer, online at
  20. “Roy Coffin,” obituary, Grand Forks (ND) Herald, 13 Aug 2010, p. B2; transcription, GenealogyBank ( : accessed 28 May 2017).
  21. Mary (Coffin) Giddings, Ft. Pierre, SD, to Judy G. Russell, New Jersey, e-mail, 18 Jul 2002, (no subject); privately held by Russell.
  22. Ibid.
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