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Hitting paydirt at NARA

One of the most basic truisms of genealogy is that you never know what you’re going to find.

That certainly was the case for The Legal Genealogist at the National Archives last week.

flu telegrams

The backstory: My maternal grandfather, Clay Rex Cottrell, served in the U.S. Army Air Service in World War I. Drafted in August 1918, he was just 20 years old,1 married for not quite two years to my grandmother Opal (Robertson) Cottrell,2 and they had already had and buried their first child: my aunt Ruth was born 12 August 1917 and died 22 February 1918.3

Because his name is in the first half of the alphabet and his service was in the Army, his records were among those destroyed in the fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in 1973.4

The only part of his individual records that survived the fire was a final payroll record — a single sheet of paper produced by the National Archives (NARA for short) in response to a request for his Official Military Personnel File in 2015.

So most of what we know about his service, we know from other sources:

• We know from newspaper accounts that he was one of 58 men drafted in Wichita County, Texas, in August of 1918. Most of them, including my grandfather, were sent first to Camp Travis in Bexar County, Texas, for in-processing and basic training.5

• We know from the muster rolls that he was in the 45th Company, 12th Battalion, 165th Depot Brigade at Camp Travis starting on the 29th of August.6

• The muster rolls also tell us he was transferred to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, on 30 September 1918, and was trained there in the Air Service Flying School. He was assigned to the 39th Balloon Company.7

• Those muster rolls also tell us that he was transferred from the 39th Balloon Corps to Camp Travis, Texas, on 14 January 1919.8

• And the muster rolls plus a record card kept by the Texas Military Forces Museum in Austin show that his final demobilization was at Camp Travis on January 22, 1919.9

None of which tells us anything at all about his personal experience in his short military career. Just what was going on in his life or the life of his wife, my grandmother.

So what I was hoping for in the records of the National Archives at Archives II, the archival facility in College Park, Maryland, last week was a little context. The unit records for World War I-era forces are there, and I hoped for daily or monthly reports that might say something about the training or — well — frankly — anything to shed even a tiny light on that time in his life.

What I got was so much more.

Because the unit records of the 39th Balloon Company are anything but unit records. They are sets of individual correspondence relating to members of the company. And one such set was there in the records of the enlisted men for the last months of 1918 for Private Clay R. Cottrell.10

Eliminating duplicates, there were really four key pieces of paper. One was a covering memorandum relating to a request my grandfather made for a 10-day furlough in December 1918. It gave basic information: he was not on special duty; he was listed as fit for overseas service; he was not in or scheduled for special training. It noted that his company commander recommended that leave be granted.11

Then there was the leave document itself dated 2 December 1918, in which he asked for and was granted a 10-day furlough to run from the 3rd through the 13th of December. The cited reason for the request: “the telegram attached.”12

That telegram was the third of the three key pieces. Dated 1 December 1918, sent by J. E. Arrington, MD, from Frederick, Oklahoma, it read in its entirety: “YOUR WIFE SICK YOU ARE NEEDED PLEASE COME HOME AT ONCE.”13

Think about that for a minute. This is December 1918. This is in the middle of the flu epidemic. It was so bad in Frederick, Oklahoma, that, to make up for days missed, the public schools were open on New Year’s Day 1919.14

Now the telegram itself doesn’t say it was the flu. But there is one more document — the fourth of the four key pieces. It’s another telegram, dated 10 December 1918, sent by Capt. John A. Gillis, U.S. Army Medical Corps, to Lt. Lester Pierce, commander of the 39th Balloon Corps. It reads: “PRIVATE C R COTTRELL HAS FLU PLEASE EXTEND FURLOUGH FURLOUGH EXPIRES DEC 13TH.”15

There in black-and-white — okay, so in black-and-sepia — is a chapter in my grandparents’ lives I would never have known if I hadn’t gone looking for context in the unit records deep in the federal records at the National Archives.

She had gone home to Oklahoma when he was drafted. She contracted the flu. He went to her bedside as fast as he could. And he contracted the flu.

They both had, and survived, the flu in that terrible epidemic a century ago.

Why do we go looking in every possible repository for every possible clue to our family history?

Because you never know what you’re going to find.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “You never know,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 14 Aug 2023).


  1. Virginia Department of Health, Certificate of Death, state file no. 70-026729, Clay Rex Cottrell (21 Sep 1970); Division of Vital Records, Richmond.
  2. Wichita County, Texas Marriage Book 5:388, Cottrell-Robertson, 16 Oct 1916, marriage license and return; County Clerk’s Office, Wichita Falls.
  3. For her birth, see “Oklahoma State Vital Records Index,” entry for female Cottrell child born 12 Aug 1917, OK2Explore ( : accessed 14 Aug 2023). For her death, see Dutton Funeral Home (Iowa Park, Texas), Record of Funeral, Baby Cottrell, 22 February 1918; digital copy privately held by Judy G. Russell.
  4. See “The 1973 Fire, National Personnel Records Center,” U.S. National Archives, ( : accessed 14 Aug 2023).
  5. “Fifty-Eight to Leave for Camp on August 28th,” Wichita Daily Times, Wichita Falls, Texas, 26 Aug 1918, p. 3, col. 1.
  6. Roster of 45th Co., 12th Battalion, 165th Depot Brigade at Midnight August 31, 1918; digital images, “United States, World War I, military muster rolls and rosters, 1916-1939,” DGS film 106875365, image 1151, ( : accessed 14 Aug 2023).
  7. For transfer, see Roster of Company “I” 85th Infantry, Camp Travis, Texas, at midnight Oct. 1st, 1918; digital images, “United States, World War I, military muster rolls and rosters, 1916-1939,” DGS film 106282306, image 712, ( : accessed 14 Aug 2023). For service in 39th Balloon Co., see Roster of Thirty Ninth Balloon Company, A.S.M.A., November 30, 1918; DGS film 106456167, image 712, ( : accessed 14 Aug 2023)
  8. Roster of Thirty Ninth Balloon Co., ASMA, Midnight, January 31st, 1919; digital images, “United States, World War I, military muster rolls and rosters, 1916-1939,” DGS film 106456167, image 74, ( : accessed 14 Aug 2023).
  9. Card for Cottrell, Clay R., Serial No. 3980300; digital images, “Texas, World War I Records, 1917-1920,” ( : accessed 14 Aug 2023).
  10. Records relating to Clay R. Cottrell, Enlisted Men: 1918, Records of the 39th Balloon Company, Records of the 1st through 10th, 12th through 41st, 43rd through 81st, 91st through 99th, 101st, and 102nd Balloon and Airship Companies, 1917–1930, Record Group 18: Records of the Army Air Forces, National Archives, College Park, Maryland.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. “New Year’s Is Not a Holiday Now for School Children,” Frederick (Oklahoma) Leader, p.1, col. 2; digital images, ( : accessed 14 Aug 2023).
  15. Records relating to Clay R. Cottrell, Enlisted Men: 1918, Records of the 39th Balloon Company.
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